Cambodia Mini-Geography Lesson

Cambodia is a country with a rich historical and cultural background. It was a collection of Indianized states in the 3rd , 4th, and 5th centuries absorbing influences from India and spreading culture and knowledge to present day Thailand and Laos. By the 9th century A.D the Khmer empire was a mighty powerhouse with huge influence in Southeastern Asia. The mighty capital of Angkor was built-in those times to rule over the kingdom. Researchers claim that Angkor was the world’s largest pre-industrial city , spanning over 1,000 miles and capable of supporting up to a million people. I was awestruck the entire time I was in Angkor and wish I could see in during its peak. When the crumbling ruins (being restored and preserved) were at their mightiest. When all the towers , spires , intricately carved murals , and statues were new and at their most intimidating. I can only imagine how a visitor from a rural village might have felt when he came upon the stone bridge lined with larger than life carved stone guards holding a serpent acting as a railing which bridged the moat leading to the super-intricately carved murals and strikingly beautiful nymphs smiling mysteriously downwards. The nymphs with a mysterious smile and eyes just beckoning you in. Who were these people who made this temples almost 1,000 years ago??

After the decline of the Khmer empire in the 15th century it has been a kind of dark ages for the Khmer people with the culmination in the 1975-1979 massive destruction of the country. Ever since the Angkor kings fell it has been a tale of subjugation to neighboring kingdoms/countries , colonial rule by the French , bombing and mining of the country by the Americans , and then Pol Pot’s maniacal rule. Things have only started turning around in 1993 when the last Khmer Rouge fighters started to lay down their weapons. In the last decade Cambodia has been the amount of visitors explode ( not with bombs but with numbers) in 1993 there were 118,183 international tourists, and in 2009 there were 2,161,577 international tourists making tourism the #2 economic staple after textiles. Direct foreign investments are also taking off with China leading the way. All over Cambodia (I also saw this while in Laos) there are Chinese companies buildings bridges , roads , and factories. Signs with Chinese characters proudly proclaim the investments and improvements alongside these projects. The amount of Chinese tourists has also dramatically increased as China’s economy has created a huge middle class with enough money to travel to other countries and as the Chinese government has loosened travel restrictions for its own people.

For an example of how insane the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were think about this , the Rouge wanted to created an egalitarian agricultural society and evacuated the cities. The villagers that grew food and crops didn’t get to keep their own produce. It was centrally redistributed but often the government would sell the food to other countries to get cash for war supplies. They exported rice to China while hundreds of thousands of people starved to death. They also distrusted anyone with an education. If you wore glasses (cuz ya know that makes you smart) you were killed , teachers , doctors , and engineers all were executed. Let’s kill all the engineers and then have the farmers build dams , totally good idea! People were tortured to give false confessions of being CIA spies and then their whole families were murdered as well. All in all the Khmer Rouge exterminated nearly 1/3 of the entire population of the country at the time. 2.3 million out of 8 million people is a commonly quoted number.

All this happened so recently (1975-1979) that whenever you meet the old three-toothed man with the huge smile and the super friendly attitude you know that he was made to endure all that. He saw his country f***ed completely over and he surely knew so many that died. This kind old man had to be separated in his family and live in communes while people were executed all around him. It really breaks the heart. My Cambodian friend I met was only 28 years old. That means he was conceived not too long after the madness was quelled. He was probably born then because his parents thought it was finally safe to have a child. You see the Khmer Rouge spared no one. They would murder babies by smashing them into trees because it was believed they were a drain of resources , had nothing to give, and since the Rouge murdered his mother, father , sister , and brothers , perhaps when he grew up he would want revenge.  Parts of the country are still heavily landmined and you will see limbless people wandering around and begging. These mines are the fault of the U.S as well the Rouge but the effects of war are super evident. Crazy , crazy , stuff.

Like I said before , things are looking up for the Cambodian people ( over 50% under age 21). Dollars from abroad , more tourism , skyscrapers being built-in Phnom Penh , the future finally looks good!

I’ll go more into the natural landscape and information about the cities in upcoming posts. Soon, soon!! I promise!



Cambodia Bound

Well the weather is getting colder , the grey cloudy winter days are tinged with pollution, my bicycle hasn’t seen much action lately, the folks are getting burnt out at work, and Santa Clauses are around every corner. Winter has been descending on Shanghai. I’m not nearly as delirious as last year when I had been working 4 months straight weekdays and weekends. I was about to completely lose it until I took a much needed (and well-deserved) month long vacation to the Philippines (Amazing place , I’ll tell ya more about it later).

This year with Chinese New Year fast approaching , I’m preparing for a two week journey to Cambodia! Since I’m working at a kindergarten and we double as a school and baby sitting facility I don’t have a full month off like I did last year. Two weeks can’t match a month but hey no more complaining. One of these weeks I still receive salary too. Woo hooo! The financial situation won’t quite be as dire as last year.

Tickets are already purchased and E-visas are in hand. I’ve never acquired a visa in a manner like this before. Merely visit the Kingdom of Cambodia’s foreign affairs website , , fill out the application , upload a photo, use a credit card , and bam three days later get an e-visa. Print it out , take it with you to Phnom Penh international airport , bypass the wait for visa lines , and customs officers stick a fresh visa in yo passport. Arriving in the Philippines I was granted 21 days free stay with a simple stamp in my passport , in Laos I got my visa upon arrival at the border ,and China visas involve a lot more money and work.

$25 USD for one month tourist visa to Cambodia. Not bad at all.

Cambodia itself has not fared too well over the last 600 years. Once the mighty Khmer Empire has been subjected to a long period of bad luck ; the fall of an empire , hundreds of years of encroachment by neighboring countries ,colonial subjugation, civil war ,bombings, and the rule of a Genocidial lunatic. Thanks to tourism and international aide just now are things starting to turn around for Cambodia.

You may (should) know that Cambodia suffered greatly under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. If you do not, then the book “After the Killing Fields” is a sobering look at the Khmer Rouge. A highly informative book that will leave you stunned about the sheer amount of violence and murder that happened. Page afer page describes villages whose populations were 70-80% wiped out. Suffice to say, over 2 million people died (nearly 1/3 the population). This trip is a combination of sad remembrance with fun. One hand ;beach , palm trees , kind people , and one hand; killing fields , prisons , visiting torture facilities. I’ve been itching to reach Cambodia even since that Geography of Southeast Asia course at Kent State. Especially fitting since the shooting of 5 Kent Students by the National Guard in 1970 was in response to the United State’s bombing campaigns of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

The plan is to fly into the capital , Phnom Penh, and then book it for the coast and the upcoming beach town of Sianoukville. Spend a little time there and then hop on a boat to the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Saloem for a little taste of idllyic unspoiled paradise. Back to Phnom Penh to see some of the devastation learned about in “After the Killing Fields”. I really want to see S-21 (torture detainment center) and some of the actual killing fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Aimee flies back to Shanghai and I continue my trip up to Siam Reap and Angkor Wat ( My photography teacher at Lakeland Community College had an amazing collection of photos of Angkor from his Sabbatical).

I may take a boat from Phnom Penh up through Tonle Sap , Asia’s largest freshwater lake, to get to Siam Reap. After Angkor I want to get off the beaten path a little bit and may go toKompong Thom and/or Kampong Cham.

Less than a month away now! I’m getting pumped. Ready to drink some Anchor Beer , buy some cheap cloths , and blissfully chill out on the beach.