It was a long ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, but the public bus was reasonably comfortable and we were entertained by a couple of Charlie Chaplin movies (The Kid and The Great Dictator), followed by the outrageously violent Ninja Assassin (think Kill Bill with a bad plot, overdubbed by a single, female voice in expressionless Khmer). The movies were profoundly, almost eerily, apropos to the recent history of Vietnam and, as I soon would learn, Cambodia.
One of our quests seems to be to try every conceivable mode of transport. For our first excursion in Phnom Penh, we traveled by cyclo. The hardworking drivers pedaled us through rush-hour traffic to the palace grounds, the river promenade, the temple grounds, etc., and finally dropped us off at a restaurant for dinner.
Aside from our cyclo drivers, everyone we saw was young. They looked … serious. Closed down? Sad? Weary? There was an intangible heaviness to them. I decided I needed to brush up on the history of Cambodia so I could understand what I was seeing.
In a few words, Cambodia was weakened and exploited by China, the USSR, and the US as a pawn in the war in neighboring Vietnam, which ultimately resulted in civil war for many years. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge gained control and instituted a brutal regime as they attempted to transform the country in accordance with the vision of their leader, Pol Pot, to an agrarian society of simple, uneducated peasants. They killed everyone who didn’t conform to this “ideal,” including doctors, teachers, clerics, artists; basically, anyone who was educated or skilled, had ever traveled abroad, was fair-skinned, or didn’t look and act like a farmer. They also destroyed any surviving industrial infrastructure. According to Wikipedia,
In many areas of the country people were rounded up and executed for speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, scavenging for food, and even crying for dead loved ones. Former businessmen and bureaucrats were hunted down and killed along with their entire families; the Khmer Rouge feared that they held beliefs that could lead them to oppose their regime. A few Khmer Rouge loyalists were even killed for failing to find enough ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to execute.
Modern research has located 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia.
Up to four million people —roughly 25% of the population— died during this period, about half due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.
And did I mention the land mines? Or the birth defects from chemical weapons? The maimed and malformed are everywhere.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013