I’m sitting here on the porch of a rural family homestay in Angk Ta Saom, Cambodia surrounded by mango trees, coconut palms, and lotus flowers. The chickens are leading their chicks through the property while the three dogs are basking in the afternoon sun. A symphony of birds add to the faint whisper of the traditional music being played in a field nearby. To the right of me are two family gravesites, one of which was erected for a member of the family killed during the Pol Pot regime of the 70’s.
Earlier today Audra and I took a scenic bike ride getting lost amidst the rice farms scattered with happy cows that had been left to graze after the rice had just been harvested. As we rode past houses, kids would shout so proudly “Hello!” and we would respond with huge smiles on our faces. We passed a school just as the kids were leaving and continued riding with the “rush hour” of kids (2 or 3 to a bike) riding home for lunch as they too smiled at us and proudly demonstrated their English prowess.
We returned home to a meal of rice (grown here), soup, stir fried kale, fried eggplant (again grown here), French fries, and pineapple. The home cooked food here is so much better than the restaurants we’ve experienced. Later today, we’ll be learning how to make organic yellow dye with onion peels There are several weavers employed by the homestay which will use the naturally-dyed cotton to make colorful scarves to sell in Phnom Penh.
I can’t help but be reminded of my first time to Central America living with a family in a rural mountain town of Honduras. Or even the following times doing service trips in northern Nicaragua. The tropical feel, the agricultural communities, the hospitality, and the happiness.
But I can’t forget the history lessons I’ve learned either.
Cambodia from the 9th – 16th centuries.
The city of Siem Reap is a major tourist destination because it’s the jumping off point to the ancient temples of the Khmer Empire, most notably Angkor Wat. The temples were all part of an elaborate network which made up the largest metropolis in pre-industrial history.
We decided to hire a local Tuk Tuk driver to take us around to the temples for 2 days. At a price for around $20 a day, he’ll take you anywhere you want to go, drop you off, wait, take you to the next place (or places), finally returning you home many hours later. It’s just the best way to travel in this region.
We visited many temples: Ta Prohm has been unrestored and is the best example of nature reclaiming what man had created. Angkor Thom is a large city with the multi-tiered Baphoun temple rising from the center and an Elephant Terrace in the front. Bayon temple is iconic because its countless spires are each made with 4 “smiling Buddha” faces looking in each direction. Angkor Wat is easily recognizable from afar, but its real beauty lies in the detailed etchings of battles 100 or so meters long on each side of the base.
Cambodia in the 1960’s and 70’s
One other stop we made while visiting the temples was the Land Mine museum. This was the first place where we started to learn about the more recent grim history. During this period, millions of land mines were placed all around Cambodia by several parties: Vietnamese, Khmer Rouge, Americans, and Cambodians. They were designed to injure, rather than kill, the enemy so they had to spend time and resources helping the wounded. They can stay armed almost indefinitely, and there was no record kept of where they were placed. This (along with unexploded bombs dropped from the US) led to 1 out of every 300 people in the country being a victim of a disfiguring explosion. Maybe it was a kid throwing what looks like a shiny rock against a stump, or maybe a farmer trying to till his land. Because of the non-discriminatory nature of landmines, most countries have agreed to a ban on their use. But there are still many that haven’t including Russia, China, India, and the USA.
I mentioned that there were bombs dropped by the USA onto Cambodia. Why? The USA and Cambodia weren’t at war. This was the time that the USA was at war with Vietnam. Northern Vietnam was supplying southern Vietnam via a serious of trade routes that ran through Cambodia. Naturally, this wasn’t good for the U.S., so we started a “secret war” in which we carpet bombed a large section of rural Cambodia. Thousands (even tens of thousands by some estimates) of innocent Cambodian citizens were killed.
But the worst part of the campaign is what followed. Millions of Cambodians were affected and started to fear and hate the capitalist Americans. They ran into the welcoming arms of the Cambodian communists: the Khmer Rouge. With so much popularity, the Khmer Rouge was welcomed into the capital city Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975, effectively ending Cambodia’s own civil war and claiming the country (named Kampuchea under the KR) for this communist movement. Audra and I went to Phnom Penh to learn more about this part of their history.
The next 4 years was the darkest period in this country’s long history. Under the leadership of French educated Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge had a goal of creating an agrarian utopia. They told citizens of each city that the USA was going to be targeting the cities next. Everyone was ordered to quickly pack up and leave for the countryside. People agreed and were told they could return in 3 days. Millions of people were relocated (willingly misled) overnight. The first part of the plan was a success for the Khmer Rouge.
