Cambodia – Past and Present

“Why do you keep going back Cambodia?” I have been asked this question many times from fellow travellers and friends. This is a good question for me to ponder. It gets me thinking about my reasons for putting it on my list five times since I began travelling to Thailand in 2008. Having a dear friend whom I met in Bangkok on my second or third visit to Thailand is one of the main reasons I have put Cambodia on my travel itinerary. Michelle has lived in Phnom Penh since the late ’90’s when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Republic or the people of Cambodia after five years of horror and near genocide.

Before I attempt to portray some of Cambodia’s long and complicated history, I must tell you that I wrote this post on one of my visits several years ago and only just discovered that I never published it. On this trip to Phnom Penh in February, 2023, Michelle introduced me to the newly constructed Sosoro Museum which attempts to explain Cambodia’s history by studying the country’s use of money or currency through the ages. While she worked on her editing for an online newspaper she works for, I with notebook in hand covered the whole history as presented in this museum in one day. Although I had done some reading before writing this post, my visit to Sosoro presented many of the historian’s and archeologist’s latest findings which in a sense is like a re-telling of their history.

It took the recent discovery of a gold coin at the popular Russian Market in Phnom Penh to reveal a new chapter to the country’s history. Cambodians and those who come here to see the ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap have believed that the ruins unearthed by the French in the 1800’s probably dated back to the Angkor civilization which had its zenith somewhere around 770 to 1400 A.D. However, the discovery of this one coin tells a different story. Through various coins and artifacts, they found that there was another civilization of note… the Funan which morphed into the Chennia beginning sometime in the 1st century A.D. to around the 7th with the emergence of Angkor. What was the reason for this? Well, it’s looking like it was the trade route emerging between China and India and the Mediterranean with the rise of  the Greek and Roman empires. The coins these civilizations used, their pottery, and jewellery made of gold and silver have been found all over Cambodia pointing to a history that goes further back than Angkor.  There is probably more to be discovered which hopefully this beautiful new museum will continue to present not only to the Cambodian people to help them in restoring pride in their country, but also to the rest of the world who come here to work and visit.

Today Cambodia is a small country with a population of about 23 million souls surrounded by Thailand, Laos, and Viet Nam. In the eyes of the rest of the world, it’s a country with a very dark history which could still be witnessed right up until the late ’90’s.  However, every time I return, I see changes with forward strides benefiting some, but by no means all of the people. There are still those struggling with the scars of their past and the present day changes being thrust upon them by this rapidly changing world.  The ‘those’ I speak of are the poor who are more than 20 per cent of the population. Again it’s the country’s history which can help them understand the problems facing them today. 

The next question that came to my mind and possibly for those of you who are interested in wondering how this country gave birth to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, was why the Angkor civilization declined after 1400. There were various reasons, but the one which explained it best for me was its transformation to becoming a community which relied on bartering rather than any kind of currency for its livelihood. While they relied on this method to meet their needs, their neighbours were moving forward by using coins made of silver and gold instead of trading goats and livestock in exchange. The Angkor civilization began to fade away with this cumbersome method of commerce. Falling into a state of hibernation for want of any better way to describe it, gave the Siamese  (Thai) and the Vietnamese the opportunity to take over their commerce and culture. Then along came the entrance of the Indochinese Union followed by the dominance of the French Protectorate with their banking practices causing more confusion and upheaval for the country.

For a short time during WWII the Japanese occupied Cambodia while the young King Sihanouk began to restore the influence of the Royals by taking a political stance. The French continued to fulfill their role as a Protectorate until 1953. From then on, the ineptness or plain stupidity of the king, internal power struggles, outside influences, along with illiteracy and poverty all contributed to the country’s downward spiral.

Sihanouk’s first mistake was to abolish the romantic part of the Khmer language for a script which basically took their culture backwards. During the 50’s and 60’s, he and his country tried to remain neutral towards the rise of communism and the cold war, but being surrounded by the heavy influence of Viet Nam and what was happening there, as well as the ultimate interference and fiddling of the US, a split between the rich and the poor began to occur. The middle class became more and more disenchanted. The seeds were being cultivated which would lead the country into its darkest hour…the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

This is just one of the theories for how and why the Rouge happened. Blame has also been levelled at China for their support of the Rouge. Who knows all the reasons for such madness, but to this day many  Cambodians cannot forget the horror of this genocide which nearly devastated their small, once very proud country.

