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The Land of Heartbreak and Hope

2010 June 16

Several hundred miles to the east of Bangkok lies the city of Phnom Penh. It is a bustling urban sprawl of 2 million people and serves as the capital of Cambodia. Signs of economic prosperity can be seen in the nightclubs, where the nouveau riche preside with bodyguards in tow, and in the city’s streets, where ever increasing numbers of new imported cars appear. Yet Phnom Penh, like the rest of Cambodia, still carries the deep scars from the atrocities inflicted upon the country more than 30 years ago.

On the road to Siem Reap.

From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, would carry out an episode of genocide that would set Cambodia back by decades and forever change its place in history.

French educated and of Cambodian descent, Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia through his Khmer Rouge army. His rise to the top was the final move in more than a decade of hiding and waiting in the country’s jungles and rural farmlands. Cambodia had become economically and politically unstable due to several factors. The country became embroiled in America’s war in Vietnam as US troops invaded Cambodia to drive out North Vietnamese soldiers seeking sanctuary. Subsequent bombings left thousands of Cambodian civilians dead and forced a massive migration out of the farm lands and into the capital city. At the same time, a US-backed military coup had taken control of the government. But with the end of the Vietnam war and withdrawal of American troops, this puppet government would lose its military backing. With the population now concentrated in Phnom Pehn, the Khmer Rouge rolled into the capital city and effectively took control of the country. It would mark the beginning of Pol Pot’s insane and maniacal destruction of Cambodia.

The aftermath of Pol Pot's regime.

Pol Pot advocated a Marxist view which sought to create an agrarian utopia. Like Mao Zedong’s  Cultural Revolution in China, Pol Pot started by purging classes of people who were “unfit” in his new world order. Those who were foreign, of a minority, educated or wealthy were killed. The rest of the population was forcibly sent off to the farmlands to work in incredibly harsh conditions with little rest or food. In the four years under his rule, more than 2 million civilians were killed or died of starvation and overwork. That number represented over 25% of the country’s population and the majority of them were the educated.

Among those who perished.

Cambodia was left in tatters by the time Vietnam invaded Cambodia and defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979. In addition to the millions of lost lives and families destroyed, Cambodia also suffered from a massive intellectual vacuum. The builders and thinkers, the ones who had money and power, the very people who had the ability to bring Cambodia back on to her feet were dead. What was left were the millions of uneducated, unskilled and unprepared farm workers. With that start, Cambodia began its long road to recovery.

– – –

But like the first shoots after a long winter, hope springs eternal in Cambodia. I find the most remarkable quality about humans to be our resiliency and undying optimism. And despite what the people of Cambodia have been through, you see hope in them. You can see it in the faces of the children, a generation unscathed by Pol Pot’s atrocities. They’re the ones quizzing you on state capitals; the ones who can’t hide their curiosity when you pull out a camera; the same kids who chase you down and try and hustle you into buying books and trinkets. And while many may not have a formal education, they’re damn smart kids. You see it in the survivors who passed through the darkest of days and see brighter times ahead. You see it in the continuous construction in Siem Reap, the new developments planned for the Lakeside in Phnom Penh, the restorations occurring at Angkor Wat. The country is rebuilding itself on the shoulders of its people; people who endured, persevered and who always had hope.

Phnom Penh Lakeside. The whole area will be gone soon as new developers plan on filling the lake.

– – –

One of the main drivers of growth is undoubtedly the Angkor temples, with Angkor Wat being the most famous.  The Khmer Rouge, fortunately, left them relatively unscathed and they have become a world-wide tourist attraction drawing millions of visitors each year. Siem Reap, known as the lifeline to the Angkor temples, has flourished along with the tourism. The city has 5-star hotels, an airport with direct international flights and ATM machines that allow you to withdraw up to $2,000 USD in one transaction. Roads are constantly being built, infrastructure is being improved, air-conditioned supermarkets are appearing out of thin air and even some expensive designer shops are showing up.

The ancient temples of Angkor have opened themselves to the world.

But like any third world country, the disparity between the rich and the poor is an increasingly widening gap and no where is it more prevalent than in Siem Reap. On my way to one of the temples about 15km outside of the city, I saw hovels where entire families lived. Dirt floors, kids with no shoes, shoddily tied together roofs with no water, electricity or any of the luxuries of the first world. This was literally 15 minutes outside of the city where people pay over a $1,000/night to stay in some of the 5-star hotels; outside of a city where you can dine on 5 course meals and take helicopter tours. You would think that being in 2009, no one would have to live in such conditions, but here it was, plain in my sight. I had seen poverty before (in China’s countryside) but this was a new level of poverty. It was an almost surreal feeling when I realized the contrast I had just seen. These problems are never easy to solve and even in developed countries they remain big issues. Only time will tell how this plays out in Cambodia.

Cambodia's countryside.

– – –

Cambodia has come a long way since 1979 but it has a longer way to go. Development has quickened but the country remains behind much of the world. The marks of Pol Pot’s regime still scar the land and it is without a doubt that the country would be much further along economically, politically and socially had it not been for the Khmer Rouge. But history is history and there’s no use for “what if’s”.

For the people of Cambodia, the future is where hope lies. And so, that is where they will go.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010

    Great post. I had the same experience on my way from “downtown” Siem Reap to the floating village. Lining the dirt road were homes built on stilts, with young children inside, often wearing no shoes. Their bathrooms are holes in the floor of these scrappy residences, through which human waste falls into the water below–the same water that is used to nourish the rice fields nearby. It is a moving scene, and one I will never forget.

  2. Chang permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Good writting …. but I think you should re-read the history a bit about how Pol Pot came to power and how much western countries are debt to the hell Pol Pot created.

    Nevertheless how & why …. the suffering is the same and I learned quick not to ask “Where you come from? Where you parents come from?” to people older as 25 or 30.

    It’s a long road …

  3. Annemieke permalink
    June 26, 2010


    it’s great to hear from you!! I love your blog. This post especially – i have such a special place in my heart for Cambodia!

    Where are you? What are you up to!? I would love to see you in your still around the bay. ill be back in the states end of august.

    hope you are well!
    love from mumbai


  4. January 10, 2011

    Really beautifully written – particularly for such a terrible topic.

    • January 11, 2011

      Glad you enjoyed it. I think Cambodia, more than any other country, made me realize just how big the gap between the rich and poor can be.

      And what made it even more poignant was that the last class I took in college talked about Pol Pot and his regime.

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