Cambodia: Introduction

  • © nneider,

    © nneider,


Cambodia is where the sugar palms grow. That is what the Khmer have said since time immemorial. The distinctive, tousled round tops of the palm trees and rice fields cover the surface of the country as far as the eye can see. Water buffalo wallow in the mud, chewing their cud and staring just as they did one thousand years ago. Cambodia is still that way today in spite of the modern countenance of Phnom Penh that all the expats living there have made seem increasingly western. Faced with the hustle and bustle of the Cambodian capital city, it is a good idea to go back to the time before the boom and the karaoke bars, massage parlours and nightclubs.

The fatal year 1975 has never been forgotten in Indochina. First, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and rang in their murderous ‘Year Zero’. Two weeks later, the capital of neighbouring Vietnam fell and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. And finally, the revolution also conquered the sleepy neighbouring country of Laos while the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot left their own country flooded in a sea of blood. Between one and two million inhabitants were murdered or died under forced labour or of hunger. From 1975 to 1979, Phnom Penh was a grim ghost town after it had been forcibly evacuated – until the Vietnamese overpowered the mass murderers in 1979 and made Phnom Penh their command headquarters in what became a satellite state for the next ten years. In the early 1990s, UN soldiers turned the city into something of a wild-west playground where dollars seemed to rain from the sky. Anarchy and chaos, corruption and kidnapping ran riot in Sihanouk’s kingdom.

After the 22,000 Blue Berets withdrew from the country at the end of 1993 following the first democratic elections, the solution for Cambodia’s future was seen in national reconciliation. The international tribunal against the last living leaders of the Khmer Rouge, which began in 2009, therefore met with little understanding from most of the Cambodians. Under the clique of politicians around Prime Minister Hun Sen (who had once deserted from the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnamese) Cambodia is now enjoying a relatively stable phase of long-awaited peace, but it is also characterised by open corruption at all levels of the administration that is unusual even by Asian standards.

After you leave the capital, you will set out on a journey through time through the real Cambodia. With its 70,000 square miles, the country is around half the size of Germany and your journey will take you over bumpy roads to remote provinces that were once forgotten by the outside world and completely controlled by the Khmer Rouge and malaria. The remote province of Ratanakiri is home to indigenous highland peoples collectively known as the Khmer Loeu, who live in the dense forests with their ancient tribal traditions. Neighbouring Mondulkiri is very sparsely populated; the hilly province is largely covered with forests of precious wood and tropical rainforest. Today, a motley assortment of people from all over the world gathers with the Khmer in Sihanoukville – the one more-or-less revived beach resort along 440km (270 miles) of coast – to go for banana-boat rides, play beach volleyball or go island hopping together; in a way, it has developed into a kind of ‘Mallorca’ for backpackers in Asia.

At first glance, idyllic rural life wherever you look

Depending on the season, the rice fields glow in dazzling green, muddy brown or golden yellow. At first sight, there is idyllic rural life wherever you look: men and women threshing rice on the fields, the checked krama cloth round wrapped around their heads like a turban, their teeth and lips blood red from the juice of betel nuts. Most of the 14 million Cambodians are farmers who live from hand to mouth – an extremely frugal existence between ox carts and stilt houses, their roofs covered with palm thatch, burdened by debt, and rice fields where countless landmines are a constant threat to life and limb. The Kingdom of Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries with an annual per-capita income of about US $810 (in 2010). In addition to agriculture (rice, cotton, coffee, maize and tobacco), the most important branches of the economy are rubber plantations, fishing, textiles and the timber industry, precious stones and gold, oil and coal.

Buddhist monasteries are the centre of community life

The pagodas are reflected in the lotus ponds near the villages. 90 percent of Cambodians follow Buddhism but animism and ancestral worship are also widespread. The Buddhist temples and monasteries have once again become the social and cultural centre of village communities – as they were before the Pol Pot era when the monks were forced to take off their robes and take their place in the columns of forced labourers (if they managed to escape immediate slaughter in the temples).

Provincial charm and rare dolphins along the Mekong

According to legend, Cambodia is a country of water. And it’s a fact: upstream, the broad Mekong actually turns into vast labyrinth of channels, islands and flooded forests illuminated by the reddish golden veil of the setting sun every evening. Visitors who are brave enough to go out with a fisherman in his longtail boat after the rainy season sometimes find it a bit eerie when they can no longer see the banks of the river through all the trees bent over by the current with fish now swimming in their crowns. The market villages on the Mekong delight with their provincial charm and rare freshwater dolphins. The Cambodians say that the Mekong tributary Tonle Sap is the only river in the world that flows backwards and this has made the Tonle Sap Lake in the middle of the country one of the most fish-rich lakes on the planet. Here the locals live in ‘floating villages’ on their houseboats and in their stilt houses that occupy the flooded landscape between the water and the sky.

Witnesses to a long-disappeared advanced civilisation

The temple city Angkor is the absolute highlight of any trip through Cambodia. Tourists stand in awe before the thousand-year-old towers, gates and pavilions and when they see the lions and snakes, the dancing asparas and warriors throwing their spears in the gallery corridors. They are testaments in stone to the long-gone advanced civilisation of the idolised Khmer kings, the deverajas. The heart of the empire, its ruins now engulfed by the jungle, was in the north of the country. During the dreadful fury of the Khmer Rouge, the temples again fell into a state of hibernation and, for a long time, it was only possible to safely visit the remote sites as part of a UN convoy – if at all. Today, tourist buses and convoys of tuktuks travel there, and you may even find yourself queuing in the middle of an ancient temple.

Many of the 2.85 million visitors to this once abused country never forget their experience. A country with so many faces – from terrifying grimaces and smiling asparas to Buddha’s wise countenance radiating hope.

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