Cambodia: perceptions of a recovering country
Planning my trip to Cambodia started when Tet Holiday in Vietnam came around. Tet is the national celebration of the Lunar New Year, and for Vietnamese families, this means gearing up for a long stretch of family time, tons of eating and traditional celebrations. For me, it meant having almost two weeks off of work, timed perfectly with receiving my first teaching pay cheque. Since Tet brings raised airfare and booked up accommodation across the country, it also became an excuse to leave Vietnam and check out one of the many enticing neighbouring destinations. But, where to? Thailand? The Philippines? Indonesia? Although I had some shiny new funds in my bank account, it wasn't a glamorous enough budget to head to Bali or Hong Kong; the thought of busing from Saigon to Cambodia became an obvious choice.
Nine days in Cambodia was not enough; from the infinite abyss that is Angkor Wat to bustling Phnom Penh, and plentiful options for islands and fishing towns, this is a land with tons to offer backpackers. After much deliberation, my travel partner Reece (who was travelling from Germany over to SE Asia for the first time!) and I decided to spend time in Siem Riep and Koh Rong Island, with a brief stop in Phnom Penh along the way. We got around on $10-$15 buses, with the exception of a short, one hour flight from Siem Riep in the north, to Sihanoukville (the—in our opinion seedy—and touristy city that serves as a gateway to Koh Rong) in the south. The $100 flight spared us from a 13 hour overnight journey, of which we read some pretty horrible reviews. After long days spent on buses, I will say that flying high felt like a treat in the middle of the trip. There were no regrets from either of us on that choice.
Visiting Cambodia was fascinating and beautiful. But at times, it was also somber.
A nation plagued with a 4-year-long genocide lasting from 1975-1979 commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is a country disturbed by absolute horror, death and oppression. In 1968, an off-shoot of North Vietnam's communist party formed in Cambodia, and eventually surfaced victorious in the country's civil war, overthrowing the military dictatorship. The Communist Party of Kampuchea was led by a man named Pol Pot, who forced urban dwellers (which meant, virtually the entire Phnom Penh population) to move to the country side and work on forced labour projects in inhumane conditions. Anyone against the horrendous totalitarianism was executed, resulting in a nation-wide population loss of 25%, an estimated 1-3 million people. You can visit the “killing fields” of Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh, the best-known site where victims were killed during this time. It’s now a mass grave filled with human remains.
There's much more complexity to this history, but this is a shortened surface story of the horror the country faced mere decades ago.
Healing from such a disturbance—from mass death and lost loved ones, from a ban on religious freedom, from forced relocation and forced labour, from life as it was known— it next to impossible. Poverty strikes the country, a noticeable fact even in the most touristy of places. The Khmer people take to extreme measures to combat it, like taking their kids out of school to sell souvenirs on the street. As a tourist, you’re advised against buying things from children so as not to encourage this, but doing so is heart wrenching. Cambodia is also, unfortunately, a source of sex trafficking and destination for sex tourism; this much is very apparent. I found it difficult to look away from the middle-aged white men with their arms dangling over young Khmer women half their junior.
Despite its horrifying history and remaining struggles, Cambodia possesses some treasures that hardship has not destroyed. The most obvious in my mind is the Angkor temples in Siem Riep. Hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists visit the ancient mecca daily, from sunrise to sunset. Before visiting the site, I only knew of the largest temple: Angkor Wat. Man, was I naïve. The temple complex spans 162 hectares; it’s the largest religious monument in the world. It was built as a capital city in the 12th century, soon after transforming into a centre of Buddhist worship. I was absolutely astonished by the temples; I don’t think I’d ever experienced something so grand and steeped in ancient history. With reason, Cambodians revere it as a source of national pride.
Blessed with islands rimming the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia is also home to some beautiful escapes. We stayed on Koh Rong, a place that offers both relaxation and partying, depending on your taste. Opting for peace, we stayed on a private corner of the island called Coconut Beach. Since tenting (with a real mattress inside) on a beach for $16 CAD a night is my idea of bliss, I would recommend staying at Coconut Beach Bungalows on Koh Rong to anyone with similar hopes and dreams. The accommodation is almost like a community in itself—it’s a cluster of tents, bungalows and hammocks beginning on the edge of the beach and climbing up a hill. Atop the slope sits a restaurant, serving coconut curries, stir-fried noodles and other amazing Khmer dishes.
The charm of this place was not only its natural beauty but also in the warmth of its owners—Robbie and his sister Pia. They went beyond what is expected of a host, so far as to make a fire for their guests every night, organize boat tours for the group, and to constantly check in on how we were doing. On our final night there, Robbie us and a few other guests paper lanterns to set off on the beach. (The group would be doing them the following day, but we would be gone by then). In the darkness, the four of us prepared to light the lantern and send it off into the night. Suddenly, the earnest faces of two young local boys greet us. “Hello, may we be here?,” the eldest musters. I nod and smile at him. Our faces lit only by the candle in the lantern, the six of us watch in silence as it floats away. The further it goes, the warmer I feel; it’s pure tranquility.
Engulfed by pitch black, I feel a hand grab mine and a voice say “thank you” – it’s the eldest boy again. A wave of emotion hits me as I remember where I am and all that this country has gone through. Yet, in that moment, we're able to find peace. Peace thanks to the sound of the waves. Peace in a place that's faced atrocity. Peace in a place that's fought to keep its identity. Peace where people have swam against the current and been spat out the other side, left to recover from the storm. Peace against the odds.