Cambodia. Beyond Angkor.

In November 2016, your wannabe vagabond spent a few days in Cambodia. So why Cambodia? Why Siem Reap specifically? Answer: Travel goals, bucket list, 52 page passport, Angkor Wat, the whole nine yards. Typical tourist reasons. I’m a total geek for architecture, temples and all things history. Did Angkor Wat meet my expectations? Heck yes! It was everything I expected and more. Bayon, Ta Prohm, Angkor.  Even in the endless heat and humidity (my shirt was literally dripping with sweat!) and with an occasional downpour or two, Angkor was a feast for both the eyes and mind. The detailed carvings of everyday life, Apsara dancing and other countless sculptures were magnificent. Its hard to believe it was done hundreds and hundreds of years ago and all mostly manual

Apsara Dancers at Angkor Wat

given they didn’t have modern engineering techniques. I only spent a full day visiting Angkor but could have easily spent another day or two visiting. Its huge! Siem Reap was a fun home base from which to visit the temples.  The famous French Quarter featured some delicious restaurants including many vegetarian ones featuring traditional Khmer cuisine. And of course how can I forget the fun tuk tuk rides; the drivers were friendly, sociable. Ours was kind of enough to let us make a pit stop at the Blue Pumpkin for ice cream before heading back to our hotel.  Side note: I had the ginger and black sesame ice cream. I’m all for the exotic and interesting ice cream flavors and like heck, it was good!

But apart from the ancient ruins and fun city atmosphere and a taste of modernity, I left Cambodia more curious and intrigued about its more recent history. Its a disturbing history which impacted many Cambodians, the events of which still haunt many of them today.

So this is what happened. Our local guide in Siem Reap, Rith (pronounced Rit), introduced our group to an unforgettable history of Cambodia. Rith and his family were survivors of the the massive genocide that took place during the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime. During the four year period starting from 1975, roughly a quarter of Cambodians were killed.  This was a massive genocide that sadly went on for years, led by the politician Pol Pot.

Rith is a walking talking encyclopedia of all things Cambodia. You could see both pain and pride in his eyes each time he spoke about his country. Pride when he spoke of Angkor Wat, Cambodian culture, his family, daughter and wife. Pain when he spoke of the horrors during the KR regime. During that time period, suspected enemies of KR were mysteriously taken away from their families and allegedly executed. Young children were left to die of malnutrition and poor hygiene. Families were separated, torn apart forever. The educated were immediately suspected by Pol Pot’s cronies. Persons affiliated with the past government tried to their identity, usually to no avail.  The western world and its influence on Cambodia was frowned upon. City dwellers residing in Phnom Penh were considered “evil” and were forced to “evacuate” to the farmlands.

A great resource recommended by Rith is the memoir by Loung Ung First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.). The memoir recounts the experience of Ung’s family during the brutal KR period. When the book starts out, Ung and family are just another regular family, living the good life in Phnom Penh. Things drastically change though when the Khmer Rouge reigns begins. Ung’s family is forced to leave Phnom Penh. They travel by car and then eventually by foot to the farm lands of Cambodia. They attempt to live with extended family and relatives but its deemed too dangerous. The family is then forced to “live” at a camp run by Khmer Rouge soldiers. I don’t want to give away too much detail but that’s the basic premise of the book. What’s amazing about the book are the detailed accounts of what happened to Ung’s family. Ung was one imaginative child. Since its not exactly clear what happened to certain family members and friends (the KR would just take away people and they would never show up again) Ung and her over imaginative mind would reenact some moments and imagine what someone was going through…she would have make-believe conversations in her head.  In a nutshell, Ung (and family) epitomized resiliency, bravery, ingenuity. Thanks to such traits, she was able to survive the horrific genocide and share her story with the world.

I highly recommend the book as an introduction to the more recent history of Cambodia. Its a fairly straightforward read and not really academic. When reading the book, you feel like you’re a part of Ung’s family, can sense their struggles and pain. It almost feels personal. That feeling can to attributed to the power of Ung’s writing style. On a side note, there is also a film adaption expected to come out in early 2017 on Netflix. Its directed by actress Angeline Jolie and you can probably find more details online (aka Google know-it-all).

If you decide to read the book, watch the film or both, message me and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think.

P.S. I’d love to go back to Siem Reap to run the Angkor Wat Half Marathon which takes place in December in the future. Travel + Run Goals = One Happy Wannabe Vagabond. But that’s for another day and year.

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