Some General Thoughts Post Cambodia

For me, our trip to Cambodia was extremely enlightening and invaluable at reevaluating what is important to you. It is a country in a state of renewal. The year 1975 was declared “year zero” by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, and he pretty much decimated the culture, economy and people during his reign of terror. Since the mid-90’s the country has again started over, this time from the ashes of a brutal dictatorship and a cruel civil war. Much of the country still deals with the remnants of that terrible time in the form of landmines and other unexploded ordinance.

After living in an Asian culture for a few months, I became accustomed to seeing many elderly people, walking or sitting in parks. But not in Cambodia. You will be surprised to know that over 40% of the population is under 16, and I imagine close to the other 60% are under 60. You just don’t see older people there. You do see lots of children! Babies are everywhere!

What happened to the people? Over 2 million people were killed in Cambodia during Khmer Rouge times and many more fled the country. Intellectuals, doctors, educated people and Buddhist monks were targeted as were many of the adult population. If you have seen the movie “The Killing Fields,” then you know many of the atrocities of the war were carried about by children and young adults, in some cases against their own families. Similar to the Cultural Revolution in China, Pol Pot believed that to start a new, non-corrupted society he must begin with the non-corrupted – the children and the peasants who had never been exposed to the cities and to Western ideas.

I couldn’t help but wonder during my stay, how can a country possibly heal after something so terrible? Cambodians seem to be doing it by repopulating their country. By being positive. Really, I never expected to see so many smiles, especially from people not so far out of a period of extreme suffering. I also wonder, what has become of the child soldiers and former Khmer Rouge fighters? How do they reconcile their violent past with Cambodia’s peaceful future?

Cambodia will make you feel many things. First you will feel incredibly wealthy, even if you are far from it on your own standards. Then you will feel ashamed of your own materialism, your quest for goods. (And with the amount of interesting things to buy, it is difficult to resist.) You will feel guilty while haggling over the price of $2 t-shirt with a child who has no shoes. Maybe, if you come from China, like us, you may also temper this guilt with the shock that she is also trying to sell you a bracelet for a whole $1. A dollar? Does she know what she can buy for a dollar in China? (On the other hand, a dollar will feed her whole family for a day or two…) It was not as inexpensive as we expected although, most North Americans and Europeans will find it extremely cheap.

In Cambodia there are three currencies working side by side. Everyone is a math wizard, constantly changing between Riels, the official local currency, practically worthless at 4,000 to 1 USD, the Thai Baht, used a lot in the Western part of the country and a step up from Riels at 38 to 1 USD, and the preferred currency, the unofficial yet most widely sought – the US dollar. (I was pretty surprised by the colorful new bills. When I last lived in the US, they were all just plain green!) Everywhere you go the price is given in dollars first – restaurants, hotels, taxis, even on the cash registers at stores! I’m not really sure what all that means, economics not being my strong point, but wow, those Cambodian kids are sure good with exchange rates!

I encourage you to visit Cambodia. And if you want to feel a mixture of emotions, a view of a rapidly changing country and see history happening before your eyes, get there soon. If you can’t visit, but would like to know more, I recommend a couple of books on the subject. I’ve read “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, which will make you cry, and “The Lost Executioner” by Nic Dunlop, which will make you angry. There are many more good books on Cambodia, just search on amazon, barnes and noble or powells.

I hope that I can return to explore even more of the country. It is a place that I will never forget.

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