In 1984, Hollywood made the movie ‘The Killing Fields’. This was the story of Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times reporter in Cambodia, and his Cambodian interpreter/aide/friend, Dith Pran. The movie told their stories from 1973 to 1979. In the opening scene, Schanberg’s character refers to Cambodia as “a country I grew to love and to pity”. It is easy for us to understand both of those feelings.
Cambodia’s history has been both grand and tragic. Unfortunately, the grandeur was in centuries long past, and the tragedies have been recent. They are recovering.
The Cambodian people are called Khmers. Some believe that early Khmers were from China and India. Others believe their origins were in the Southeast Asian islands of Indonesia and Malaysia. Regardless, archeologists have determined that eastern Cambodia has been populated since at least 1500 BC.
The first Khmer kingdom – the Funan Empire – arose in the 1st century AD. This sophisticated civilization was highly influenced by India, and they adopted Sanskrit, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu were highly revered.
The Funan Empire declined and was replaced by the Chenla Empire in the 6th century. The often chaotic Chenla Empire ruled until the beginning of the 9th century.
In the early 9th century, King Jayavarman II assumed the throne and declared himself devaraja, or god-king. This began the line of god-kings who would build the many temples of Angkor. God-kings would rule in to the 15th century.
The capital was first moved to Angkor in the late 9th century by King Yasovarman I. However, after his death it was moved away from Angkor, and it continued to move with changes of rule. Consequently, many temples were built away from Angkor. Then Suryavarman I assumed the throne and returned the capital to Angkor in the early 11th century.
King Suryavarman II ruled from 1112 to 1150, and Angkor was at its peak of power and influence during his reign. During these years, Cambodia grew to encompass much of Vietnam and Thailand, and Angkor Wat was built to honor the Hindu god Vishnu.
Then Chams from Vietnam sacked Angkor in 1177. It was not restored to Khmer power until Jayavarman VII drove out the Chams in 1181.
Jayavarman VII would be the last great king of Angkor. He was also the kingdom’s most prolific builder. Although he is known for building the magnificent Angkor Thom, he also built hundreds of temples, hospitals, and other buildings across his empire.
There were five more god-kings after Jayavarman VII, but their influences were comparatively minor. In 1432, the Siam kingdom captured Angkor, and the Khmers left.
Over the next 400 years, the Khmers were often at war with the Thais or Vietnamese, and they continued to lose territory. When they were not at war, they alternated between short-lived periods of relative independence and being a vassal state of either the Thai or Vietnamese king.
The French had established their colonial rule of Vietnam before Cambodia’s King Norodom, who had been installed by Thailand, sought French protection in 1863. The French agreed only if King Norodom signed a treaty making Cambodia a French protectorate. Then, in 1884, under threat of cannon fire, King Norodom signed another treaty making Cambodia a French colony.
Cambodia was administered as part of the French colony of Indochina. However, King Norodom Sihanouk, the successor to the original King Norodom, left Cambodia in 1953 and refused to return until the French left. Somewhat embarrassed by the international attention, the French withdrew. Cambodia regained its independence on November 9, 1953.
The Cambodians had become very bitter toward their French colonizers, and they credited King Norodom Sihanouk with forcing the French out and restoring Cambodian independence. The Cambodians loved their king, and most developed a blind allegiance toward him – an allegiance that would have grave consequences.
King Norodom Sihanouk was a hero, and he was also an astute politician. Pressure was building for Cambodia to be ruled by an elected head of state rather than a monarchy, so in 1955, the king abdicated the throne in favor of his father. King Norodom Sihanouk ran for and was readily elected Prime Minister. When his father died in 1960, he reclaimed the throne. He had undisputed power as prime minister and king.
King Norodom Sihanouk declared Cambodia ‘neutral’ in the growing conflict between Vietnam and the US. However, he raised the ire of the US by maintaining friendly relations with communist China at the same time that the US was battling communist North Vietnam. The US supported General Lon Nol whose followers overthrew Sihanouk in 1970. Two profound events followed – events that changed the course of Cambodian history.
The first event was the US bombing then invasion of Cambodia. In its effort to flush out the Viet Cong, the US bombed alleged Viet Cong bases and supply routes inside Cambodia. Troops also briefly invaded eastern Cambodia. Many Cambodians were killed, and two million were made refugees. Surviving Cambodians blamed the US-backed Non Lol government for allowing this.
The second event was King Norodom Sihanouk, in exile in Beijing, realigning himself with the Khmer Rouge – communist rebels who were intent on overthrowing the now-despised government of Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge had the support of the beloved King Norodom Sihanouk, and therefore, they also had the support of most of the Cambodian populace.
The stage was set for the Khmer Rouge to overthrow Lon Nol’s government. However, no one could have predicted the horror that would follow.
In April of 1975, screaming soldiers armed with automatic weapons invaded the capital of Phnom Penh. They told the populace that Phnom Penh was about to be bombed by the US, and everyone must evacuate immediately taking nothing more than they could carry. They would be allowed to return in three days. A mass exodus to the countryside ensued.
They were not allowed to return. A nation of refugees was organized in to slave labor camps in an effort to achieve the crazed revolutionary dream of their leader, Pol Pot. He was an ultra-Maoist who wanted to turn the country in to an agrarian utopia. Schools were abolished. Western medicine was discarded. All literacy, arts, and religion were prohibited. Two million civilians were murdered.
The horrors of those years – 1975 to 1979 – are beyond the scope of this site. However, if any reader is unaware of the crimes against humanity that occurred in Cambodia during those years, they are encouraged to learn about it. It was Georges Santayana who said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, and this must never be repeated.
