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Saturday, October 14, 2006


Land of giggles

Remnants of the Cambodian genocide contradict their current cheerful disposition

If Thailand is affectionately known as the land of smiles, then Cambodia must be
the land of giggles. Any gesture, miscommunication, or funny look can launch a cambodian into a fit of high pitched giggles. The young are most susceptible, with a giggle so high pitched that men and women are indistinguishable. The giggle syndrome is a testament to their cheery disposition. It seems that every day, in every town we've been to (Phnom Penh, Siam Reap, Battambang) there is a festival. Its the moon festival, or the family reunion festival, or the build a pagoda for the poor festival. The most memorable commemoration for us was the family reunion festival.

Walking back to our guesthouse in Siem Reap
we were invited to join one. They showered us with free beers and dragged us onto their dance floor to learn Cambodian circle dancing. With kids surrounding us teaching us the simple dance moves, we danced in a circle to music ranging from traditional Khmer to Cambodian rap. We were treated like celebrities, and had trouble leaving the party - we had to make an excuse to get out at midnight!

Its hard to understand how
such a spirited people could have such a tragic recent history. When the US left Vietnam, they also pulled out support for the Cambodian monarchy, which was fighting against leftist guerrilas, the Khmer Rouge, scattered through the nations dense jungle country side. Shortly after the US left Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge suceeded in taking over the capital, Phnom Penh, and consolidating their grip over the country. Their leader, Pol Pot, attempted to rapidly transform the country into a purely agrarian society. The cities were emptied. All intellectuals and professionals were tortured and then exterminated in over 300 killing field camps throughout the country. Anyone with soft hands was killed. Then the people that did the killing were killed. Somewhere between 1 and 2 million people were killed between 1975 - 1979, and another million died from famine, exhaustion (they worked 16 hours a day and were fed 3 small bowls of rice porridge a day) and disease.

Finally in 1979 the unlikely heroes - the
communist Vietnamese - after provocation on their border, overthrew the Khmer Rouge in just two short weeks. Although not officially in power, the Khmer Rouge wasn't actually fully defeated and disarmed until 1998. To this day, none of their leaders have been put on trial for the terrible crimes commited against humanity. There is talk of a war crimes tribunal, but to date, nothing has materialized.

There are still so many weapons left over from the years of fighting that tuk-tuk drivers continually offer to drive tourists to shooting ranges where you can, for a price, fire off anything from an AK-47 to a bazooka.

As if the Cambodians had not suffered enough during this brutal period, thousands of landmines were laid throughout the country, and to this day still maim and kill rural cambodians. Landmine victims are frequently ostracized by their family and village as their amputation and medical care is very expensive and they can no longer contribute to the rural economy. Our guide at the landmine museum, Poi, lost his leg to a mine at 10 years of age while working in the fields with his father. While his father left him to seek medical care, he lay waiting in the jungle and was approached by a ravenous tiger who smelt his fresh blood. He fired several gun shots at the tiger who ran away in fear. He ultimately had to leave his family and village because they couldn't or wouldn't help him. He now has rebuilt his life and works as a guide in the museum and non-profit that deactivates mines throughout the country.

It is a common occurance to be followed by a pack of beggars in Cambodia. Some of them missing an eye, others a leg, sometimes, both arms, and sometimes worse. A parade of NGOs have set up shop and it is easy to have every meal at restaurants that support orphanages and buy your souvenirs from stores that support the many disabled.

Despite the chaotic recent history, their past is responsible for one of the most
awe-inspiring cultural accomplishments: Angkor Wat. Built over the course of the fall and rise of multiple Khmer dynasties between 900 and 1300, Angkor is a temple complex that is paralleled by none in this world. Of all the landmarks we've been to; Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal,Petra, Agha Sofia, Athens, the Great Wall, Las Vegas etc.... Angkor stands above them all. We barely had a sunset, couldnt see the sunrise, had to withstand torrential rains and a guide that tried to renegotiate his fee halfway through our tour in the pouring rain, and we still were awestruck. Its not just the sheer size, but the incredible detail found throughout these temples - commemorating Hindu deities, paying respect to Buddha, and covered in uncontainable jungle growth - that kept us full of vigor during a 10 hour day of temple hopping.

Ankgor is still the focal point of Cambodian culture. Every town has streets
and hotels named after it. The national beer is named after it. It is the
one place that every person that comes to this country, and practically every person that comes to this region, goes to. Even with 1 million visitors, paying up to 60 dollars a ticket, Angkor will not be enough to lift this country from the absolute poverty it faces. Hopefully the Cambodians can learn from the Vietnamese story of economic development.....

In our last few days in Vietnam we finally began to understand some of the secrets to their development success. In no small part thanks to one John Speck, a native Georgia peach who moved to Vietnam after a random favor for a friend left him with a Vietnamese wife and a NY style deli in Saigon. When we asked him why open a NY deli in Saigon, he said "If I had pictures of a swamp on the wall and served crocodile meat I wouldn't get many customers". This colorful character explained to us that the Vietnamese model for success involved: 1) strict laws ensuring that all foreign ventures have majority Vietnamese ownership 2) limiting foreign labor to a term of 1.5 years and 3) training vietnamese workers to take over from foreign labor. He himself owns only 49% of Central Park Deli - his young Vietnamese wife (30 years his junior) owns the remaining 51%.

We have had some rough times traveling in Cambodia. Not everyone (especially the people looking to make money off of you) is as cheery as described above. It is so dirty and poor that there is not one stop light in the country's second biggest city and many of its roads are not even paved. The cuisine ranges from a delightful blend of thai, vietnamese, indian, and chinese, to fried spiders and bugs. But here, more than anywhere else yet, we have a great desire for their people to succeed. For the crippled beggars to regain their dignity. The children who sell souveneirs on the street (rather than going to school) to learn something more than foreigners' capital cities. The women to not have to stand idly in massage parlors waiting for a "lucky" customer. Everytime we shook hands with a Cambodian, we felt a sincere desire for them to have enough good fortune to validate their cheery nature and easy going giggles.

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