It’s important to talk about some of Cambodia’s history before I begin blogging about my day to day experiences you have more context. I believe it’s important to learn at least some of the history of a country that we’re visiting and also the history of our own countries from multiple perspectives.
I must admit, I didn’t unfortunately have time to learn as much about Cambodian history before I arrived so my priority is to learn some of it. It will help me understand the current situation of some of the Cambodians I will meet during my time here. The books I am reading are First They Killed my Father by Luong Ung and Golden Bones by Sichan Siv.
The Kingdom of Cambodia has a population of 14.8 million. The beginning of the Khmer Empire began in 802 AD when Jayavarman II declared himself king. The empire group grew 600 years and allowing successive kings to dominate much of Southeast Asia and accumulate immense power and wealth. The Indianized kingdom built monumental temples such as Angkor Wat and facilitated the spread of first Hinduism, then Buddhism to much of Southeast Asia.
After the fall of Angkor to Ayutthaya in the 15th century, Cambodia was ruled as a vassal between its neighbors until it was colonized by the French in the mid-19th century. Cambodia gained independence in 1953.
For more than 2,000 years, Cambodia absorbed influences from India, passing them on to other Southeast Asian civilizations that are now Thailand and Laos. The Khmer Empire was Southeast Asia’s largest empire during the 12th century. The empire’s center of power was Angkor, where a series of capitals were constructed during the empire’s zenith.
The city, which could have supported a population of up to one million peopleand Angkor Wat, the most well known and best-preserved religious temple at the site, still serve as reminders of Cambodia’s past as a major regional power. The empire, though in decline, remained a significant force in the region until its fall in the 15th century.
The Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh and took power in 1975. Led by Pol Pot, they changed the official name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea. The new regime modelled itself on Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward, immediately evacuated the cities, and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country’s agriculture on the model of the 11th century, discarded Western medicine, and destroyed temples, libraries, and anything considered Western. Around two million people were killed out of the seven million people under the Khmer Rouge regime.
This era gave rise to the term Killing Fields, and the prison Tuol Sleng became notorious for its history of mass killing. Hundreds of thousands fled across the border into neighbouring Thailand. The regime disproportionately targeted ethnic minority groups. The Cham Muslims suffered serious purges with as much as half of their population exterminated.
But most of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime were not ethnic minorities but ethnic Khmer. Professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and teachers, were also targeted. According to Robert D. Kaplan, “eyeglasses were as deadly as the yellow star” as they were seen as a sign of intellectualism.
It was very emotional and intense when my friend and I went to visit the genocide museum during the PEPY cycling tour in 2010. We saw the areas where people’s bodies were dragged, the machines that were used to torture people and the trees that were used to smash babies’ heads so the soldiers would save bullets.
The Vietnamese armed forces captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families.
While we were on the PEPY ride, one of the stories that I remember the most was when Daniela, one of PEPY’s founders told us, “In the U.S., you have many people with the right skills but it’s hard to find the money to pay the. In Cambodia, we have the opposite problem. Finding the money is not the problem, finding the people with the right skills is challenging because many of the educators and leaders were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.”
Over half of the Cambodian population are 21 years old and 85% of the population live in rural areas.
Increasing tourism in Siem Reap
Since I came in 2010, there seem to be an increase in the number of hotels, more shops and services catering to tourists. The city is changing quickly and hopefully more people learn about responsible tourism and not demanding things that will be harmful for people and the environment.
There are, fortunately, a variety of social enterprises, or businesses who use their profits to fund social or environmental programs. They are very visible. You can go to restaurants that hire former street kids and the profits fund their education and they get life skills through cooking and serving food. You can also stay in guesthouses that employ women to sew beautiful blankets, pillow cases and other products.