Saturday, March 9, 2013


Images of Angkor Wat come to mind – the ancient Hindu temple (in a Buddhist country) dedicated to Vishnu surrounded by a square moat, miraculously remained unscathed through the oppressive Khmer Rouge years, and so important to Cambodia culture it’s on the center of the flag.

Nestled right between Vietnam and Thailand and south of Laos, it’s divided unevenly by the Mekong River (unfortunately it lost the delta area to Vietnam). The coastal areas along the Gulf of Thailand allow for shipping, fishing, and relaxing. Low flat plains stretch out between mountains in the southwest and north. Cambodia and its neighbors have two seasons: rainy and dry. The tropical temperatures don’t vary that much in contrast.

The name Cambodia used to be called Kampuchea, which is the Khmer word derived from Sanskrit for the name of this area, or the land of the Khmers. The name we know it in English, Cambodia, is derived from the word “Kamboj” which is the Sanskrit transliteration of the word “Kampuchea.”

The most widely spoken language is Khmer, spoken by the largest ethnic group in Cambodia, the Khmers. The language is part of the Mon-Khmer language group and is related to Vietnamese.  Khmer also has it’s own script too, which looks similar to Thai. Because the French occupied the area for so long, many of the older Cambodians still can speak and write in French. Most of the younger people have at least a reading knowledge of English since most of the Internet is written in English.

During the mid-1800s, Cambodia found itself in the midst of conflict between Thailand and Vietnam and sought protection from the French, which lasted from 1863-1953. When the king died in 1941, France hand-picked the next king of the area, thinking their choice would be easy to control; however, they were wrong about that: Cambodia gained its independence under the leadership of Norodom Sihanouk in 1953.

This is the best expression. It should be captioned. In fact, it should become the next Facebook meme. 
 The 1970s brought the height of the Khmer Rouge. Led by the infamous Pol Pot, it was an oppressive way to force the people to become an agrarian socialist society, to say the least. He forced the urbanites to march to the rural areas and force them to farm, and when they failed because they weren’t used to farming and had no idea what to do, they were shot. They were against any professionals and executed them: doctors, lawyers, teachers; and anyone who was involved in the cultural arts: musicians, artists, writers, etc. They also killed anyone who tried to practice religion, and it didn’t matter which religion it was. They even went so far as to kill people who wore glasses, since they saw this as a sign of intellectualism. This regime separated parents from children and spread them across the country, eliminating money, telephones, postal services – anything that would be a means of communicating. Married couples were allowed to see each other for very short periods of time, and sexual relations were strictly forbidden, punishable by death. People were no longer allowed to have their own eating utensils and were forced to eat when and where they were told. If they were found foraging for fruit or berries in the forest to survive, the government saw this as “private enterprise” and immediately fed them a bullet. These images are so horrifying, it was like Pol Pot studied the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, the Armenian Genocide, and thought, “How can I one-up them?” I can remember when he died in 1998 (I was a senior in high school), and my mother sighed, “Well, we can now breathe a little easier.” Pol Pot was never tried for these crimes against humanity. At the time of his death, he was on house arrest for ordering the execution of his second in command (and eleven members of his family) for attempting to make a deal with the existing government (the sentence didn’t mean much considering he hadn’t been seen in public since 1980.) (And no, I haven't seen the movie The Killing Fields yet, but it is in my Netflix queue.) 

On a lighter note, the capital city is Phnom Penh (pronounced “puh-NAHM pen”). It was once known as the Pearl of Asia for it’s beautiful architecture, both French colonial-influenced and traditional. The metro area has about 2.2 million people, about the size of the city of Houston, Texas. Situated at the crossroads of three rivers (Mekong, Tonlé Sap, and Bassac Rivers), it’s certainly the largest city in Cambodia and the main center of government. The name Phnom Penh literally means “Pehn’s hill.” It’s actually sister-citied with four US cities: Long Beach, CA; Lowell, MA; Providence, RI; and Cleveland, TN.

The country struggles with a 77% literacy rate and almost 29% of kids under age five are underweight.  Access to clean water and sanitation is far under standards (67% in urban areas, 18% in rural areas), leading to much higher rates of diseases such as typhoid fever, hepatitis A, malaria, and dengue fever. AIDS is also a problem in Cambodia as well as problems leading to and stemming from sex trafficking. On an up note, the past ten years have brought gains in the textile industry as well as agriculture, tourism, and construction as the main sources of economic boosts. However, in 2005, oil deposits were discovered underneath Cambodia’s territorial waters. Research and negotiations have been taking place to see whether there is a viable method to extract it. If the project gets off the ground, this could mean a lot for the Cambodian economy and its role in the global economy. Until then, it remains to be one of the poorest nations in the world. For me, this country lies between two of my favorites cuisines that I don’t eat often: Thai and Vietnamese. Since I’ve already figured out my recipes and am currently listening to the band Dengue Fever, I’m so geeked for all of this.

Up next: holidays and celebrations. 

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