The Rouge wanted to completely reform Cambodia’s society: their banking system, their religion, their beliefs, their lifestyles…everything. No one felt safe under this strict regime which resulted in neighbour fighting neighbour and in some cases family versus family. They were all struggling to survive and in doing so turned against each other. The whole country was collapsing. The murders began in Phnom Phen where most of the upper classes lived. The entire city was evacuated resulting in the loss of over 20,000 lives. Then began the purge of the eastern part of the country where records show that 250,000 lives were lost. When all was said and done, Cambodia faced the grim fact that their country now had an estimated two million people murdered…. almost all of the well educated…with 600,000 refugees displaced to other countries such as Thailand. Towards the end, many members of the Khmer Rouge fearing for their lives fled to Viet Nam. Hun Sen, the first and still reigning prime minister, was one of them. The Khmer escapees with help from the Vietnamese devised a plan to invade Cambodia to set up a new form of government which would eventually become the Cambodian People’s Party. Thus, began Viet Nam’s occupation of Cambodia beginning in ’79 and ending in ’93.

Any kind of lasting peace did not happen until 1991 following the Paris Conference when the United Nations was brought in to oversee the rebuilding of this devastated country. At first the country was ruled by a two-party system with Hun Sen…remember the man who was a member of the Khmer Rouge…. and Prince Ranariddh….a member of the Royal family…. as his second in command. Known for his strong-arm approach to ruling when “it’s needed” as the saying goes, Hun Sen maneuvered the situation so as to basically abolish any power the monarchy had to that which today gives them no authority other than to be figure heads for the country.

A tribunal was established to bring justice to those involved in positions of authority in the murder of an estimated 2 million citizens. Targeting those who held senior government office and who had violated international law to carry out acts of genocide, a panel of foreign and local judges was formed to try them. By this time many of the culprits had either died or disappeared including Pol Pot, the leader of the Rouge, who was hiding out for years in the north. After many trials and tribulations only three persons were convicted. Of those three, two have made restricted apologies to the Cambodian people with the third warden of the prison, called Duch, who was handed a life-long sentence. To call this tribunal a success story is still up for debate.

So what did I witness on this visit to Cambodia which could now be seen as as a move forward to improve the lives of its people? Keep in mind these are based on the things I noticed five years ago not today as I re-write this post. The most obvious one was the vast improvement in the infrastructure. New roads connecting all the major towns and cities and streets in Phnom Penh have been  paved. This wasn’t the case on my first visit in 2014.  A new train service has begun, linking Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and another linking Cambodia and Thailand is just about completed. In Kep, from where I wrote this post, Route 33 A has become a first-class highway running by the Bacoma Bungalows my lovely bed and breakfast where I stayed. Cambodia has China, of course, to thank for those improvements. Improved roads means more tourists especially from their country which in turn is creating the problem of being overrun by them even though it is providing jobs galore for young Cambodians.

Hwy 33 A

The entrance to Bacoma Bungalows.

This, along with the flourishing tourist business, has increased the earning power of many Cambodians so they can now own motor bikes or even late-model cars. There is also evidence of a rising middle class taking place. I noticed this at Kep Beach which three years before was a beach in the making. Tons of sand from somewhere else has been brought in to make this sandy beach which had proven to be a huge success for locals and visitors alike. It appears to be a big draw for Cambodians of all classes and on a Sunday is packed with picnickers.

However, the downside to this was that many of those forming the middle class were government workers who had gained their positions by literally buying them. They also got substantial bonuses throughout the year which allowed them to buy their big vehicles. Here was an example of  “the big C” at work which put the country at the top of the corrupted countries list. For more on this problem you can check out my post: The Big “C” in Cambodia

Cambodia’s history has not done anything to help it with its problem in getting their literacy rate up so that it can deal more effectively with its issues regarding poverty. Although statistics are saying that there have been improvements and that learning English is now considered a must, it’s up for debate on whether the present government with its lack of concern for human rights and the layers of corruption that still exist, is responsible for this. Most likely it’s been with the help of the NGO’s and the locals themselves, as well as young volunteers visiting from developed countries who want to get involved. In any event, the young people I talked to were eager to learn, but not so eager as those I spoke to in Laos. I would guess that the young are still affected by what happened in their country not that long ago. The scars of the older generation and the continued repressive government from a Prime Minister and some of his ministers who had connections to the Khmer Rouge were still having their negative effects.

