After our six days in Thailand, my husband and I went to Aranyaprathet, the Thai city bordering Cambodia, got our Cambodian visas and crossed to border into Poipet, into Cambodia. After that a very long drive from the border to the famous city of Siam Reap which offers tourists the famous Angkar Wat, awaited us.
The first I got to see of Cambodia, besides the stuffy border buildings and the big casino on the border, was the barren land, flat fields that looked like they were stretching into what seemed never ending, only separated by small villages with little wooden huts placed on poles to avoid the floods of water during the rainy season. We saw skinny cows walking along the roads, either dragged a carriage or walking by itself. We saw whole families riding a single scooter and we saw small, laughing children chasing around chickens on dirt roads leading away from the single, main paved road our taxi was putting to use. We saw people sitting outside their homes engrossed in conversations, we saw people taking a rest in their hammock under the shades of the many palm trees and we saw people working in the fields under the relentless Cambodian sun.
I found myself amazed by the sights of a world I hadn’t laid my eyes on before. Cambodia became the travel destination I would never forget and a destination that would leave me longing for a return.
Last summer I picked up a book in the local super market called “De dræbte min far” (First they killed my father) by Loung Ung, without knowing anything about the history of Cambodia I decided to buy in and soon after I found myself sucked into the life and story of Loung Ung, who was just a child when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army took over Cambodia in 1975, drove the Cambodian people out the fields and started what they called “Year Zero”. A new era, where hard working farmers were the ideal and educated people were the enemy. During their four year reign the Khmer Rouge army killed an estimated 2 million people, over 20 percent of the Cambodian people lost their lives to the vision of Pol Pot and a few other leaders. Many died of torture, savage executions, over work or starvation.
Through the story of Loung Ung, I found myself drawn into a dark and inhumane era of Cambodian history, a history that ones again shows us the true evil some humans are able to commit, a history that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Just outside the capital, Phnom Penh, tourists are able to visit one of the most famous killings fields, called Choeung Ek, where the khmer rouge killed and buried more than 8,800 people in mass graves and in Phnom Penh city it is possible to visit a former high school, which was turned into a prison for the many enemies of khmer rouge, called Tuol Sleng. With such a dark history I never imagined to find so many smiles in Cambodia.
I did witness poverty, especially in the eyes of the small children begging me to buy either postcards, bottled water or bracelets, or in the eyes of an old man or woman lacking limbs asking us for money. I did witness hardships, from seeing people live on the ruthless streets, seeing people work under the burning sun without breaks and seeing people just trying to survive another day, but despite of that I also saw a strong willed people who had moved on, who had raised from the ashes and a people who do their best to enjoy even the smallest pleasures in life. A people who focus on the present while they flash bright smiles to world and to foreigners like me, who no matter how books I read about the genocide, will never be able to fully comprehend what they or their parents have gone through. A foreigner like me, who will probably never experience true, human hardship.
I fell in love with Cambodia, I fell in love with all the beautiful cultural and historic sights, like the famous and impressive ancient city of Angkar Wat which draws in tourists from around the world to the city of Siam Reap, or the beautiful and majestic royal palace in Phnom Penh – which is once again a thriving capital, with busy streets, big markets and boulevards lined with buildings showing off French architecture, reminiscing the French colonization. Phnom Penh, the city once called “the Pearl of Asia”, a city left empty by the khmer rouge, is a city in development and a city worth to visit. Whole Cambodia is worth a visit and I know I didn’t get to see enough during my measly four days in this amazing country, so now I am left with a urge, a need, to once again go back to the country so filled with rich culture and history, the country which offers magnificent sights of true country landscapes, where people still rely on nature, hard work and basic utilities during their everyday lives. The country of Cambodia can offer one an experience of a lifetime, help one create memories one won’t forgot and the Cambodian people can offer one smiles, kindness and show one that it is still right to believe in humanity, even when dark times should prove otherwise.
Cambodia have now a special place in my heart and I hope others who goes there are able to make a place as well.