Cambodia is a gorgeous country and one of the most unique places to see some truly wondrous things. But it’s also without a doubt, the country with the most tragic history I’ve ever visited – probably due to the fact that it’s largely unsung.
One of the cognitive pitfalls of people is that we tend to value those similar or closer to us more than those who are different or far away. That’s why it feels worse that almost 70 people died in Texas during Hurricane Harvey than it does that 6,300 people died in the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan. (Have you even heard of Typhoon Haiyan? No? Exactly.) So when it comes to national tragedies, knowledge (and thus emotional investment) about the wars, genocide, and poverty of a country like Cambodia ranks pretty low.
Most of us know about the horrors of the Holocaust, but few are aware that roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was brutally murdered between 1975 and 1979 during the Khmer Rouge regime. Much less so that Cambodia was so heavily littered with landmines that even now in 2018, people still lose their lives and their limbs if they wander into the wrong part of the countryside.
The most difficult thing about traveling in Cambodia is without a doubt how recent all this is and how it still impacts the people. Cambodians go about their lives, despite having to run their shop without arms and despite the fact that many of the people responsible for the deaths of their family members were never brought to justice. In fact, while we were there on November 16, the last two living leaders of the Khmer Rouge were finally found guilty of genocide, by a tribunal that was only established in 2001. Members of the Khmer Rouge were still politically active until the late 90s. This is precisely the kind of thing that happens when the world isn’t watching.
Though it’s a big part of the tourism industry in Cambodia, we decided not to go to the Killing Fields or to the Khmer Rouge prison. One of our tour guides mentioned in passing that her mother’s sister and husband died there, and that they go there several times a year to pray for them. This is, after all, the only place where their known remains could be. That’s a thought I couldn’t shake. Because if I were her, I wouldn’t want my grief to be a tourist attraction. I wouldn’t want foreigners literally treading on the bones of people I knew and loved.
The Killing Fields are not like a cemetery, which I do morbidly enjoy visiting, where people were laid to rest surrounded by loved ones, often in the ornate mausoleums they picked out in life. It’s a place where people were brutally beat to death and piled up among other Cambodians. And it’s not ancient history – these were children and adults that would otherwise still be alive today. Despite not having visited the sites themselves, the general heaviness of the history did weigh heavily on me. It still does.
Maybe my favorite thing about the country is how amazing the people are. Even though they’ve suffered so much, they’re not jaded or angry. They actually live really happy lives full of kindness and respect toward one another and toward outsiders. We felt welcome and taken care of everywhere we went. I loved how readily they share parts of their culture, including their beliefs, their food, and their traditions.
When you visit Cambodia, whether you spend time delving into the horrible acts committed against its people or not, I think it’s important not to ignore their culture outside of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians have a rich and vibrant culture; they’re not a country full of victims. They’re skilled craftsmen and delicious cooks. They’re devout to their faith, and always willing to share it with you. They’re kind, honest, and thoughtful, even to strangers. That made traveling in Cambodia an absolute joy. Knowing the context in which their culture thrives, you can also see just how resilient they are.
Since we’re just about wrapping up the year, I have to say, Cambodia was my favorite destination of 2018 (just edging out the Algarve and Macedonia). We live in dark times, and it’s hard not to feel a little hopeless and a lot furious when all you hear about is hate and violence. Cambodia is the kind of place that gives you perspective – something we all desperately need every so often. It shows you that it’s possible to rise above the horribleness all around us and to even be perfectly content in spite of it.