I have been in Cambodia for three weeks, mostly working with SeeBeyondBorders, an NGO working to develop teaching capability in early grade primary schools.
Cambodia is a country of contrasts. The people here are among the most friendly you will ever meet and yet they were subjected to a terrible genocide in the last decades of the 20th Century.
The countryside is flat, characterised by jungle, rice fields and Asian cattle wandering the roadsides.
And yet there is a vibrancy in the towns and cities like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang.
Everywhere you see the juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern. The banking system is good and you can order a tuk-tuk (a motorbike powered rickshaw) using a state-of-art hailing app on your phone (it’s called PassApp).
Cambodia is coming back to life as a tourist destination after the Covid pandemic. The numbers have not yet returned to their previous peaks but there is new energy at the tourist sites. The temples at Angkor Wat, Bayon, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and further out to Banteay Srei are all open to visitors.
It is difficult not to like the Cambodian people. They are welcoming and friendly and always willing to help. There is a wonderful calmness about the way they interact with you. Loosing one’s temper or becoming agitated is frowned upon.
While the traffic is chaotic you will not witness much road rage. People give way and concede rather than confront.
The motorbike is the main means of transport. There are motorbikes everywhere and it is quite common to see a complete family with two parents and two children on the same small bike. They don’t travel fast but everyone cuts corners and travels on the wrong side of the road!
The motorbike is the workhorse for famers, vendors and office workers alike. Motorbikes are also modified so they can pull a cart for crops or a people carriage as with the tuk-tuk.
The temple at Angkor Wat features on the Cambodian flag. It is a world heritage site and regarded as the biggest religious building in the world. Although Angkor Wat is the most widely known and visited it is just one of a collection of temples in the area around Siem Reap. They were built between the 11th and 14th centuries.
Most of the temples were originally erected as Hindu shrines however in many cases they were modified to reflect Buddhist traditions in line with the changing religious orientations of the rulers. They are exceptionally beautiful. One of my favourites is the Bayon Temple featuring many stone carved faces.
The contrasts of Cambodia abound.
For centuries, these magnificent buildings of the ancient Khmer Kings were forgotten and overrun by jungle. They were only rediscovered in the last one hundred and fifty years.
The new Cambodian nation freed itself from the colonial shackles of the declining French empire in 1953. The country used these monuments to frame a new identity. The optimism was short lived as the American war in neighbouring Vietnam spilled over into Cambodia. The country was heavily bombed by the US and this, along with other factors, destabilised the country leading to its own civil war.
The appalling regime of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot began in April 1975. They took over Phnom Penh and declared a new social order. They emptied the city forcing everyone into the countryside with no exemption for the old and the sick. It was the beginning of a dreadful time with almost a quarter of the population lost through execution, famine or sickness.
The regime tried to establish a new economic order by forcing city people to work the land. Education was replaced by indoctrination. Anyone who had a profession or qualification was targeted for elimination.
People were forced to dig huge irrigation systems intended to re-engineer rice production and agriculture. It was a disastrous plan and led to famine and extreme poverty.
Communal ownership was compulsory with private property and ownership of goods and food outlawed. Transgressors were severely punished.
The country was not completely free of the Khmer Rouge until 1999.
From those horrific times, Cambodia has experienced a remarkable recovery.
In my opinion the scars are still there under the surface, especially the psychological trauma. However, the burgeoning young population are full of energy and optimism.
Cambodia is a land of contrasts and the most noticeable of all, is overcoming despair with an optimism for the future.
This is especially true if we enhance education opportunities for Cambodian children. The dreadful legacy of the Khmer Rouge has led to the depletion of education and teaching expertise. This can and is being be rebuilt by Cambodians with the help and support of organisations such as SeeBeyondBorders. They need our support!