The Contradictions of Cambodia

The Contradictions of Cambodia

So far, I’m not sure what I think of Cambodia. Their national narrative is tragic, reverent, and promising all at once.

Phnom Penh is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. From a low base, the only way is up. It’s a city crowned by cranes, insistent fingers probing skyward – a picture of progress below the cinnabar sunset.

Granted, the place gets some bad press. Crime rates are high and amenity is low. Everyone’s out to rip you off. Just keep in mind that whatever you pay, you’ve paid too much. I took a sunset cruise with a touch of methanol poisoning. It’s all a bit foggy, but, later, I must have lucked into some fireworks. It was Independence Day – celebrating their emancipation from the French in 1953. But, tragically, this wasn’t the harbinger of hope that Cambodia had craved…

From April 17, 1975, until January 1979 the country cowered under the Khmer Rouge. A visit to S-21 and the Killing Fields, near Phnom Penh, is indescribable. I struggle for words. It’s an abominable verse in human history. As difficult as it is to confront, it should always be acknowledged.

They see me rollin’…

In immiscible contrast are the ruins of Angkor Wat – a sprawling celebration of temples, religions, and ambition. The place is huge, and stands monument to the wax and wane of the historic Khmer empire. I hired a bike, rode the small loop, and was stiff the next day. Twenty clicks on a Mary Poppins bike is a lot, especially without a spoonful of sugar. But, before you go, head to the museum in Siem Reap – it provides some basic context that’s scarce at Angkor Wat itself.

Overall, it’s been an experience. The incongruence of an emerging Phnom Penh, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, and the reverence inspired by Angkor Wat are difficult to reconcile. I guess I feel ambivalent, but, then again, maybe I’m not so sure…

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