Cambodia Countryside

It’s 9 pm and I still can’t get the smell of the fish market we visited this morning out of my nose. This country gets into inside of you and you can’t shake it out.

We pedaled out of Siem Reap this morning shortly after the sun came up and then returned in the dark.

Eleanor expertly riding through the city streets

Our van lurched down the uneven dirt road and as the lights of Siem Reap came into view I felt like I was returning to the twenty-first century.

Over the course of the day we cycled down country roads that took us through remote country villages, into the grounds of Buddhist monasteries and through local markets teeming with live fish jumping out of their pails, bales of basil, morning glory vegetables and dragon fruit.

Through all this, I’m learning that there are at three Cambodias–two I’ve seen and one I’ve heard about.

There’s the Cambodia that we interact with in the central business district and the near-city neighborhoods. These are spaces given over to commerce and tourism and they are here for people like us to experience a sort of branded version of Cambodia. It’s made for us to feel comfortable, but no so comfortable that we feel like we are in the US. It’s a landscape of tuk tuks, street vendors and outdoor markets and cafes. It’s bustling, energetic and exciting, full of t-shirts, bracelets, faux Ikat and Batik material, straw hats and cheap watches.

It’s also a far cry from the Cambodia that we saw as we cycled and paddled through the countryside today.

We didn’t have to get that far outside of Siem Reap to see this other Cambodia. From our hotel in the central business district we pedaled up the river road and across major thoroughfares for about 5 km.  A few turns down side streets and the asphalt turned to a pock-marked red clay road.

Atticus at ease on his bike on a country road

The middle-class looking, concrete houses we passed soon gave way to homes made of wooden lattice and corrugated metal. Children, some naked, some fully clothed played outside, ran in and out of homes and rode their bikes up alongside as they passed us by. The further we got from the city, the more people waved and cried out, “Hello! How are you?” and they laughed when we sang back “Sousday!” which means “Hello” in Khmer. We ate noodles from a street vendor and we sampled all manner of sweets–fried bananas and sweet potatoes and sticky rice in bamboo sticks–prepared by people on the side of the roads. We saw rice farmers gathering up their harvest. We passed a pond of lotus flowers and we watched as old men and women sped by us on scooters, some chewing on what looked like betle plants. We passed by homes that were blasting funky Cambodian pop songs from their speaker systems (I could hear it 400 meters down the road!).

After lunch, we boarded a wooden ‘fast boat’ that took us to lake Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Tonle Sap is sourced by snow melt from the Himalayas–all that water gathers here and creates floodplains that allow the Cambodians to grow rice and wetland areas that are so important that UNESCO designated it a bioreserve in 1997. From Tonle Sap, the water feeds into the great Mekong River and then finds its way back to the ocean, in the South China Sea.

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Map of Tonle Sap–Siem Reap is just north of the lake

Tonle Sap is also home to Cambodia’s ‘floating villages,’ our afternoon destination.

Atticus guiding his kayak through the floating villages

Sujata writes in great detail about our experience at the floating village, but here, let me just note that, aside from the villagers’ use of motor boats, what we saw there was people living a life very similar to the kind of lives their ancestors probably lived two or three hundred years ago.

The boat that took us to the floating villages
Eleanor and I on the boat

That brings me back to the three Cambodias. At a certain point, one can experience this country, or any given developing country for that matter, and think something like this: “Well they are poor, but they seem so happy and they are so nice to us! There’s naked babies frolicking in front yards, families hanging out together on a weekday morning and women pumping water from wells. How quaint!” You have to resist this temptation, though, and simply ask, “Why doesn’t the Cambodian government provide these people with, what to us are basic necessities–asphalt roads to move their goods to market, catches for the torrential rains that fall nearly every day, public water and a kind of health care system where old folks don’t have to ride on the back of scooters with IVs hooked into their arms?

Because it turns out that the babies are naked because the parents are poor, the dad is home on a weekday because there’s no work and the water that’s pumped from the well still needs to be boiled so the children don’t get dysentery. One in eight children in Cambodia dies before their fifth birthday–this is the second highest infant mortality rate in the whole world. If a Cambodian makes it past five they can expect to live to about 68.

This evening, back in Siem Reap, we got caught in a massive downpour that lasted for at least an hour. Sujata asked me if I had ever seen rain like that. I hadn’t. When it ended we went outside and found the streets completely flooded. The drainage ditches that line the major thoroughfares of the city had overflowed and cast up to three feet of water onto the city streets. (During the day, the water there is slightly fetid, so I’m assuming it’s a kind of a sewer.

