Cambodia. Many call it, “a country of scars” due to its turmoil history and its notorious tourists’ scams and health risks, such as malaria. Because of its reputation as a third world country, people are often surprised when I declare it as one of my favourites to visit. But with its friendly people, untouched beaches and breathtaking temples, you soon see why this Southeast Asian gem is at the top of so many travellers bucket lists.
The first thing that struck a cord with me was Cambodia’s heartbreaking history. I was shocked to learn about the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s reign and how Cambodia has only been at peace for 20 short years. The end of the Khmer Genocide drew to a close in 1995 and yet its presence is still very much felt. During a nine hour bus journey from Siem Reap to the capital, Phnom Penh I read First they killed my father a gripping book written by Cambodian author, Loung Ung. It is the first and only book that has brought me to tears as Loung recounts her traumatic up-bringing during the Pol Pot regime. Long details how she was forced to become a child soldier and lost many of her loved ones and family members. This book not only became a favourite of mine, but it triggered a new found obsession with Cambodia’s troubled past. On my mission to learn everything I could about the atrocities that occurred, I was led to the Cheung Ek village, host to the killing fields museum and S-21 prison. Unlike the clean, modern interior of Aushchwitz concentration camp, today’s heavy rain still uncovers bones and bits of clothing that belonged to those who were slaughtered at many of the killing field sites. Today, tourists place bracelets on the bamboo sticks that highlight the areas where hundreds were brutally murdered and buried.
There are over 20,000 of these graveyards throughout Cambodia. Because the Khmer Rouge feared Vietnamese colonialism they interrogated native prisoners who they believed were against them. Estimates of the total number of deaths from the Khmer Rouge policies (including disease and starvation) range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of 8 million people. The S-21 prison today looks like an abandoned school but it was once home to a class of decomposing bodies who were chained to beds and tortured.
I learnt that Thearavada Buddhism is the main religion in Cambodia as it’s practiced by 95% of the population. However, it also hosts Christianity and Hinduism. Built by the Khmer King, world heritage site Angkor Wat was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu before it gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple. Found north of Siem Reap it is the heart of Cambodia as many tourists travel far and wide to marvel at its architecture and capture a photo during sunrise and sunset. In 1975 Angkor Wat became a ruin due to the expansion of nature and the destructive acts of the Khmer Rouge who beheaded its statues as a sign to all that allegiance to their party was the only devotion the people of Cambodia needed. During my visit to Angkor I came across a monk who was sitting in the depths of the temple and was given blessings to visitors in the form of red threaded bracelets meant to provide protection and strength. This blessing is free and tourists are encouraged to go up to him.soon
Despite being a third world developing country Cambodia grows some of the most desirable rice in the world. They eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I soon discovered fried insects are commonly eaten, with night and day markets offering a range of them from spiders to cockroaches and crispy scorpions.
Although a strange snack to many it is thought that eating insects prevents anaemia as they are high in protein. During my time in Cambodia I went off track from the small tourist streets of Siem Reap to the village of Mondul where the roads turned to mud orange and the houses into slums. I saw the original location of a school where children of mixed ages were taught in a small crumbling building without any stationary or books.
I then visited the new school, which had been created by the New Hope NGO in 2007. Located in one of the biggest slum areas in Cambodia children are able to get a free education. I took a tour of the school and listened in on classes where the children stole glimpses in my direction and giggled in excitement at my presence. The beautiful children of Cambodia were happy and desperate to be in the classroom, they were grateful for the opportunity to learn. Despite looking different, being from a more fortunate background and having a completely opposite upbringing, I was always treated in a kind and friendly manner by the locals. Cambodia taught me vast cultural differences in values, history, lifestyle and opportunities when comparing Western and Eastern countries. It also made me appreciate the education and upbringing I received back home. I will cherish my time there and the wonderful locals who met me along the way with kindness.