Of the 12,000 – 20,000 prisoners wrongfully detained at S-21, only TWELVE survived.
But prisoners weren’t supposed to die due to the torture. Soldiers were not allowed to let them die. When they were finished with the prisoners, the KR led them to one of hundreds of “killing fields” around the country. We visited one in Phnom Penh. Pits were dug and patriotic music blared from loudspeakers to cover up the sounds of horror coming from here. Innocent people were dropped off by the busload, often filled with hope that they were being led away from prison. They were forced to stand or kneel by the pit. Bullets made too much noise and cost too much money, so the soldiers used clubs, rods, or machetes. I’m filled with raw emotion, sadness, and anger right now as I’m writing.
By the time Vietnamese and Thai armies liberated the people of Cambodia in 1979, the damage had been done.
Around 2-3 million people (25% of the population, or 1 in every 4 people of Cambodia) were killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
So now what?!
Well, I’m not really sure. Knowledge is power. I’m glad I learned this to go along with stories of genocide in Bosnia and the sad parts of Poland’s history.
If you’d like to learn more about the Khmer Rouge era, I suggest the movie, “First They Killed My Father”. It’s a gripping story told through the eyes of a young girl through it all. The cinematography is beautiful and powerful. The facts are pretty dead on too (according to what we learned from our visits to 3 different museums).
I’ve also heard “The Killing Fields” is an informative watch.
They say we need to learn about dark periods of history in order to avoid it happening again. I can only hope that the interconnectedness we experience and access to information due to the internet will help. I also hope that the audience reading this might be better informed and filled with a sense of empathy for people they’ve never met and just recently learned about.
Back to Reality
At the Meas Homestay, life is pretty good. We heard stories of the KR times from the mother and we’re thankful that she’s open about her experiences (although it would be completely understandable if she wasn’t). Linda, her daughter, runs many projects that help improve the quality of life of people in the local community. Overall, people seem happy.
But it’s hard to ignore the poverty throughout the country. After all, what can you expect when the knowledge of the highly educated sector was almost completely eliminated?! All this being said, Audra and I feel very safe here. People don’t try to scam us like in Thailand. Locals still like to have fun. We got the chance to visit a Muay Thai Boxing match in Phnom Penh.
After coming from Thailand (and Malaysia), the food just doesn’t match up. It’s fine, but it lacks the excitement from the spice. The curries here are sweet. In addition, there’s beef Lok Lak (beef cubes in a peppery gravy) and fish amok (similar to a fish curry). There isn’t as much variety as we’d like.
As we head south the food gets better. Pepper is used as the spicy element for their dishes and we look forward to visiting a pepper plantation in the next few days. After the homestay (yes, it’s taken me a few days to write this) we arrived in Kampot, a town on the southern coast. It's famous for it's fresh peppered crab. We both ate this yesterday and we FINALLY had a memorable meal in Cambodia! Soo GOOD!
Back in Time - Malaysia
For posterity’s sake, I don’t want to forget about the 5 day stopover we made in Kuala Lumpur before Cambodia. The Malaysian capital city was a hodgepodge of cultures, cuisines, and curvy roads with no sign of forward thought given to city planning.
We stayed at an AirBnB in the heard of KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center). We could see Kuala Lumpur tower from our window. Downstairs we were greeted with the cuisine of Little India. Indian food is insane! We had no idea what to order, so we just told the guy to pack up a sampling of whatever he recommends. We filled our table with 6 or 7 different dishes and types of naan break all for around $5.
Our place was a short walk from the Petronas Towers: the tallest twin towers in the world and the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. Also close by was their Chinatown, filled with vendors and delicious food (including the most amazing beef noodle soup).
We walked to their central park (Lake Gardens) and went to the largest in-flight aviary in the world. This is well worth the visit if you want to see the colorful birds of this region
Also worth visiting is Batu Caves. You have to take a train here (but it’s only like $2 each way). Batu caves is a Hindu temple high in a beautiful cavern. It’s a popular pilgrimage area for people who practice the religion.
As always, thanks for reading!!! We’re headed to Vietnam next.
Audra and Kevin Arendt: Digital Nomads, World Travelers, and Midwestern Americans. To learn more, see About.