Eleanor and Atticus enjoying the rain


A little rain never stops Siem Reap folk from getting where they need to go

Part of the reason people don’t complain about the lack of government services is the government, the Cambodian People’s Party–run by a gentleman named Hun Sen who has been the leader of this country since the Vietnamese ‘liberation’ in 1979–rules with a benevolently iron fist. I talked with enough people and read enough to decide not to publish this post, for instance, until we were out of Cambodia.  For the first week I was here, I was felt slightly paranoid for thinking this, but then I found myself drinking with two Colombians who have lived here for two years and confirmed my suspicions–people who speak out sometimes disappear. I wasn’t worried about that happening to me, but I wasn’t taking chances. Cambodia’s twentieth century, in other words, has taught the Cambodians to be quiet, not ask question and toe the line.

During our bike ride through the countryside we stopped at a village, some 15 km from Siem Reap. (I’m not going to give the name of the village). Had our guide not taken us off the dirt road and onto the narrow footpath that led past a grove of trees and into the village, we never would have even know that people lived there.

We met up with the co-founder of an NGO (I won’t give the NGO’s name, either) who introduced us to the people who lived there and showed us some of the water filtration systems that the NGO had installed for some of the people in the village.

The highlight of this stop was when our guide took us to a small wooden workshop where six women from their late twenties to late fifties were assembling animal ‘stuffies’ to be sold in the markets of Siem Reap and beyond. The women greeted us with warm and loving enthusiasm–how weird I must look to them. One of the women came up to Sujata, put their arms together and pointed out that their skin was the same color. They asked our kids how old they were, wondered to our guide if Atticus is a boy or girl (he gets a lot of that here) and looked into our eyes for a longer time than most westerns are comfortable gazing into the eyes of strangers. I met and held their gaze, and I left there hoping to god they’d make it, because if it were not for the NGOs that worked in the village, these good people would lead exponentially more difficult lives.

I have to learn to hold their bravery and their graciousness in the same mind that I hold the rotten hand they’ve been dealt by their leaders.

Beyond this village there’s a third Cambodia. It’s not a part of Cambodia that I have seen or probably ever will see. I only know about it from our guide who mentioned, in passing, that the villages 50 to 100 km beyond the larger cities like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang are even more isolated and that the people who live out there are even more vulnerable than the village we visited.

I’m finishing this post in the Siem Reap airport. We will soon board a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and then we’ll spend a week in Vietnam. I still have a few more posts on Cambodia that I’ll publish in Vietnam.

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Our tuk tuk ride to the airport–Goodbye Cambodia!

We visit the killing fields outside Phnom Penh

We just got back from a tour of the Killing Fields and before that we spent the morning in the Cambodia Genocide Museum. Needless to say, it’s been a tough day. Right now, all four of us are slouched into the couch of our flat, quietly reading and writing. There really isn’t much to say. We are physically and emotionally drained and after a day like this, words, ideas, even thinking itself, just seems so useless.

Our flat is on the same block as the Genocide Museum so after our breakfast and coffee we spent two hours there. The Genocide Museum is the site of the notorious S-21 complex—a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison and torture center for people who they perceived to be enemies of the state but who were, by and large, just ordinary people living ordinary lives.

One of the cell blocks of the S21 compound–the large photo is shows the four children who made it out of there alive.
One of the cells where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were held
Barbed wire placed outside the cell blocks so prisoners could not escape

Our tour guide was a young Cambodian woman who led us through the rooms where people were electrocuted, shackled and maimed, and about halfway through the tour she started telling us about her mother who was living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and, within hours, force marched the entire civilian population of the city from their homes and into the country side where they were either executed or forced to work in labor camps. The Khmer Rouge targeted urban populations because that’s where the intellectuals were—the doctors, professors and lawyers whose soft hands and white collar professional positions made them enemies of the Khmer Rouge and who were rounded up and killed.

1975 was not that long ago—I was 10 years old–so just about anyone you talk to here in Phnom Penh can tell you a story about a family member who was force marched out the city on that date. Some of them survived and made it back, many didn’t. In fact, over the course of four years 40 percent of Cambodian society was either executed or died from starvation, untreated disease or, in some cases, simply losing hope in life. So, part of the reason Cambodia is struggling today is because it lost, not just nearly half of its population, but the part of its population that held nation and community building talents. Imagine losing an entire generation of our doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, chemists and biologists.


Signage outside one of the cell blocks. Probably the most appropriate signage I’ve ever seen.

In the Genocide museum I stared for what seemed like minutes at walls filled with candid, headshot photographs of the victims as well as the members of the Khmer Rouge who committed the atrocities. We have these photos because the Khmer Rouge, like many other fascist dictatorships, kept copious records of their own as well as their enemies.  In 1975, many of victims as well as Khmer Rouge soldiers were my age or just a little bit older. Beautiful, young people who should have been sitting in cafes, reading Camus and Hesse, studying for exams, flirting, racing their scooters through these narrow streets, traveling the world, living their lives. Instead, they were either forced to join an army run by a genocidal mass murderer or, worse, tortured and summarily executed by their own country men and women.