While most of the world looked away, the Vietnamese did not. Vietnamese within Cambodia were being executed solely because of their ethnicity. Consequently, Vietnam invaded Cambodia on December 25, 1978. The Khmer Rouge fell on January 7, 1979. Pol Pot escaped.
But it was not yet over. The failed agricultural practices of the Khmer Rouge created a severe famine that killed nearly a million survivors of the regime. Also, small holdouts of the Khmer Rouge were scattered about the country, and they continued to fight sporadically throughout the 1980s. Vietnam finally withdrew the last of its troops in 1989, and a peace settlement was made in October, 1991.
An interesting mix of political parties emerged from the rubble. Some of their leaders include:
Not surprisingly, political instability persisted, and the UN stepped in. When thousands of troops returned to Cambodia, the sex industry exploded, and Cambodia now has the highest incidence of AIDs in Asia.
One does not have to probe to see the scars on the Cambodian landscape and people. They have not yet been a decade without war in their land. Their transition is likely to take some time.
Cambodia is comprised of nearly 70,000 square miles. Their neighbors are Thailand to the west and north, Laos to the northeast, and Vietnam to the east and southeast. They also have a 275 mile coastline along the Gulf of Thailand to the south and southwest. Cambodia is divided in to twenty provinces and four municipalities.
Possibly Cambodia’s most interesting geographic feature is Tonle Sap Lake. This lake is approximately 1,000 square miles during the dry season, but it swells to nearly 10,000 square miles at the peak of the rainy season. This area is densely populated and devoted to wet rice cultivation, and it provides Cambodians with 80% of their protein from fish.
Cambodia’s population is approximately 14 million. More than 90% of the population is Khmer origin. The remaining 10% include Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, and Indians. The recent years of war have had a marked influence on the population age. The median age is only 20.6, and more than half the population is younger than 25.
The capital of Cambodia is Phnom Penh. Its population is approximately 1.5 million.
The Khmer language is spoken throughout Cambodia, and some French and English is also spoken. French is spoken by some of the older population – a legacy of French colonization – and English is spoken by many of the younger Cambodians.
Theravada Buddhism is practiced by 95% of the population. Islam is practiced by 3% and Christianity by 2%.
Cambodia’s economy was devastated – essentially eliminated – during the Khmer Rouge years (money was illegal), and it showed little recovery in the 1980s. It began to recover in the 1990s, but it slowed in the late 1990s due to the regional economic crisis, civil violence, and political infighting. Foreign investment and tourism also declined drastically. However, 1999 was Cambodia’s first full year of peace in 30 years, and their economic growth has been steady since.
Cambodia regained self-sufficiency in rice production in 2000, and their people are no longer starving. Eighty-five percent of Cambodians live off the land – farmers, weavers, or fishermen. However, Cambodia remains a poor country – even by Southeast Asian standards.
Cambodian currency is the Riel (KHR). One US dollar is equivalent to approximately 4,000 KHR.
Cambodia’s main industries include textiles, tourism, rice milling, fishing, rubber, cement, and gem mining. Their fastest growing industry is tourism.
Tourism is their second-greatest source of hard currency after the textile industry. The number of visitors increased almost fivefold from 1997 to 2004, and more visitors fly in to Siem Reap – home of the Angkor temples – than to the capital in Phnom Penh.
Although tourism dollars are increasing, foreign investment is limited by fears of political instability and government corruption. These problems have also delayed foreign aid.
Formally, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy. The monarchy was reestablished in 1993, and King Norodom Sihanouk was reinstated as king. Sihanouk abdicated in 2004, and one of his sons succeeded him – King Norodom Sihamoni. The monarchy, however, is symbolic and does not exercise political power. The power is with the Prime Minister, Hun Sen.
We arrived in Cambodia aboard the RV Mekong Pandaw as we traveled up the Mekong River (see itinerary). We disembarked at least once daily, and, in our usual travel style, we talked with the locals as best as our language differences allowed. We came away with some strong beliefs.
The Cambodians are glad to be alive. We did not meet one Cambodian who did not lose at least one member of their immediate family to the Khmer Rouge. One of our guides lost his grandfather, father, and all of his brothers. He is the only surviving male. He is grateful that he has any family remaining.
The Cambodians are happy to have food to eat. They know what hunger feels like. They work hard to produce their food, and they eat simply. They can find contentment in having family and food.The Cambodians are markedly different from the Vietnamese in that the Cambodians do not have the ambition for wealth common in Vietnam. The values of the Cambodian are more basic – food, shelter, family. Few in Cambodia, other than some government officials, have had the luxury of pursuing material wealth.
The Cambodians are fully aware that their government is a thinly-veiled dictatorship, but they fear the consequences of trying to change it. The Khmer Rouge is still a fresh wound. They are reluctant to talk about their frustrations because they fear retribution if they are critical. However, when they feel safe, they seem to enjoy expressing pent up frustrations. One of our guides who opened up to us spoke only in hushed tones and stopped talking when others came near. The Cambodians believe that their government is as corrupt as ever and thoroughly self-serving. They are relieved that the killing has stopped, but they do not see an end to the corruption and repression.
The Cambodians have come a very long ways. They have a long ways to go
We met a lot of people, and we saw many of Cambodia’s sights. We saw sights as magnificent as Angkor Wat and as dismal as the killing fields in Choeung Ek. We understand Sydney Schanberg’s feelings about Cambodia – a country that one learns “to love and to pity”.
Follow us as we travel up the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers or jump ahead to Siem Reap.