Cambodia today: Ann Duncan photos

Mellow and agrarian, but with reminders of a dark past

| Aug 3, 2010

We experienced Cambodia primarily on a leisurely 8-day boat ride up the Mekong River out of My Tho, south of Saigon, Vietnam, then spent three days of exploring the magnificent ruins of the huge Angkor Wat complex in Siem Reap.

Despite their geographic proximity, Vietnam and Cambodia are very different socially, politically and economically. While Communist Vietnam is frenetic, urban, overpopulated, more religiously diverse, and manifesting a huge economic boom, Cambodia is rather mellow, agrarian (with only 4 cities), less densely populated (only 14.5 million people versus Vietnam’s 88 million), very poor and underdeveloped, primarily Buddhist, and has a monarchy plus parliament.

Photo gallery of Ann Duncan’s Cambodia. Click thumbnail images to enlarge.

Although the cities have congested motorbike traffic, they seem more relaxed and less chaotic than Vietnam’s. Phnom Penh’s ornate Royal Palace and exquisite National Museum were delightful, and it was fun getting around town in cyclos. On our scenic cruise up through the fertile Mekong Delta, we floated past charming bucolic scenes: wide lush landscapes, floating villages, farmers tending their gardens and rice fields, cattle and water buffalo drinking from the river, fisherman setting nets, people building boats, and women weaving silk scarves. With so few cities of any size, and a largely rural population, most Cambodians rely upon sustenance farming and fishing. Homes are quite large, usually up on stilts, and house multigenerational families, with livestock underneath.

However, pervasively permeating Cambodia’s feeling of charm and serenity were reminders of the brutal, horrific Khmer Rouge regime, which Pol Pot instigated shortly after the fall of South Vietnam. In 1975, for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days (a statistic we heard frequently) terrorized the entire population in an attempt to create an agrarian peasant society. Everyone was rounded up, driven out of the cities, and either tortured and murdered or forced into slave labor in the fields. An entire generation of intellectuals, educated people, leaders, skilled workers and Buddhist monks was wiped out; even wearing glasses made you suspect.

One third of the population (nearly 2 million people) was killed, leaving only 4 million behind, and many villages and temples were destroyed. We heard several personal tales of tragedy; it seemed that every family, including those of our excellent guides, was effected in some way by the Khmer Rouge. We had very somber, moving tours of both the S21 prison and the “Killing Fields” of Choeung Ek; it was heartbreaking and very disturbing to view the torture chambers and devices and photos of all the victims at the prison, plus the thousands of skulls which were collected and displayed in a memorial to the dead at the Killing Fields. Only seven people out of thousands survived S21. School suppressed the teaching of this gruesome period of history, so parents began to orally relay the stories of horror to their children.

Vietnamese control

In 1979 the Vietnamese took control of Cambodia, establishing some degree of peace and stability to the country for the next 10 years, but they also plundered religious sites and stole many antiquities. Today there is no love between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese; we sensed the distrust the Cambodians feel for their more wealthy, ambitious, powerful neighbors.

They are still recovering from years of war and terror, and the country remains very poor and undeveloped. Daily life is very difficult, with few modern conveniences. The life expectancy is 62. As in Vietnam, there is widespread political corruption, but the economy is stable. The Cambodians are rebuilding their villages, monasteries and temples, but it is a slow, laborious process, due to the lack of funds and artistic skill. Often this is done in a rather awkward, gaudy style. Silk-weaving is a large and lucrative industry, tourism brings in some much-needed income, and traditional Cambodian culture is making a comeback.

Our all-inclusive Pandaw cruise was lovely, complete with comfortable and well-equipped staterooms, superb service, abundant and tasty local cuisine, exotic “Cocktails of the Day,” and interesting twice-daily excursions to visit primitive villages, markets, schools and temples. Of 65 passengers, only 5 were American; the rest hailed from 11 other countries: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Scotland, France, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Thailand, and Myanmar. After the cruise, we spent 3 very full days exploring and climbing about the magnificent ruins of the sprawling Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom complex, the 8th Wonder of the World, and truly the heart and soul of Cambodia. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge spared this wonderful Hindu site built by god-kings in the 11th century. The heat was oppressive, but the ruins, with their intricate carvings and huge heads, were fascinating, especially those that have succumbed to the forces of nature, enveloped by huge gnarly tree roots.

This was an intriguing, fulfilling and easy trip – we even returned home with our luggage!. Some call Cambodia a “forgotten country,” but we feel it warrants a second visit, especially to the area around Siem Reap and Tonle Sap Lake, and we would include Laos and the highlands of Vietnam.

— Duncan Party of Two

Ann and Bill Duncan live in Boulder, where she shares her photographs through her firm, Synergraphics.

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