“Let’s go to Cambodia.”
It is hard for me to grasp the concept of visiting Cambodia. A country that once garnered headlines in the West only for wars and mass killings is now a tourist destination. Really?
I can still recall lines from the Dead Kennedy’s 1980 single, “Holiday in Cambodia:”
Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack
(Check out a clip of this punk classic on YouTube.)
The DK’s song and the movie “The Killing Fields” speak of the time, 1975 to 1979, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge it is estimated that somewhere between 2 and 3 million people died. No one knows the exact number. To put this figure in context, in 1975 as the Pol Pot took power Cambodia’s population was 7.3 million. Of the people who died somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the deaths were by execution. Many of the executed were beaten to death with hoes and iron bars. “Bullets are not to be wasted,” was the mantra. No less cruel were the widespread deaths by starvation.
The Khmer Rouge leadership stated over the state-controlled radio that only one or two million people were needed to build a new agrarian communist utopia. They seemed bent on proving this. As for the others, those that could or would not advance the regime’s agenda, their proverb bluntly put it this way: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
Especially targeted were Buddhist monks, Muslims, Christians, Western-educated intellectuals, educated people in general, people who had contact with Western countries or with Vietnam, disabled people, and the ethnic Chinese, Laotians, and Vietnamese. Simple things like wearing glasses increased the chances of being a target. The Khmer Rouge’s purge is a human tragedy on an extraordinary scale.
Today things have changed. Cambodia is now a constitutional monarchy. Still the country is poor. In 2010, per capita GDP, calculated on purchasing power parity, is $2,470, 1/20th of the per capita GDP in the United States. Despite a limited infrastructure and persistent concerns over governmental corruption, Cambodia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, averaging 6% growth a year for the last 10 years. Today tourism accounts for 10% Cambodia’s GDP. Half of the tourism, a whopping 5% of the GDP, comes from visits to our next destination, Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is the tourist base for the exploration of Angkor’s temples. Designated on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, Ankor is celebrated as one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Amongst the area’s many temples, Angkor Wat is the most renowned. At Angkor Wat over a million tourists a year cross over a manmade lake on an ancient causeway to visit the temple.
We arrived in Siem Reap by plane from Bangkok. Siem Reap’s airport is much like airports anywhere; international airports are oases of uniformity. After clearing the immigration and customs formalities, we exited to find our tuk tuk driver, Mr. Panha. Mr. Panha was sent to meet us by our hotel, the Golden Temple.
In Siem Reap tuk tuks are comfortable open-air two-wheeled carts pulled by 125 cc two-cycle motorbikes. From the airport it took about twenty-minutes to reach the hotel. Along the way we passed through traffic that largely consisted of motorbikes and other tuk tuks.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I’m not certain why Dorothy’s line from The Wizard of Oz passed through my head on the way to the hotel. For sure we were in a different place. But here a different place was a good thing. Unless Becky had more than one cup of coffee in the morning, we would not be seeing the Wicked Witch of the West anytime soon.
When we reached the hotel we accepted Mr. Panha’s offer to be our driver for our next day’s tours. We would use his services for our entire six-day stay. The coming days were spent being ferried about the Cambodian countryside in the back of Mr. Panha’s tuk tuk as we saw the truly astounding sights of Angkor. Angkor is a truly amazing place to visit. This is a place that must be seen.
In the end Siem Reap was not unlike popular tourist destinations everywhere. The historical sites were crowded and tourists were abundant. Undoubtedly here like everywhere else the masses of tourists have negative impacts. Yet, for the Cambodian people, tourism did not seem like a bad thing. The foreign visitors might not always offer hope but they do bring one essential thing, money. A US dollar, the currency of choice here, goes a long ways here.
Now I have to wonder if it will be possible to one day visit places that I currently view as too dangerous and off limits. In twenty years, will it be possible to travel to and visit Somalia? Will we one day embark on a “Holiday in Somalia?” You never know. Today’s Cambodia, with its surprises and flaws, is proof that you cannot predict what the future might hold.