Sometimes there is so much to write about a place that it seems better to say less than ignorantly talk beyond what you understand. This is my experience with Cambodia. In three and a half days I only caught a glimpse of something, and although I will recite their most basic history, I’m not by any means educated on the subject and don’t pretend to understand what happened or why. Cambodia is a place with a deep and turbulent past ranging from an empire and culture that surpassed European contemporary societies cities during it’s height, to a genocidal restructuring of the entire population during the 1970′s by a Marxist madman. I came to the city of Siem Reap to visit the temples of Angkor built during the height of the Khmer empire between the years of 802 and 1431. These have been repeatedly called the 8th wonder of the world, and I think it would be hard to argue against that after spending time here.
I almost immediately realized however that the contrast between my quick stop off tourism and the lives and history of the people was not something I could glance over. I was very affected by the glimpse I saw of people’s lives, and the conversations I had. The affects of the highs and lows are in full view here. The people exhibit a reserved pride. They are a young population with few elder mentors as the previous generation was greatly decimated along with many direct links to their cultural past, and clear pathways to an economic future. 30 years on and the country is recovering, but poverty is common, as are the effects of the wars and their devices (I saw many people with limbs missing presumably from landmines). Commerce and industry are returning to Cambodia, but far behind it’s neighbors Thailand, Vietnam, and China. What I observed were a lot of people who worked very hard to educate themselves and often were not able to afford the education they needed. Learning English seemed to be the primary first step in this process for many people. They are well aware of the progress of the world around them and want the same for themselves.
As for the temples, they were all they promised to be. Rather than attempt to see dozens (of the over 200) temples, I only visited 4 and spent many hours at each one, often sitting in one spot for an extended period and studying details. This was a great way to meet people as well. Tour groups would come through and then there would be periods of solitude. A lot of people said “hello” to see what I was doing stopping as groups or as individuals. I was continually reminded of how great of a tool that drawing can be to open doors to communication. I’m also learning how useful it is to be able to say “hello” and “thank you” in as many languages as possible. They are simple and appreciated gestures. I hope very much I can return here and spend more time in the country beyond the temples, but I was in awe of what I did see and humbled by the resolve of the Cambodian people.