The True Heart of Cambodia

With a final, gurgling burst of smoke, our bus gave up its battle for survival and collapsed by the side of the road. As the engine cut off, the air-con died and the heat immediately began to thicken. If we didn’t get off now we’d be cooked. Huffing and puffing,  I filed out into the harsh glare of sunlight onto a barren, dusty stretch of road to wait for a replacement bus. This was the second day in a row that we’d experienced a breakdown and I was well and truly fed up. What happened next, however, unexpectedly turned my mood around and reminded me of just why I love Cambodia.

Banana Fritter Street-Seller in Cambodia

Woman selling banana fritters in Battambang

In search of shade we walked aimlessly down the road, stopping to stroke a cute puppy that began bounding around our legs. As I bent down to scratch his ears, a soft voice called out from behind me in greeting. A group of shy but smiley Cambodian teenagers had materialised, keen to practice their English skills with us. Although it was a Sunday, they beckoned us into their one-room village school and a crowd of giggling teenage girls surrounded me, excitedly asking question after question without waiting to hear my replies. All of a sudden, the group parted to make way for a petite girl dressed, despite the stifling heat, in a pink hoodie and gloves, her hair tied neatly behind her.

“Hello Sister, how can I help you?” she asked, extending her small hand in greeting. As we told the story of our broken bus the girl nodded briskly and replied in fluent, fast English: “When I heard that there were foreigners in my village I knew I had to take one hour off from studying to come and talk to them.”

Cambodian Kids in the Countryside

Cambodian kids and BBQ rat

As the girl continued to tell me of her ambitions to become a teacher and invited me into her home to see the elaborate wood carvings her mother made, I couldn’t help but think how – had this bright, studious girl been born just several generations earlier – she’d be fighting to merely survive.

Coming to Terms with Cambodia’s Brutal Past

Throughout our month in Cambodia I visited the Killing Fields and prisons where roughly one third of the population was exterminated under Pol Pot’s insane three-year reign. The lasting effects of the Cambodian genocide, which occurred just 35 years ago, are achingly visible today; in the absence of much of the elderly population, in the hundreds of children who work on the streets, the beggars disfigured by land mines and the impoverished rickshaw drivers who persistently tout for work – it’s clear that Cambodia is struggling to heal its wounds.

Bracelets at a Mass Grave in the Killing Fields

Bracelets at a Mass Grave in the Killing Fields

This is no surprise really. When all the intellectual people, doctors, teachers, politicians, police and lawyers have been systematically removed from a society, when families have been separated and dispersed around the country and the economy has been decimated, it will understandably take unknown decades for that country to recover. Saying that, however much you try to prepare yourself for these realities, it’s hard not to be affected by them when you visit Cambodia.

Although I think it’s incredibly important to learn about traumatic episodes in history, like the Cambodian genocide and the Vietnam War, I also think that there’s an unfortunate tendency for countries to become synonymous with brutal events that occurred there. This is exactly what happened to me in Cambodia. As we travelled around the country I found it incredibly difficult to separate the Cambodia of today from the genocide that occurred there and because of this, a deep sadness settled over me.

Sunset in Kratie, Cambodia

Contemplating Cambodia’s past

On bus rides through the countryside I imagined all the people who had worked as slaves in the fields, half starved and brutalised by Khmer Rouge guards. In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap I thought of all the people who were forced to march out of their homes into a life of misery. I started reading books about the genocide and was particularly haunted by Loung Ung’s First they killed my father, a brutally absorbing first-hand account of Loung’s life as a child under Pol Pot’s regime. Every time I saw someone who looked over 40 I remembered that they must have been alive during the genocide.

The True Heart of Cambodia

On the day that our bus broke down, as I stood amongst these bright, welcoming teenagers, I was reminded that while there’s a lot of pain and trauma in the country, there’s also a lot of resilience, strength and love. I finally realised that the true heart of Cambodia does not lie in its killing fields, its temples or its bloody history; yes, these things are an undeniable part of the country, but they do not define it.

The true heart of Cambodia lies in its people.

Cambodian Girl at Angkor Wat

Cambodian girl at Angkor Wat

On a trip through the countryside, I remember the group of farmers who stopped work as we passed; leaning on their spades they called out to us in greeting, hands raised, broad smiles on their faces. Then there’s the tuk tuk driver who kept stopping to buy us traditional snacks. When we tried to pay for them he waved our hands away; “They are free because you are newcomers,” he explained.

