Soon the summer holidays will kick off the new swarm of British backpackers heading to South East Asia, looking for beautiful beaches, cheap beer, and the serenity in which one can ‘find herself’ against a backdrop of instagram-worthy scenery. Cambodia has become a staple section of the South East Asian route which sees thousands make their way from Bangkok, through Vietnam to Saigon and down to Cambodia. The country is flourishing thanks to its new found tourism income, however it masks a past that only decades ago would see 1.5 million of its people executed under a regime that is largely missed in the study of modern history; a past that is sadly forgotten and unacknowledged by many of the backpackers who pass through its borders.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge capture of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Phen. Led by Pol Pot, a Cambodian-born Communist who had adopted radical ideas during his time in France, the Khmer Rouge had been gaining influence in Cambodia since the 1960’s. The fall of the capital marked the end of a five year civil war, and the success of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces.
Almost instantly, Pol Pot would begin to realise his agrarian utopia. Phnom Phen, followed quickly by other major cities, was emptied of its population and evacuated to the countryside to work. Around 2.5 million people were forced to leave their homes within days. Influenced by tribal communities in the rural areas of Cambodia, Pol Pot wanted to establish a superior communist state free of money, religion, class and private possession. Education, leisure activities and public transport were abolished. Workers wore plain black clothing and were forbidden to meet in groups. Emotions seen to show weakness such as pity or affection were discouraged amongst families. In an attempt to make the communist transition run without obstacle, any potential Cambodians deemed ‘unfit’ for the new regime were brutally executed. This included intellectuals and soldiers of the previous Khmer Republican army. Overnight, wearing glasses or speaking a second language was a crime worthy of capital punishment. It is estimated that between 1-2 million were executed by the Khmer Rouge forces, however 12 hour work days and cramped conditions would see thousands more die of malnutrition, disease and exhaustion.
Although defeated by Vietnamese forces only four years later, the Khmer Rouge rule left a deep wound on the population of Cambodia. Aside from the millions of orphans and widows, many who experienced the regime were left mentally scarred by the experience and displaced by lack of work, medicine or property. Land mines continue to plague rural areas of Cambodia today, some planted by the Khmer Rouge, others left from three decades of war, giving the country one of the highest rates of amputees in the world.
Paying homage to history of Cambodia needn’t be distressing or difficult. The notorious S-21 genocide museum- high school turned prison and torture centre- as well as the famous ‘Killing Fields’ mass graves can be easily included in a trip to the country’s capital. Whilst the idea might sound depressing, I found that they gave me a sense of compassion that cannot be achieved by reading a textbook or Wikipedia page. I felt that the sense of dread whilst looking at the photos of past prisoners was vital in understanding the history of the people who would welcome me into their hotels and restaurants with unrelenting kindness. Hundreds of amputee children approach tourists every day in an attempt to sell books about Cambodia’s history; whilst often dismissed as a nuisance, their near-perfect English and positivity is a credit to the Cambodians’ ability to grow from their tragic past. Furthermore, simply reading a biography or novel based in the time of the Khmer Rouge will allow any reader to see past the modern backdrop of hostels and nightclubs and imagine what the Cambodians must have suffered through to reach their modern era as a tourism hotspot. Having an appreciation for Cambodia’s history can only serve to make the beaches and people appear even more beautiful in the knowledge of what could have been, and given the gifts a trip to Cambodia can give a traveller I believe this to be the greatest gift in return. After all, one would not visit Berlin without seeing its famous wall, or New York without making the journey to Ground Zero, both spots that draw memories of more difficult times but are crucial in shaping the country as we see it today.