I WENT TO CAMBODIA
In July 2019, I traveled to Cambodia. There I partied in nightclubs, explored ancient temples, made a few new friends, ate strange food, and visited a mass murder site. I returned home extremely sick and about ten pounds lighter with an intestinal parasite.
The Origin Story
My interest in Cambodia started with my work at a consulting firm. One of the junior resources approached me with an RFP from the United Nations to build a reporting system for child health care outcomes in Cambodia, a country I previously only had passing familiarity with and vaguely understood in association with proxy wars in Southeast Asia in the 1960s-80s and a book on the Khmer Rouge I had read in high school. The work was a little outside of our verticals but I decided to put together a team and bid for it. We had a very compelling international team but ultimately did not win the work. It was a long shot anyway.
However, I remained curious about the place. Late one weekend I decided to set up a recurring donation to a girls’ dormitory in the capital city, Phnom Penh, having earlier researched in preparing the doomed business venture described above that young women had difficulty getting lodging in the city for cultural reasons, and so they had disproportionately less access to education.
And being me, sometime later I figured I might as well go there and see the country for myself.
Phnom Penh was one of my favorite cities in the world to visit; I found its truly insane energy captivating, the diverse mix of expats from around the world and the lack of more or less any conventional sense of social order as I understand from my western perspective equal parts liberating and disconcerting. I was only there for a few days prior to heading out to Siem Reap and some temples, but I certainly had some memorable experiences and made a couple of interesting friends.
The late Anthony Bourdain had a deep love for Cambodia, simultaneously describing it as a place where people come to behave badly while also expressing a deep hatred for the American politicians that carpet-bombed its countryside in the 1960s and 70s. While the country’s two biggest cities (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) certainly do offer plenty to live up their hedonistic reputations, economic growth in the country, immigration by well-monied expats, foreign investors and what I suspect is just a general national desire to cater to classier breed of tourist–for better or worse–has led to an explosion of upscale pub streets with booming nightclubs in addition to the divey backpacker bars selling watered-down $0.50 beers to obnoxious tourists.
The Most Horrifying Crimes Ever Committed
My blog will not serve as an authoritative source on the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, a topic that deserves much greater sensitivity and scholarship than I can offer here. I’ll provide a brief overview and my personal experiences. If you would really like to read more, I recommend legitimate historical sources, or at least the Wikipedia article on the topic.
In the late 1970s, Pol Pot and his Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK, or popularly, the “Khmer Rouge”) took power in Cambodia after fighting a brutal civil war. Though the CPK party had been active for many years prior, a combination of geopolitical and economic factors led to their ultimately taking control of the country. There are really no good actors in this story, and I am no historian, but even a cursory read of the events would lead one to conclude that every major world power at the time, including The United States, China and the Soviet Union were all complicit in what would later happen.
In 1975 the Khmer rouge took power and implemented an extreme interpretation of Maoist thought, forcefully evacuating the residents of every major city to agricultural compounds and forcing them to work on farms to be entirely self-sufficient. Naturally, the agrarian paradise envisioned by Pol Pot and his associates did not materialize, and much of the country’s entire population died, either collapsing on the long forced marches to distant compounds or starving to death once they arrived there–if not outright murdered by the regime first, which was more likely.
The new government set to orchestrated mass murder of the entire cultural, educated and political classes. This included anyone with connections to the previous government, artists, painters and musicians; professionals or educated people including people who spoke foreign languages, economic saboteurs, enemies of the party or anyone else that could so be charged as a member of these groups. They were the enemies of the post-economic agrarian collective Pol Pot and his associates had envisioned.
Estimates vary, and I don’t want to step on serious scholarship. Most studies I have checked estimate that up to between 1/5 and 1/4 of the entire country’s population died, in most cases from violence, and in most of those cases, from execution. In all there were between 1-3 million people killed in a country of under 8 million residents. All of this within four years.
Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, several hundred thousand more people, or about 5% of the remaining living population, starved in the following year as the shattered nation began to rebuild.
