I was initially struck by how Cambodia’s capital city- once called “The Pearl of Asia” after it was colonized by France- has a spacious and village-like feel despite being the most populous city in the country (home to 1.5 million people). I soon learned this spacious feel is, in part, due to its recent history of abandonment. In reaction to- and in the wake of- the USA’s occupation of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war, Pol Pot led his “Khmer Rouge” into power and into Phnom Penh. In 1975 the entire population of Phnom Penh was forced to evacuate by the new regime after they completely cut off the city’s resources. What followed were internment camps, prison and torture facilities and mass killings by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot proceeded to lead a ruthless genocide against his own people and few of those who survived would ever return to Phnom Penh. It would be a long road to recovery.
These days it is hard to imagine that the nation’s capital city had been ghost town only 40 years ago. Now, coffee shops are popping up like weeds, showing signs of a modernizing upper-middle class, but poverty still exists in prevalence. While partnering with a couple non-profits and walking among the poverty, I grew to greatly admire the opportunistic spirit of Cambodians. They are a living testament to the human spirit’s ability to endure extreme hardship and somehow learn to live once again. But the recovering country is also a living testament to the enduring scars of darkness. It is the first place where (and the first time in documented history when) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has become culturally embodied and successfully passed onto a new generation. The incomprehensible atrocities and horrors from 40 years ago have crept into the psyche of a new generation and continue to haunt their dreams. The gravity of such horrific actions will certainly have lasting consequences.
Fun side story: after noticing how Cambodians’ opportunistic spirit showed itself with motorcycles and cars, I made a game to see how many people I could spot on a motorcycle. The record stands at 7 people on one motorcycle.
Here are portraits of some of the local people I was able to work with:
Children celebrating Cambodian (Khmer) New Year in the marketplace: