I spent this past month in Cambodia, three weeks in Siem Reap and a few days in Battambang. My overall impression is: life is hard there. In these three posts, I will talk about the bad, the good, my thoughts, and some recommendations. Part One focuses on the history and my observations, Part Two the people and interesting experiences. Part Three is all about art!
This is Part One.
Corruption On Arrival
Visa is easy, just get a visa on arrival. What you don’t want but will probably come along is the bribe. I call it the “Corruption On Arrival”. Having lived in Chiang Mai for three months, I was inevitably spoiled by the Thai friendliness and the convenience of life. Yes, the police will probably rip you off if you get pulled over, but at least the customs officers won’t so blatantly ask you for a bribe.
I was prepared, so when the officer uttered in her heavily accented but still recognizable Chinese “Xiao Fei (Tip)”, I knew she was asking for a bribe. “HELL NO”, my mind says, but I politely changed it into “No money”. To my surprise, she persisted in Chinese: “Ren Min Bi, Shi Kuai (RMB10, ￥10≈$1.5).” I knew it, I knew they would target Chinese tourists because most Chinese people don’t want to have conflicts with the authority. But I’ve had enough, another “OH HELLLLL NOOOO” went through my mind. I responded in Chinese: ”Mei Qian (No money).” This time It worked, she quickly threw back my passport with what I saw a mixture of irritation, disappointment, and embarrassment.
Thus began my time in Cambodia with the Corruption On Arrival.
The energy is so dense in Cambodia that I was feeling out of place for a whole week. To put into a less woo-woo way, it is an extremely poor country, life is hard here, you can FEEL the struggle.
Poverty and War
Since the 1960s, Cambodia has been repeatedly plagued by political turmoil. War, one after another, devastated this land. Though the last war ended two decades ago, its aftermath is still pronounced. Here are some cold facts: according to World Bank, Cambodia ranks 144 out of the 186 countries in terms of GDP per capita. Its number of $3,490 is only 6% of $56,116 of the 10th-ranking United States. Even today, Cambodia still relies heavily on foreign aid, which makes up 30 to 40 percent of the government’s annual budget. Imagine that!
Whether you are familiar with the history or not, I highly recommend visiting the War Museum as one of the first stops in Siem Reap. It is located halfway between the airport and the city center.
The museum was put together by local veterans. I cannot even imagine how much effort it took them to collect all the abandoned tanks and heavy artillery, and to drag them out of the jungle all the way to Siem Reap! It’s also hard to imagine how much effort they put into keeping these objects from being dismantled and sold as scraps, when for decades the starving villagers would loot Angkor temple to trade for food at the border! The guides speak fairly good English and will be happy to answer your questions.
Apart from the cruelty of Khmer Rouge, what struck me the most is the amount of bombs dropped by all parties and especially the United States during Vietnam War. See the photo below. The bombs dropped in Cambodia during Vietnam War is MORE than the bombs dropped by the Allies in the WHOLE Europe during WWII. Together Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were attacked with 7,000,000 tonnes of bombs. The U.S. alone dropped 2,600,000 tonnes of bombs in Cambodia and Laos between 1970 and 1973, making Cambodia the most heavily bombed country in history and Laos the most per capita.
My friend, does it ring a bell? Where is being heavily bombed right now and by whom? Hmmm, I’ll let this chart speak itself:
The irreversible loss of, and consequently the lack of talent is another reason behind the poverty. From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot led his extreme communist movement Khmer Rouge. Determined to establish a centralized peasant farming society free of any foreign or capitalism influence, Khmer Rouge expelled people from cities into villages and massacred millions. Whoever was deemed as educated or wealthy was killed. Estimates are that 90% of the artists, intellectuals, and teachers were killed. Between 1.5 and 3 million lives perished within 4 years, that’s more than 1000 lives a day, 1 person per minute. Cambodia’s population shrunk by more than 20% in those four years. The exact number will never be known, just like the bodies will never be recovered, and the horrific memories never be fully written down.
I visited two killing sites in Battambang, not a pleasant experience but a must. The first one is in a temple called Wat Samrong Knong. Yes, it is in a temple! Khmer Rouge not only occupied temples and converted them into prisons, but also bombed some of the precious thousand-year-old Angkor temples (Wat Ek Phnom, for example). Would it surprise you, even more, to know that Pol Pot was once a monk and received Buddhist education? It startled me as much as the fact that Adolf Hitler was once an artist.
At Wat Samrong Knong, there’s a monument donated by overseas Cambodians. You will be able to see the remains of the victims through the windows and learn the horrible deeds of the Khmer Rouge soldiers through the vivid relief. Cannibalism was practiced, rape was prevalent, torture was everywhere. It sent chills down my spine under the scorching afternoon sun. The Khmer Rouge soldiers would not kill people with bullets, they would beat them on the back of their heads with a stick, and then push them into a canal and leave them to die. The same method was practiced at the killing cave where they would push the victims down a deep cave.
That was the second killing site I visited, the cave on Phnom Sampov (Phnom means “mountain” in Khmer). I went down the cave for a few meters and immediately noticed the change in the air: humid and stale. By the time I got out three minutes later, I was already feeling sick. It took me a good half hour of deep breaths at the top of the mountain to recover.
I do recommend visiting these two sites as a history lesson. Just be mentally and energetically prepared and do not stay for too long.
Drunk Tourists and My Confusion
Given all that I felt and saw, I was surprised to find “Pub Street” in the heart of Siem Reap. Quite literally, it’s a street full of pubs. I was also baffled to see so many tourists easily drowning their minds away in alcohol. Sure the $0.5 draft beer makes it easy to buy a drunk night, but my dear fellow travelers, can’t you feel the dense and sometimes dark energy around you? Can’t you feel the struggle and the pain that is still haunting the place? Was it easy for you to sit on Pub Street after visiting the War Museum and the Landmine Museum? Or maybe you didn’t bother going there at all?
Anyways, life goes on, tourists come and go, I too was a foreigner passing through Cambodia, didn’t speak Khmer and maybe never will. So who am I to make the judgment? This reminds me of the words of a shaman that I once worked with: ”Discern, not judge.” I still can’t clearly tell the difference between the two, but I hope I discerned.
Part One is a bit heavy, nonetheless, real. Part Two will get much lighter and hopefully Part Three will end on a high note 🙂