After a Soviet-backed Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, much of their leadership went into hiding, though Pol Pot commanded insurgent troops and the Khmer Rouge party remained a legitimate political entity well until the 1990s. Justice has been slow; Pol Pot was not captured until 1997, and his two right-hand men were convicted only in November 2018.
While in Cambodia I had dinner with a middle-aged woman who had survived through these times, the last of her once twelve-or-so member family. As we sat in a fashionable Phnom Penh restaurant, she told me about growing up during this time, and I’ll never forget the things she told me. There is one story that sticks with me the most: her description of the sound of her brother’s last breath before he succumbed to starvation as he lay on the floor next to her.
Many places in the world offer natural and scenic beauty. Of course, so does Cambodia. Southeast Asia, including Cambodia (and even moreso Vietnam), are known and portrayed mostly for being covered with choking jungles. Of course, their geographies have much more to offer than that. My photos will do nothing to correct that stereotype, because I only visited the jungles.
The Temples that Inspire
The temples of civilizations of yesteryear have always inspired the western world–whether in Egypt, Latin America or Southeast Asia, all westerners share a common fiction of heroes that look like us uncovering the secrets of the ancient world and taming the forgotten unknown. Some of these stories range from only slightly problematic (Indiana Jones) to shockingly racist (the ending seqeuences of Apocalypse Now). Regardless, there is good reason to be inspired: these places truly are incredible.
Cambodia’s temples remain one of those great treasures of the ancient world. There are about 4000 such temples in the country, constructed from somewhere around 50 AD to the about 1400. During this period culture flourished; empires came and went, and they all built temples: lots of them. These temples were the walls and fortresses and places of worship and homes for nobility that anchored the society. They were built, as most structures of antiquity were, through the back-breaking work of millions of slaves.
There really is a sense of mystery about the temple complexes in Cambodia, which is only reinforced by trying to read about them. There is enough, though limited, history available for the nearly 1.5 millennia where the Cambodian empires were, at times, the largest advanced societies in the world. These empires built these temples. But it stops around 1450. At this point begins a dark age, when the last Khmer empire finally collapsed after a long period of decline. This dark age lasted until about the 1850s. Most of the history during that time is of questionable quality, and we have more or less only an outline. People did, of course, live there–for example, merchants that engaged in international trade, and a new capital would be built by a new king every couple of generations here or there. And there is much recorded history of its neighbors in Vietnam and Thailand meddling in the stagnating royal court’s internal affairs, warring with each other and claiming various territories over the centuries. There was also a short time where Imperial Japan occupied the territory in the early 1940s. But there is not much constituting a continuous history by its own people.
In 1863, King Norodom Sihanouk asked the French government to protect this nation from its neighbors, and so they settled the country and remade it in their image. And eventually, they stumbled upon these temples. There had been a small number of Khmers living in them continuously through the whole of the dark age, and every once in awhile some foreign explorer would find and write about them. The magic, and mystery, of these temples is a matter of perspective. To some people for a very long time it was just home.
Between a trip to a nature preserve, clambering around temples and going on some hikes, I came across a variety of animals. I like to photograph animals because they are so peaceful and innocent–except, of course, for macaque monkeys, who I just have absolutely no affection for. These photos are taken in a variety of locations around the country.
Mammals with Hands are Bad
This applies to humans, raccoons, and in particular, to monkeys. Some evidence provided below.
What I Ate
I am adventurous eater, always on the lookout for whatever could reasonably pass as fit for human consumption. In Cambodia I ate everything from bad pizza to traditional grilled amphibian meat to fried insects and, in one case, a very bad piece of alligator meat.
I finish writing this about one year after returning from this trip. It is strange writing this article, now, in July 2020, about four months into a coronavirus pandemic that has crippled my country and left me barely leaving my home, let alone traveling the world, while I look back on these times. I loved my time in Cambodia, and wish I could return.
The factors that conspired to bring me there are somewhat random, but I am really glad that they did. I made some new friends for life, had some enlightening and fun experiences and nearly died from a parasitic infection, all things that I value in equal measure.
I am sure that I will go back someday–though I think I’ll stay away from the alligator meat.