Cambodia Today – And A Bit of History

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Much of my time during the trip was spent with Try. Unlike my other trips where I bounce from place to place meeting different people, Try was my travel companion for the entire trip. As he told Darrel, he made sure to give me “the comfortable service” during my stay in Siem Reap.

I learned a lot about Try over our many noodle soup meals. He grew up in a town a few hours away from Siem Reap and had joined the Army at an early age as a way to get himself out of poverty and raise his social status within Cambodian society (there are very few job options for a majority of Cambodians, outside of the military and the tourist industry). He’s had some of his friends die during combat as he and the rest of his unit has fought against invading Thai troops along the Thai-Cambodia border. He knows how to ward off mosquito bites by eating a tiny bit of sap from a poisonous tree, and he knows how to endure through some pretty extreme situations in the jungle. But  he can’t survive on his military wages alone, so Try has worked hard to run his tourist taxi services as well.

Currently, Try is in school studying law so that he can one day become a lawyer. He says it’s hard and that there’s lots of obstacles in the way of him becoming a lawyer (from the high fees you must pay to other things) but that he’s pretty determined to make it work.

Besides going to see temples, I went to see some amazing (albeit, small and barely funded) museums around Siem Reap. The first was the Landmine Museum on the road to Bantrey Sray, that was started by a man who has spent most of his adult life diffusing and getting rid of old landmines throughout Cambodia. Although about 2 million people died during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, another 1 million have died due to landmine accidents. That brings a total of 3 million or so people that have died since the beginning of the war – which means that almost half the total population of Cambodia has been completely wiped out.

As to be expected, the museums are hella intense and extremely emotional. Many serve as both non-profit museums and shelters to the children who have been the victims of landmines. Photos hang all over the gallery walls, showing Cambodian people diffusing landmines and the effects of the mines on people both young and old. Personal stories, hand-written by the children who have been the victims of landmines, cover one display so that visitors can learn more about what their life has been like. The main thing that hit me were the displays that talked about the facts of the war…how the US is one of the only countries in the world that won’t sign a resolution to ban landmines (we are one of the biggest weapons producers and distributors in the world, after all), how landmines were designed to maim the enemy instead of killing them (the idea being that an injured soldier is a bigger liability to an army – as opposed to a dead one). The displays also included many actual weapons and landmines that were leftover from the war.

While not directly mentioning it, these museums often pointed out how the United States (from the rise of the Khmer Rouge to the end of the Vietnam war — to US foreign policy today) has had such a horrible and devastating impact on Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Yet as heavy and as incredibly sad as the museums were, I was completely impressed by the resiliency of a people who have endured so many hardships throughout time. While many continue to be hit hard with PTSD and suffer immense physical and emotional health issues, many still continue to tell the story of the war so that others can learn from their history, while others have taken action by becoming activists who work to diffuse landmines or do public health or economic development work throughout Cambodia.

On day 4 in Siem Reap — before I left for Laos — I spent most of the morning visiting Try’s military unit: having breakfast with his commander, taking photos with his friends (upon Try’s insistence), and getting a motorbike tour of the countryside.

Cambodia’s countryside is really beautiful. Even though it’s not as green as say Thailand (most of the Cambodia that I saw was dry yellow farmland), there’s something really gorgeous about the two story homes among the palm trees the line the roads. Reddish-tan dust covers the entire area. Many of the homes have those Chinese welcome/good luck greeting banners along the door frames. For some reason, a lot of homes are painted dark brown while the trim and roofs of the homes are this bright, pthalo blue. It’s awesome.

My second to last stop before I left was the War Museum of Siem Reap. There, I got a guide who told me about his personal experiences during the war while showing me around the displays in the museum. He was a child when the Khmer Rouge got him to join their army, but when he was old enough to realize what was going on, he fled and joined the other side that was fighting against the Khmer Rouge. He still had photos in some of the trunks that showed him with his fellow military unit in the jungles of Cambodia. Some of the displays were too emotional for him to look at since it was his friends who were in the photos. We passed by a mine display, where he showed me how handmade mines worked. A friend of his was hit by one of the hanging mines, sending glass shards spraying throughout their bodies. While he survived with shrapnel throughout the right side of his body, his friend was completely blinded by the incident, but survived.

One of the most interesting things that he mentioned to me during the tour was that, while he knows that some people hate Americans, he doesn’t. As he said, “I’ve made some American friends who fought during the Vietnam war, and not all have agreed with the war. Some Americans are bad, but some of any people can be bad. Look at our country — Cambodians killed other Cambodians…”

All tour guides at the War Museums are volunteers. None of them get paid by the museum to do their tours, they rely solely on donations to keep the program going. I thanked my guide for sharing his story with me, and continued with the rest of my journey.

Being in Cambodia gave me a ton of personal perspective. Besides learning more about the history of the country and Cambodian culture, being in Siem Reap allowed me to better understand how a people can survive and carry on despite the past that continues to affect them on a daily basis. Some of the people that I talked to also mentioned the corruption – how influence and money makes anything possible (or impossible) in their country. How the maimed, blind musicians who play cultural music at the temples are actually forced to pay off the police in that area. And even how the government doesn’t really mention the war or the Khmer Rouge in history textbooks because many current members of the government were former Khmer Rouge themselves. It’s sad. But it reminds me of how strong and resilient a people can be — and how incredibly grateful I am, to have had the immense privileges and opportunities that I’ve had in my life…

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Posted: January 15, 2012

Author: Tiffany

Category: Asia, Blog, Cambodia

Tags: , , ,


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