Cambodia makes you want to learn history
You go to a new country and in a few days you can make a reliable generalization. These people, they are cranky. These others, they are outgoing and festive. Those there, shy and gentle.
Cambodians stumped me. One week in and I couldn’t condense the national psyche to any nugget worth its air.
I was in a country with fast-paced cities, mind-blowing architectural aesthetics (ever seen a Khmer pagoda?) and a proud heritage of a bygone empire. But the people were a total mystery.
A people of contrasts
At first, Cambodians seem to be polite, smiley and shy. Then you run into pushy touts who grab your arm and don’t understand “no” after five times. You meet children who seem entirely robotic in their sales pitch. They come, one after the other, offering identical products with the same spiel:
“You buy bracelet? OK, not now, later? Pinky swear? You swore you would buy from me. Why you lie?”
And when you try to engage them in conversation, they go blank, reverting to their rehearsed lines.
You talk to locals who don’t seem to have any notion of abstract thinking. They look at a map like it’s a foreign alphabet. When you ask them any question beginning with “why” you get a silent stare in return. Even hand gestures that worked in every other country are lost on them.
Then you hear of the scams and the corruption that is so pervasive, it’s a normal part of life.
So to better understand the present, I turned to the past.
History explains a bit
Cambodian history is still fresh. Anyone over 35 lived through the bloodiest social experiment of the 20th century. They were torn from their homes and forced to work in the fields. They lost family members to starvation, disease, and assassination.
How this manifests in the present population takes some work to understand.
For one, the Khmer Rouge sought to eliminate anyone with an education. Intellectuals, artists, teachers, doctors, engineers… all of them murdered. Only “pure” and “uncorrupted” peasants, or those who could fool the executioners, were spared. To live, you had to act dumb.
“Imagine if everyone except the working class of your country was killed off,” one English expat explained to me. “Imagine that only they had kids and assumed positions of power.”
So you have an uneducated majority left in charge of the country. But that’s not all.
“Most Cambodians only really learn two things at school,” another English expat, a hotel owner in Siem Reap, told me. “How to read Khmer and how to write Khmer. The lucky ones learn English.”
Creative thinking and scientific exploration, things we assume are universal in schooling, are sorely lacking here. Hence the Cambodian difficulty in abstract thought.
The same hotel owner told me he doesn’t let Cambodians swim in his pool. Not because of discrimination, but because he’s tired of saving them from drowning: “They see the pool and jump in. But they don’t remember that they can’t swim until they drown.”
$1 a day. That’s what many Cambodians earn to feed and clothe their families. Not surprisingly, they will use other means of making money. And if the Khmer Rouge taught then anything, it’s that all’s fair in the fight for survival.
Including scams and bribes.
Yet another English expat I talked to no longer calls it corruption. To get anything done, you just have to grease a palm. “It’s commission, mate. It’s just the way things work here.”
History is still unraveling
The country is going through its first period of peace in a long time. Khmer Rouge leaders are still undergoing trials and appealing their sentences. Its people are encountering more foreigners than ever before.
It’s all going very fast: a mostly rural population is coming into contact with an ultra-modern Western world quicker than they can manage to assimilate it. This results in a display of behaviours that strike us Westerners as odd.
Recovering from cancer
“The Khmer Rouge regime was a cancer. We survived it, but we’re still weak from it.” Such was the explanation given by Meang, the immeasurably helpful owner of the Prohm Roth Guesthouse in Siem Reap. This simple thought explained as much as the hundreds of pages I read on the topic.
It seems the Cambodian people are in a collective post-shock syndrome, slowly coming to terms with what happened. Former Khmer Rouge soldiers and executioners walk among survivors of the killing fields. Children taught to smash babies against trees are hustling through adult life.
It can drive one mad if thought about too much.
With such a gruesome mix of causes and a strange set of effects, how can you not want to learn more about its history? Few places have made me this thirsty for knowledge.