Three decades ago, a dark chapter in human history unfolded before our eyes. From the steaming jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, correspondents banned from Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Pol Pot, cried out. Their words, however, failed to truly describe the bloody terror raining down on Cambodians by that maniacal despot bent on breaking the back of this once proud land.
The Khmer Rouge’s genocidal brutality from 1975 to 1979 almost totally obscured a fascinating history and left us with few enduring images of this rich civilization. Almost. Yet the world outside never forget Cambodia’s days of glory. And you’re here now to discover this for yourself. Though most remnants from this cultured past are found inland, their reality will be your journey’s reward.
Before The Killing Fields
From the 11th to the 14th centuries, the Hindu and Buddhist Khmer Empire was a dominant civilization in the Indochinese Peninsula. To memorialize their supremacy, they constructed such extraordinary sites as Angkor Wat, “wat” meaning “temple or monastery.” The community of Ankor was then not only the nucleus of this empire but its geographical center, as well, far from unfriendly neighbors.
Ankor Wat, part of a temple complex from the early 12th century, was once the capital city of King Suryavarman II. It’s the only temple in this complex in continuous use since it was built, originally as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu then converted to a Buddhist temple. Sacked by the Chams in 1177, then abandoned around 1450, it was soon swallowed by vines and banyan trees. Centuries of neglect followed.
Frenchman Henri Mouhot “discovered” Angkor Wat while in the region from 1859-1861. He wrote, "One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged." Unfortunately, Cambodia’s modern history demonstrates very little has changed.
Painstaking restoration began in the 20th century. Thankfully, the complex received little damage during the 1970s and 1980s and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992. The image of Angkor Wat, replicating the profile of Mt. Meru, has appeared on every Cambodian flag since 1863 reaffirming the peoples’ emotional attachment to it. Riots even erupted in Phnom Penh not long ago when a Thai actress claimed the temple might actually belong to Thailand.
The Killing Fields
In 1432, Ankor was indeed sacked by the Thai resulting in a long period of decline until 1863 when King Norodom allowed the country to become a French protectorate. Cambodia was therefore administered as part of French Indochina.
Following independence in 1953, King Norodom Sihanouk attempted to maintain neutrality during the Cold War and even the “hot” war in neighboring Vietnam. Then, in 1970, Sihanouk was ousted in a military coup. From exile he aligned himself with the communist Khmer Rouge rebels committed to overthrowing the pro-US government in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia, an undeclared theater of war, suffered the same devastation as Vietnam and, in 1975, faced widespread famine. That year, the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, seized control of the country, and installed a regime led by Pol Pot.
What followed was genocide. Widespread, horrific genocide. In a country half the size of California somewhere between one and three million (out of eight million) of Cambodia’s more accomplished citizens were rounded up and perished, many executed, in an attempt to destroy any vestige of modern western civilization, returning the country to an 11th-century agrarian model. Towns were emptied, religion banned, land confiscated, intellectuals murdered, children forced into labor camps, embassies closed, money forbidden, media silenced, health care eliminated. Pol Pot declared, “This is Year Zero” based on Mao’s agrarian utopia. For many, it was their last.
This doomed experiment was finally stopped in 1978 when Vietnam invaded, presumably to curtail incursions into their territory. Vietnam’s running battle with the Khmer Rouge was finally ended by treaty in 1991.
After The Killing Fields
In 2005, oil and natural gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia's territorial waters. When commercial extraction begins in 2011, oil revenues could profoundly affect Cambodia's economy as well as Sihanoukville’s character. This city was founded only in 1964 as the country’s only deep-water port and primary tourist gateway. Direct flights to Siem Reap facilitate visits to the Ankor temples. But if they’re not on your itinerary, perhaps a local laid-back beach will be. In contrast to her more developed Southeast Asian neighbors, some resort-free escapes can still be found here like Sokha Beach and Occheuteal Beach. Balance this with the tranquility of Wat Lu (Lower Pagoda) or Wat Krom where monks can be seen in prayer. Merchants are on view at Psar Lu Market where fresh local produce is for sale. A drive to Phnom Penh is essential to visit the Royal Palace dating to 1868 and the Tuol Sleng Museum with its haunting photographs of those who perished under Pol Pot.
Coming back to today’s reality, you might try tasting a local delicacy, Amok trei. It’s fish coated in a thick coconut milk with kroeung—a paste of lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, galangal, rhizome, shallots, garlic and red chilies—steamed or baked in a banana leaf cup then finished with Chinese ginger and leaves from the noni tree. Foreign travelers sampling this traditional Khmer dish have coined the term “running amok”... for obvious reasons.
Cambodia is high on most travelers’ “exotic destinations” list, but not for long. Though the late bloomer among Southeast Asian countries, the stars are now aligned for a rapid acceleration of the tourism infrastructure. In a few years it’ll be you telling friends, “I remember the old Cambodia”.