We left the Genocide Museum, ate some Khmer food, and then got in a taxi and set out to see the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek. After a 30-minute drive down Street 217 we made a left-hand turn onto what seemed an ordinary residential street, and in less than two minutes we pulled into an ordinary parking lot, stepped out of the car, walked through a large, ordinary-looking gate, paid our fee, were handed audio recorders and headphones and sent on our way to hear about the very extraordinary things that happened here because it was in this compound where the Khmer Rouge executed about 20,000 ordinary people in the most brutal manner over the course of their four-year reign of terror of this country from 1975-1979.

In a word, what happened here is simply beyond human reason so all I can really do here is describe what I saw and learned and how it made me feel.

Since everyone is issued a headset and headphones, the first thing I noticed as I started walking on the path that lead me around the compound was how quiet it was. Part of that was because there were no tour guides explaining what happened here. It’s just a bunch of stunned people stumbling from one sad site to the next with blank, dazed expressions plastered on their faces. The oppressive heat, combined with horrific stories you are hearing about mass murder and complete lack concern for human life leaves everyone numb. If I wasn’t staring in wonder at the mass graves and the glass boxes filled with bones or articles of clothing that had been left behind by the executed, I was looking off into the distance, or down at my shoes, trying as best as I could to not weep.

Here’s a photo of a mass grave on the left and a close up of the thousands of bracelets visitors have left behind:

At Choeng Ek, the earth itself seems to still be sick from what happened there. Every so often after a heavy rain, it wretches up bones and clothing from the victims.

Victims’ clothing washed up from rains. Recently-discovered bone on top of glass case

The Cambodian government has done the best it can, I guess, with making this place peaceful and a place of meditation and reflection, despite that, though, I found it to be hot, harsh and unsettling. On the backside of the site is a vine-choked lake surrounded by invasive grasses and unpleasant-looking trees. A rough gravel path leads you around the lake and the narrator of the audio tape asks you listen to stories of survivors and meditate on the dead as you walk through the ‘tranquil’ site. I found it neither tranquil nor a place that encouraged peace.


There is a stupa on the grounds (in fact, it’s the first thing you see when you walk through the gates) that the Cambodian government erected in the early 1990s to memorialize the people who died here. In a clear reaction against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s banning of religious practice in the country the stupa combines elements of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. If you look at the photo of the stupa below, you’ll see the figure of Garuda—the eagle who Vishnu rides upon in the Hindu tradition—and above that, you can see depictions of Naga, snake-like beings who protected Siddhartha after he found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. As you get closer to the stupa and gaze through the glass paneling you see 5,000 skulls from the people who died on this site staring back at you.  That said, this is not Gettysburg or Vietnam War Memorial, thoughtfully and aesthetically planned to memorialize the dead.

You might be thinking how the children did with all this. To this point, I’m honestly not sure. We spent a good part of yesterday preparing them for what we were going to witness and hear about today. At the Genocide Museum, they don’t hold anything back—there are graphic photos of the victims displayed throughout and even the empty cells, where the Khmer Rouge shackled and tortured people conjure up horrific feelings. It’s all very close in there and I think this was the most difficult part for the kids. Choeng Ek is, of course, outdoors and you can move along the paths as you like, or sit down on the bench if you like, so I think that made it easier for the kids. Atticus, who is naturally sensitive to injustice, was off by himself most of the time, quietly shuffling down the paths or sitting on a bench as he listened to the audio guide.  He keeps asking me who the good guys were-“Were the Vietnamese the good guys, Dad?” he hopefully asks, wanting this to be a Manichean struggle, like in Harry Potter.  At a certain point I just said to him, “Son, there are no good guys in this story.” Eleanor, who bobs on the surface of life a bit more than Atticus, seemed a little less affected by it all, but, like I said, I can’t really tell at this point. At one point our guide in the Genocide Museum, sensing the the children’s anxiety about the photographs of people being tortured, asked us if we wanted to take the kids out to the courtyard for a break.  As I was finishing this post later in the day, Eleanor began expressing anxieties about what she saw:  those bad men aren’t going to come and get us, are they mom? There may be nightmares tonight. Hers and mine.

When I walked back out the gates toward the taxi, I looked down at my own shadow, happy to see it there and sorrowful for all the people who lost their lives on those grounds.

I’m curious, though, how you folks who are reading this post feel about this: should we have taken the kids there? Was it irresponsible to have them confront all this unmitigated suffering? What would you have done if you were here with your children?