Though the purpose of my vacation in Cambodia was solely to tour Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, evidence of Cambodia’s second most eminent history, the Cambodian Genocide, was impossible to avoid. The four-year regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) is recent history and the scars of the slaughter are strikingly vivid to anyone touring Cambodia.
The starkest remnants of the genocide are everywhere. With a third of the pre-war population eradicated, I saw very few elderly individuals in my travels. Most had perished in the killing fields where other, younger captives had a better chance of survival. People 30 years old and younger, it seemed to me, were the only inhabitants remaining. The condition of the roads, forms of agriculture, popular forms of transportation, and sanitation were all about 40 years behind what is evident just across the border in Thailand. I also noticed that, although the markets around Angkor Wat were vast and illustrious, there wasn’t a single vendor hawking red scarves, the iconic symbol of the Khmer Rouge, even though there were many other colored scarves being sold.
The Khmer Rouge brought death not only to people, but also to the entire establishment of Cambodia and its culture. Teachers and “intellectuals” were specifically targeted by the Khmer Rouge and systematically executed, laying waste to traditions such as Cambodian music and dance and nearly eliminating early cultural history completely. Today, Cambodian dancers are very hard to find, as are Buddhist monks who also comprised one of the hardest hit contingencies during the genocide. Cambodia struggles today to maintain the character of its once illustrious culture that was nearly extinguished by Pol Pot’s genocidal authority.
My nationality, I discovered, had an effect on both my perception of the country and Cambodians’ reception of me. Our tour guide, my host brother and I both sensed, had a palpable aversion to me, the only American in the all-Thai group he was leading. He was the son of survivors, grandson and nephew of victims and his grief was clear, as it was for most Cambodians I interacted with. At some of the sites we visited the guide offhandedly refused to translate for me that which he’d said in Thai that was beyond my comprehension. In quizzing me about material he’d discussed at a given stop I discerned a vague condescension in his tone of voice that wasn’t present when doing the same with the other Thai members of the party. Frustrating as it was for me to communicate with the tour guide, I find the negative attitude some Cambodians hold for Americans completely understandable. The role the United States played in the onset of Pol Pot’s rise to power and ensuing massacre is a matter of record. This reality became very evident to me as I toured the nation almost 40 years after the fact.