Even though the economy is showing an increasing growth rate fueled by Chinese investment, increased tourism, and the garment industry which provides cheap labour for many countries including our own, it still isn’t keeping up with the kind of growth it needs to be a recognized contender in the Asian economy. It has continued to lag behind as it struggles with overwhelming human rights issues under an extremely repressive political regime. Although there are hints from the government that the lack of any kind of national education system is an absolute must to improve the literacy level of its population to alleviate the extreme poverty that prevails, there appears to be not much real action. How can there be any change so long as the old way of getting anything done is to buy it? This appears to be the core of Cambodia’s inability to become a more effective competitor in the new world which is emerging.

Ignoring such problems was easier to do than this one: the mounting piles of garbage! Garbage could be seen everywhere in this country.  And, to make matters worse, there was an apparent lack of interest or will to do anything about it.

On my way to Kampot on the bus from Phnom Penh, I happened to take a pause from an interesting conversation I was having with an English teacher visiting from Ho Che Minh City, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the side of the road littered with garbage piles for what seemed like a kilometer or more. In the midst of it all sat a young boy about 12 years of age… totally naked! I don’t think I can ever erase this image from my mind. I resolved right there and then that I would do my utmost to avoid plastic bottles in my travels. This wasn’t an easy task especially in Cambodia. Fortunately, the owner of Bacoma Bungalows was filling my metal water bottle free of charge so I didn’t have to buy plastic bottles. In most of the places I’ve stayed, I’ve had to take the small bottles of water offered to me. They were free so I took them knowing I would have to buy the same thing elsewhere. Large bottles often are not available or if they are they come packed in large quantities. Since the water here is undrinkable even for the locals, can you imagine the amount of plastic that keeps piling up! To make matters worse, the garbage collection from what I can determine in the rural areas is almost non-existent! I spoke to a young Cambodian lady about it, and she agreed there was a problem. “The only way to solve it is by educating the kids. The parents are hopeless,”she said. They aren’t educated enough to understand. Moreover, they prefer to buy their water in bottles from the fridge so they can drink it cold as a kind of status symbol to the fact they can afford it. She also pointed out that pure water is also something that brings good luck to their family. In rural areas the water is so polluted that people are getting sick from it. I am sure this is happening in many countries around the world where more and more of our water resources are being contaminated by toxins so what on earth are we going to do to solve this?

Phnom Penh’s garbage collection shows some improvement but still has problems.

Garbage collectors in Kampot trying to keep this tourist town clean.

Oops, they missed this pile.

I saw a few of these, but would the locals put their garbage in them?

Yes, Cambodia’s problems are the same ones facing all developing countries. The question is what can I or any tourist do to help them? Where can we start with the problem of potable water and the rampant use of plastic bottles? Perhaps we can start by setting a good example. From my small act of carrying a refillable bottle, I find myself not only talking about the problem with those who listen but now writing about it. This creates good energy which will spread. We can no longer just ignore the problems we see when visiting other countries. We must talk about them, or write about them, or do something! The more awareness each one of us can create the better. I would like to hear from you, my dear readers, on what we can do to alleviate rather than to contribute to their problems.

In closing, I will leave you with this quotation by the American ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, who served here in 2005 which helps to explain why I and many others are lured back to Cambodia time and time again:

Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.”

For my other personal reasons for returning to Cambodia, take a peek at my post from last year by clicking on the link A Brief Hiatus to Phnom Penh

or this post Soaking Up Phnom Penh

or Phnom Penh Re-visited

3 thoughts on “Cambodia – Past and Present

  1. Pingback: Coastal Cambodia at Risk? – BetsTravelsAbout

  2. Hey Bets, wow I’m so impressed by all the background research you do. I learned a lot….even though I’m here too!!! Just missing you as I believe you’re returning to Kampot today and we’re as of this moment on the train to Phnom Penh. Enjoy the rest of your trip…..especially your new adventure to Australia.


    • Yes, sorry we weren’t able to meet up again. Arrived today from Kep with Mike and Diane just below me. Will be here until Friday. Tomorrow we are going to check out the train schedule to see if we can use it instead of the bus. Hoping to take it to PP after my stay at Outres Beach near Sihanoukville. Enjoy VN.


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