We flew into Cambodia on the national airlines instead of taking the nine-hour rib-cage shattering bus ride across the border from Thailand. I guess we’re getting older, or wiser? This 50-person plane was old 30 years ago and was not equipped with the latest Boeing technology, Magellan GPS system, or Pratt & Whitney engines. While most airlines take time to clean their planes to avoid drag and to demonstrate to the air-flying public that maintenance is a priority, this company did not. As was evident by the excess black residue, carbon build up behind each engine. And, those pre-flight safety briefings we all find so annoying, you don’t realize how much you miss them until they don’t happen. I guess they figured we wouldn’t need the information as 1) there were no oxygen masks to drop down if depressurization occurred; and, 2) there were no flotation devices under the seat. But then if a plane drops out of the sky from 20,000 feet, is the flotation device really necessary?
I realized we weren’t flying under the strict FAA regulations I’m used to when before the flight I walked up to the cockpit and started chatting with the pilots. The same action in the US would have had me tackled by some gun-toting air marshal and dragged of to Gitmo. Not here! As we landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I glanced over at Audrey who looked relieved.
Not long after checking into our guest house, we were out exploring. Enjoying our adventure and chuckling to each other about the chaotic drivers who use whichever side they want, we were soon sobered up. At the same time, we both somberly thought, “there’s the first.” It was the first amputee victim we saw who had presumably lost his leg from a landmine. It didn’t take long before we saw our second, then third, then…more than we wanted to count.
In the mid ’70’s the Khmer Rouge overtook the government and laid millions of landmines to protect the provinces during the revolution. Since no maps were drawn to identify where they were placed, the countryside still remains littered with an estimated 4-6 million of these underground explosives. We’ve all seen the clips of Princess Dianna or Angelina Jolie walking through areas in an effort to make the world more aware of this problem, but it didn’t become real for me until seeing all the people who took a wrong step.
It has been an uphill battle for Cambodia over the last half century. Almost 2 million people died between 1975-1979 as a result of the Khmer Rouge government. Hundreds of thousand were executed in ‘the killing fields’ as a way to rid itself of the educated class and turn Cambodia to communism. Since two of the eight million people living here died in those four years and another million fled, it is a country with over 50% its citizens under 20 years old. Staggering. Since the Khmer Rouge was exterminating the educated, the wealthy, and the powerful, Cambodia was not left with an educated populous. This is evident in the poverty and begging which is the worst I’ve seen compared to all the third-world countries I’ve been.
Even more heart wrenching, we also spent several hours inside one of Pol Pots extermination camps. Formerly a secondary school, the communist regime took it over and converted it to a prison camp sending 200,000 through this camp alone. Only 7 survived. The techniques guards used to torture prisoners was gruesome and the pictures on the wall made me feel the same way I felt after walking through the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.- Sick.
While the history and stories are horrific, Cambodians are a friendly people. Their warm smiles almost make you forget about the past. But then given what they and their families went through, they must now see reason to smile.
There is, however, one main reason tourist come here: The Temples of Angkor. It’s one of the 7 man-made wonders of the world (for which there are more than 7) and easy to see why with hundreds of 12th century buildings and temples (wats) on 77 square miles of forest. We spent two days wandering around and admiring the massiveness of these structures. A must see if you come to this region.
Our trip in Cambodia was less than a week as we need to continue moving around the globe. Today we took a boat trip down the Mekong River to bring us into Vietnam. Government corruption being high, we had to bribe the customs agent. Apparently a dollar for cigarettes was enough to get both of us across the border ‘more smoothly’. Coincidentally, we arrived on the exact day 30 years later when America was forced out of Vietnam and Saigon fell to communism.
Originally I didn’t plan to write my next travelogue until we exited Vietnam at the end of May. In that email I would just include a story about Cambodia but soon realized it had its own story. I hope you agree.
Bryan and Audrey