In order to understand what a first-time visitor sees when being in Siem Reap, the city that serves as the entrance to Angkor, it’s pretty useful to know a little about what’s been going on in Cambodia for the last centuries.
After hosting the ancient world’s biggest city (Angkor), in which more than one million people lived during centuries 10th and 13th (nowadays Cambodia is populated by circa 15 million people), and being the epicentre of a powerful empire and civilization, the downturn of Angkor leads to a series of centuries, starting in the 15th century, in which Cambodia managed to survive under different types of regimes (from dictatorship through to republic, kingdom and protectorate) and names. Religion, for sure, has helped Cambodians find resilience and inner peace to keep up with their lives.
The main two reasons that experts do agree with for explaining the downturn of such an empire are corruption and ecological disaster caused by the dilapidation of the natural resources of the region with which all the temples, palaces and monuments that we admire and instagram nowadays were built.
In 1975, and following more than seven centuries of being invaded and ruled by Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, French people and corrupt kings and governments, Pol Pot, a Khmer fellow educated in Paris, and his Khmers Rouges took over power.
Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK) dystopia, that claimed the lives of more than 1.7 million people (around 25% of the population) during the 4-year terms of office, was based in the following main pillars:
- Agrarian socialism. Cities were parasitic growths and hotbeds of spies, foreign ideologies and capitalism, a terrible place, indeed. Thus, everyone had to abandon the cities and live in the countryside working in collective farms.
- Families were split up. There was no freedom of movement and no freedom to choose one’s occupation.
- Markets and currency were abolished.
- Education and healthcare were abolished. In Pol Pot’s words, “Our school is the farm. The land is our paper. The plow is our pen. We don’t need doctors. They are not necessary, if someone needs to have their intestines removed, I will do it”.
- Religion was prohibited and monks defrocked and put to work.
- Ignorance was virtue. Anyone wearing spectacles was considered an intellectual and, thus, an enemy of the people.
During the four years this “social experiment” took place, something in between 1.7 and 2 million people passed away, due to famine, illnesses and execution. During the 70’s, Cambodia population fell by 30%.
After the barbarism that western societies suffered and witnessed during both world wars, it’s just unbearable to think about the disaster that took place in this part of the planet just a few decades ago with the rest of the world just staring at it as if a cataclysm was not going on, at all.
After DK, a republic period (People’s Republic of Kampuchea, PRK) and Vietnamese occupation took place, in which education, currency and healthcare were reestablished. In 1992 the UN was given a mandate to enforce the ceasefire and deal with refugees through the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), and the kingdom was restored.
Nowadays, still among the poorest and most corrupted countries in the world, Cambodia is steadily trying to recover through its fastest growing industry: tourism.
Khmer people’s kindness and good will to make you feel great and easy do of course help, and I urge everyone to go discover and enjoy a fascinating country with some of the most loving and reliable inhabitants I’ve ever met.
However, I do also think that WE as visitors have a great amount of responsibility when choosing how to do so. We, as consumers, travellers or lovers, have the power of choice. It means that, during our journey, we can choose hospitality businesses (accommodation, F&B or spas) that use and take care of the natural resources of Cambodia with a responsible approach over the ones that throw all the trash away to the rivers and countryside of this once gem of nature. We can also choose souvenir pieces made by businesses that employ local people and ensure them a good salary and healthcare and education services over the ones made in China or restaurants in which Khmer food (and ingredients) have prevalence over those imported. For instance, Vegemite toasts, Argentinian huge steaks or Italian delicious pasta dishes.
I’m a traveller and do know that it might be difficult to identify these businesses, but just being aware of this makes a significant difference and book guides and websites on the topic are available within easy reach.
I think tourism can really be a game changer in today’s Cambodia, but it requires a little bit of effort (and satisfaction) from our side and not just go there, take a bunch of pictures that will look great in our social media profiles and brand new living room white wall and cross off Cambodia from your ultimate bucket list. It’s just a more conscious way of travelling the world, and so, so much more rewarding.
I just can’t wait to be back there!