The Hard Parts of Cambodia

IMG_1572As a tourist, one breezes in and out of a country. You read a little, you hear a little, you get impressions – hardly the basis for providing a narrative about a culture. I don’t presume to do so. I really knew very little about Cambodia before we visited, other than its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979. I had heard about the Killing Fields, [and there were many, not just one] and our tour gave us the choice to see the area near Phnom Penh used as a grave for many thousands at the Choeung EK Genocidal Center, and visit the S21 Detention Center in the center of the city [also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.] We chose to see. The tours were respectful and sorrowful. Rather than include the often seen photos of the killing fields, I’m posting the bracelets, thousands and thousands of them woven around acres and acres of fenced land where bodies were unearthed.P1080627P1080636

The former high school used as a Security Prison by the Khmer Rouge was the location of torture for an estimated 17,000 people. Photos and records were kept of each person who was brought here, and few left alive. There are many rooms lined with these photos, often showing the results of the horrors perpetrated on them. The Khmer Rouge managed to eliminate an estimated quarter of the country’s population in four years.


9781610391832_p0_v1_s114x166What’s to be made of it all? How can one possibly understand genocide? I came back home wanting to read more, and found Joel Brinkley’s book, “Cambodia’s Curse: the Modern History of a Troubled Land.” Brinkley reported on the fall of the Khmer Rouge and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 writing about Cambodian refugees. He had a long career with the New York Times, and returned to Cambodia 30 years later to reassess its conditions. I was riveted. He quotes a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph Mussomeli, as telling visitors “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.” I get it.

There is a lot wrong in Cambodia, as there is in every country. But Cambodia seems to have had more than its share of hardship. It lags behind its neighbors in most every element of development. Much of its rural population lives with minimal standards and without basic services. [We were astounded at the scourge of plastic bags all over the countryside.] The government is described by Brinkley and others as venal. And there are studies showing that a large percentage of the population that survived the Khmer Rouge is suffering from PTSD. How could they not?




There is also a new generation of Cambodians. More visitors are coming to see their country now, with its beauty and long history to share with the world. One can hope that the future holds better prospects for them than their past.P1070981P1070955

2 thoughts on “The Hard Parts of Cambodia

  1. Excellent blog thanks – and yes, Brinkley’s book is a must-read: though quite pessimistic given the broad scale of corruption. When I went in 2004 I was challenged by a simple question from a local I met. “If I email you, will you write back?” It resonated with me especially after sitting at S21 contemplating how the west had turned its back on Cambodia during the 1970s. The answer to my friend’s question came as a realisation that today we have the freedom to travel to these countries, but with it comes the responsibility to keep in contact – to not forget.

    In our case we ended up building a school near Siem Reap, but there is an ocean of need in Cambodia. A venal government may be ignoring the poor (near the bottom in human rights, near the bottom in education spend on world rankings) so the challenge is for us visitors to at least commit to an individual – to promise to write back; to promise some level of (ethical) support via health or education or start-up capital or legal aid. Internet and email mean we can leave Cambodia, but we can’t walk away.

    • So good of you to follow up with me again, Duncan. I found this a difficult post to write largely because I was blown away by Brinkley’s book and wanted to do some screaming at something or someone just on general principles. But you’re right, one needs to focus and help as one can; if the UN couldn’t fix the country in four years, it’s going to take the promises of individuals made to individuals to move one step at a time. I admire your efforts, am following your blog, and will find my way soon to take my step. Again, I appreciate your good feedback.

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