Cambodia shows progress

My recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with my wife, Grace, consisted mostly of a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, and a five-day boat trip up the Mekong River to the Cambodian cities of Phnom Penhand Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat. Our visit to Ho Chi Minh City was the topic of last week’s column. Today, I will discuss our trip to Cambodia.

The highlight was our visit to Angkor Wat, and they truly lived up to our high expectations. This huge complex began in the 9th century and prospered until the 13th century. Many of the statues and stone carvings that have been protected from the elements look like artistic masterpieces that could have been created last week. It is well worth a trip to Cambodia just to see Angkor Wat alone: a truly amazing, inspiring and wondrous creation!

We also visited the holocaust museum in the capital of Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng was a high school used to imprison and torture thousands of Cambodians for — as they frequently told us — three years, eight months and 20 days between 1975 and 1979. Most of the prisoners were subsequently taken out to the “killing fields” and executed with a club to the back of the head. The victims were the so-called traitors to the revolution, as well as the nation’s educated class or “intellectuals.” They included anyone considered to have had a relationship with the West or anyone who wore eyeglasses — as well as the children of any of the above. As a result, children were callously executed by having their heads beaten in with sticks and clubs.

What I had not focused upon previously was that this genocide was influenced by Mao Tse Tung from Communist China. It happened not long after China’s so-called Cultural Revolution, and was carried out by the Khmer Rouge, which are the French words for the “Red Khmers.” And, just like in China, many from the communist guard were young teenage boys who were given AK-47s and let loose on the population.

By the time it ended, 1.7 million Cambodians, or 21% of the population, perished under Pol Pot’s regime, according to Yale University’s Cambodia Genocide Project. Thus from what I could tell, “The Killing Fields” was unfortunately quite accurate with regard to the bloodbath, although many of the Cambodians perished from starvation and disease that resulted from the KR’s radical policies.

For this reason, half the population is younger than 20. It has also made Cambodia one of the poorest Asian countries. Cambodia is also one of the worst offenders when it comes to human trafficking. This appears to be the mind set because a recent poll showed that 75% of the women in Cambodia feel that it is all right to be beaten by their husbands.

Furthermore, few of the side streets are paved, and education is not compulsory, although it is free through the elementary grades. But for many, higher education is simply not available, either because of the cost or because the children are needed to work to help to support their family. In fact, none of the nation’s three top rulers has a high school degree.

In addition, 29% of its population has access to toilets, which means dysentery is a major killer. Nevertheless, the Cambodian people, whose ethnicity is different from the Vietnamese, were almost uniformly pleasant and cheerful. It was as much of a pleasure to be with them as with the people of Vietnam.

Cambodia uses American dollars as a currency, and, as you can imagine, the cost of living there is quite low. For example, where an hourlong massage costs $12 in Vietnam, a Khmer massage (which is different from anything I have had before and is outstanding) costs $5 for an hour in Cambodia.

But one thing that really stayed with me was the times that I looked at some of the teenage girls who were living on houseboats on the river as they were watching our tourist boat go by. They would look at us in a way that expressed a deep resignation that they knew that their lives would never be any better. They would eventually get married and have children, but still live as fishermen in these same houseboats on the river.

I wish I could take some of our children here in the U.S. and impress upon them the importance of their staying in school and getting an education. So many of these young Cambodians are absolutely desperate to have the education that many of our children are simply throwing away!

But slowly things are getting better in Cambodia. There seems to be a fair amount of freedom of the press, because several of the newspapers I read included articles that were actually critical of the government. Clean drinking water also now seems to be much more readily available, and prison reform is increasing, as is access to their justice system. Religious freedom in the country also does not seem to be a problem, and at least the girls seem to have a veto power over whom they will marry. In addition, tourism dollars are increasingly flowing into the country, at least in Siem Reap, although tourists still must procure a cumbersome and expensive visa to enter the country.

It was a great trip and one that I would recommend to any semi-adventurous travelers. But, as my father used to say, the best part of any trip is coming home. Our visits to Vietnam and Cambodia further helped me to appreciate what we have in our wonderful country, even to the extent that it makes my paying our income taxes in a few weeks quite a bit more palatable.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)