Our backpacking travels started in Cambodia, and you immediately notice the difference crossing over that invisible line that delineates one country from the next. It’s hard to say specifically how, but all of a sudden looking out the van window the landscape changes from lush and plentiful to arid and sparsely vegetated. Life looked a little harder for people, not that everyone is unhappy—in we were always met with friendly smiles along the way—just that they seem a bit more worn down. I don’t mean to make Cambodia out to be this impoverished, sad place, because it’s far from it; it’s more like Cambodia’s difficult past is still evident in today’s life.
Our first of two stops was to Phnom Penh where we planned to go to the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison, which stand as museums and memorials to those who were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. S21 was a school in the middle of the city where the Khmer Rouge took over and used as a torture prison to elicit fake confessions of treason to appease the paranoia of the regime, and the Killing Fields is where they took the prisoners after they confessed and were considered of no more importance. The regime first used fear to push people out of the cities, telling them the Americans were coming to drop bombs, which stopped the spread of any information, scared and unaware of what was happening in their own country. Then they targeted the scholars, artists, monks, and politicians, which by default left the farmers and villagers who didn’t have the education to think for themselves, quelling any resistance. To say it was a heavy day doesn’t really express how difficult it was to walk through the horrors of those years, but heavy as it is, it’s vital to understanding Cambodia today.
The rise of the Khmer Rouge was indirectly (although some would say directly) related to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. In fact, the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia than in all of World War II combined. It seems to Ian and I that this level of destruction and fear that the Cambodians were facing made it easy for the Khmer Rouge to manipulate and ultimately take control, in the most horrific of ways, over the Cambodian people. I can’t help but see how history seems to quickly repeat itself; just over 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, we have started another war and created chaos in Iraq, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the process. I guess I can’t help but ask: should we really be that surprised that a group like ISIS has come to power?
Sitting next to us on the bus as we entered the country were a couple of monks who are students at university (where they teach in English, strangely enough) who started talking to us about the history and current politics of Cambodia. They told us about the struggle to reeducate the country, how people are too poor to continue their education, and those who do often choose to leave the country for a better education but then never come back. All this obviously stunts recovery and growth which is why Cambodia is having trouble joining its neighbors of Thailand and Vietnam in becoming a modern and prosperous country. They told us that many of the ministers in parliament were people who had barely finished primary school, never mind high school or college, and have no specialized knowledge of their appointed positions. And these are the people making decisions for the country. We later learned that around 65% of Cambodians are under 25 years old from a guide at S21, and it’s that age gap between people who are able to run for government positions and the young people getting higher educations, but that aren’t returning, that is creating the problem. It made for a really interesting introduction to Cambodia, and played into our view of the country for the rest of our trip.
With only a week to spend in Cambodia we moved on to Kampot for the remaining days. This relaxed colonial riverside town was a great place to use as a base for day trips to the surrounding countryside. We befriended Nick and Pete, a couple of Brits, and spent a day on motorbikes going to a small cave where a little boy followed us in and took the lead as the guide. He pointed out animal shapes in the rocks, saying things like, “Hello, elephant, head, ears, eyes, okay?!” And then directing us through a small pathway out of the cave and clapping his hands to get our attention if we were going the wrong way. He of course charged a small fee for his expert knowledge, which we were happy to pay.
We drove to the neighboring seaside town of Kep where we had some lunch at the local seafood market. As divers we cringed a bit at some of the seafood for sale, like baby sharks, sting rays and other beautiful fish we like to swim with instead of eat. But we did opt for some fresh caught and steamed crab. We chose a couple of vendors from the many on the pier, or I should say they chose us, and then watched as they pulled the crab traps from the ocean to show us the product. They then sent them off to be steamed and delivered in a plastic bag with a bit of chili sauce. It’s always great people watching at the local markets, all the vendors shouting their products and haggling prices, it’s mayhem and it’s great.
Ian and I drove the next day up through a national park which weaves its way up a mountain to a deserted town. It’s the oddest thing. There’s this town that’s abandoned and eerie, and would have been a cool attraction just for the weirdness of it. But then the Chinese came in and are trying to rebuild the area, starting with a massive casino and eastern European looking block style hotel rooms. It’s just a bizarre place, but it offers great views of the surrounding area.
The small town also presented a surprise small world encounter. One night, while standing on the street corner trying to decide which way to go, we looked into the bar on our right and saw someone waving at us. We did that kind of wave and smile where you pretend you know why the person is saying hi to you, but your face clearly reads, “I have no idea who you are.” Then they tried to give us a hint by mimicking scuba diving and we thought, “Aha! We met them on Koh Tao,” so we walked towards them. As we got closer though, we realized they weren’t from Tao, but instead a couple we had taken diving last year in Sri Lanka! It was such a shock to run into two people we had had no communication with in the past year, but here they were, in the same place, looking out at the street just as we walked by. Like I said, small world!
Kampot is one of those places where the chilled out vibes turns a two day stay into four or five or six. So to avoid getting too stuck we decided to move on, both because it was time and because the Cambodian food wasn’t anything too exciting and the Vietnamese food was just a bus ride away and calling our name. On to the next country!