Tag Archives: Cambodia

Cambodia – A Backward Glance at a Terrible Past

26 Sep


I’ve finally defeated the Kuala Lumpur cold that had me out for the count all of last week (ugh!) and now I’m ready to Cambodify you.


Before sharing all the detailed glories and delights of our Cambodian adventures, I feel compelled to write a short post about all that I’ve learned about Cambodia’s history during our trip – and it’s beyond depressing.  Most of you probably know about this country’s terrible past under the control of the Khmer Rouge, but I, personally, didn’t know enough, and visiting Cambodia opened my eyes to a sadness and a hopefulness that I had never experienced before.  I want to make sure to convey these feelings to you.

So, let me just start off by saying that the most important feeling I have about Cambodia is LOVE.  The country just bursts with beauty – the children…

the landscape…

and the faith…

they simply left me breathless.

But, just as beautiful as Cambodia is, it is also extremely hard-  the poverty is almost unbearable, staring you straight in the face as a reminder of the country’s dark history.

There is no way to travel through Cambodia without feeling and seeing the vestiges of its bloody past.  The Cambodian genocide still sits on the surface of so many daily interactions, making the country feel raw, and yet, in some twisted way, even more remarkable for all it has overcome.


The following is a very short overview of a tragic history.  This summary is by no means comprehensive (and it does NOT do Cambodia’s history justice), but I hope it reminds you/makes you think about/drives you to learn more about a nation that is still recovering from one of the world’s bloodiest revolutions.

In 1970, the conflict in Vietnam extended over to Cambodia, and the country broke out in a violent civil war.  Cambodia was split into two, with the North Vietnamese & their Cambodian allies, the Khmer Rouge, controlling the countryside, and the Republican Government of Lon Nol controlling most of the towns.

On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over Phnom Penh and seized power over Cambodia.   The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to transform Cambodia into an agrarian-based communist society, and they, therefore, forced the majority of the country into agricultural slavery.

“Within days of the Khmer Rouge coming to power, the entire population of the capital, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march out to the countryside [to undertake agricultural work].  Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution.  The advent of the Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero.  Currency was abolished and postal services were halted.  The country was cut off from the outside of the world” (Lonely Planet Vietnam, Cambodia Laos & the Greater Mekong, page 46).

The Khmer Rough deprived Cambodians of their basic rights.  They abolished normal schooling, private property, religious practices, and traditional Cambodian (Khmer) culture.  Even family relationships were heavily controlled, “People were forbidden to show even the slightest affection, humor or pity. The Khmer Rouge asked all Cambodians to believe, obey and respect only [the Khmer Rouge’s political party], which was to be everyone’s mother and father.” (Cambodia Tribunal)

During the next four years, thousands of Cambodians were executed by the Khmer Rouge, including most of the country’s educated people (doctors, lawyers, teachers, ANYONE with an education) because they were seen as a threat to the new communist regime.  Thousands more died of famine or disease as they slaved in the rice fields or the Khmer Rouge work camps.  Overall, it is estimated that two million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979.

Two million people died.  And this happened only 36 years ago.  It’s almost too crazy to grasp.

In December of 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia after repeated attacks by the Khmer Rouge on Vietnamese border villages.  They were successful in capturing Phnom Penh and driving the Khmer Rouge from power.

Today, Cambodia is still struggling to overcome its years of conflict, but is on the road to recovery.  If you are interested in learning more about Cambodia in the 1970s, I’d highly recommend the tough (true) story of Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father and the movie, The Killing Feilds.  If you feel compelled to help from across the sea, use those extra $20 in your wallet to donate through Kiva.org directly to a Cambodian in need.

And if you don’t want to do anything after reading this post, I’m still happy you read this far.