Having never previously spent over 48 hours in Cambodia, I was blown away on my last visit there by the people. Living in Laos for six months had provided me with a certain preconception about how the local Cambodian people would be. But as silly as saying “Germans are like the French” and “Kiwis are like Ozzies” the Cambodians are greatly different to the people of Laos. I have been humbled by what can only be explained as an extraordinarily calm and worldly people. I would say that if we had some good grassroots Cambodians running the world it would be a better place.
The source for this tranquil-nature is quite an antithesis. It stems (and this is from many a conversation about it with the Cambodian people themselves) from the atrocious period of suffering that occurred in the country during the 1970s. This was when the Khmer Rouge and brother number 1 Pol Pot were at the height of their power. An oppression of not only culture but any outwardly extroverted, even intellectual, behaviour was destined to bring the perpetrator of these acts to ‘re-education’ (read: death). The wildly extreme vision of communism saw thousands executed in the most appalling fashion and many thousands more die from poor living standards. General estimates put the casualties at 2 million. People who were allowed to live, did so in abysmal conditions, feeding themselves on one bowl of rice a day provided by their new “government”.
However in 2013, travelling through this beautifully green, orange and blue coloured country you would have very little to gauge that most people have either lived through or have been directly affected by this evil. In fact it is the complete opposite. The people are charming and are more than happy (admittedly not in general public areas, due to a fear of ”you never know who could be listening”) to discuss their hardships and story with any travellers. The most amazing act, of all of this, is the survivors of the Khmer Rouge. While most harbour some very cold and chilling stories about loved ones, no one at any stage said that revenge on the perpetrators would be a good thing. Why? Because that would simply create more conflict. And it is this fact that makes the Cambodian people so astonishing to be around. They can knowingly live near a soldier that they know killed some of their family, but for the greater good of the people of Cambodia, and of course Buddha and the karma that makes the world work, they choose to instead leave this conflict back when it occurred.
Such behaviour is just about unheard of in the rest of the world. That so many people can be so amiable about it really does speak bounds for Cambodia. It warms the soul to think that these people live in what is still a poor country but can live such a happy life and be so open as to want to discuss it with foreigners. A small token of knowledge that will undoubtedly go to the grave with me was imparted (via a translator) by an old Cambodian fisherman:
“If we dwell on past mistakes we run the risk of repeating them, if we choose to remember, talk and learn from them, then history is all that they will be”.
Cambodia, go there and talk to someone.
If you’re thinking about travelling to Cambodia, take a look at Stray Khmer Pass.