Bamboo Train Driver, Battambang Cambodia

Bamboo train driver

How could I ever forget the hordes of grinning kids who waved, smiled and called Hello to us as we journeyed through the country, chasing our tuk tuk and high-fiving us? What about the cheeky daughter of a café owner who put one finger up to her mouth as if to say ‘ssshhhh’ when we caught her stealing cake crumbs from the pie cabinet? Or the raucous, singing women who massaged our feet while we sipped beer on the pavements of Siem Reap?

Phare Poneu Selpak Circus, Cambodia

The Phare Poneu Selpak Circus troop

In particular I’ll always remember all the young Cambodian women who wanted to talk with me – most especially that girl in the pink hoodie who greeted me warmly as Sister and told me:

“It’s my duty to show you real Cambodian life; while you’re in this country you are Cambodian.”

Those people represent the real heart of Cambodia.

I learnt that the true heart of Cambodia does not lie in its killing fields, its temples or its bloody history - it lies in the incredibly kind and welcoming people we met there.

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  • Shalu Sharma
    Posted at 20:22h, 02 May Reply

    Cambodia looks fascinating. Those banana fritters seems appetising, love to try that. You are right about those aspects of Cambodia, I am sure it will recover but it will take some time.

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:13h, 03 May Reply

      Hi Shalu, Cambodia was fascinating and the people were incredible, despite everything they’ve been through.

  • Kerri
    Posted at 06:15h, 04 May Reply

    Amy you have done an amazing job capturing the essence of Cambodia through your words! Cambodia has been one of the friendliest places we have been. Thanks for sharing!

    • Amy
      Posted at 14:57h, 04 May Reply

      Thanks so much Kerri, I was so moved by the people in Cambodia and found our time there really humbling. I’m glad you found the people there friendly too.

  • Samuel Jeffery
    Posted at 08:28h, 05 May Reply

    This is a lovely post. I’ve been to Cambodia 4 times myself and I’m constantly reminded how incredibly resilient and kind the locals are given their brutal recent past.

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:57h, 05 May Reply

      Thanks Samuel, I had a great time meeting the people in Cambodia and learnt so much from them. I’ve just finished a volunteering stint in the Philippines and I was also humbled by the resilience of the people I met there; many of them have lost so much because of the typhoon but they’re so happy, welcoming and strong.

  • Heidi (@WagonersAbroad)
    Posted at 09:13h, 05 May Reply

    Amy your writing is just amazing. I felt like I was right there with you and I can feel the pain. It is difficult to see all that has happened in the past, but we must all love today and look forward to the future. We plan to visit Cambodia later this year, so perhaps we will find the girl with the pink hoodie.

    • Amy
      Posted at 09:23h, 05 May Reply

      Thank you so much Heidi, what a lovely compliment 🙂 You will meet plenty of beautiful, kind people in Cambodia I’m sure of it. You’re so right about loving today and looking forward to the future; that’s a lesson we should all heed.

  • Jenia from HTL
    Posted at 14:04h, 05 May Reply

    Amy – this is a beautiful way to describe Cambodia. I remember when we first arrived in the country – in Battambang – I was instantly taken with the gentle elegance of its people. It was a completely unexpected feeling. We’ve read varying accounts of traveling in Cambodia and I was preparing myself to struggle and to accept that in a place where such unimaginable horror happened just a few decades ago, we couldn’t reasonably expect its people to welcome us with open hearts. And yet, there they were – smiling, helping, welcoming us to their country. I too struggled traveling there – imaging the horrors of the Pol Pot regime many times on any given day. And yet, each day I realized over and over again that the people of Cambodia aren’t broken as a result. It was bittersweet and uplifting. I am really glad we went.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 14:12h, 05 May Reply

      Hi Jenia, thanks for commenting. I’m glad you had a similar experience with the people in Cambodia; you’re right, travelling there is uplifting. We loved Battambang and found the people there particularly welcoming – Cambodia is a beautiful place despite everything that’s happened there.

  • Rob
    Posted at 19:12h, 06 May Reply

    A lovely post, your personal stories really capture the warmth and resilience of the country. It’s amazing how people can face such horrific adversity but still come out smiling on the other side.

    • Amy
      Posted at 12:31h, 07 May Reply

      Thank you Rob. I totally agree, it’s amazing how people can be so happy and welcoming after experiencing such traumatic events; we’ve seen that same resilience in survivors of the Typhoon here in the Philippines and we find it really humbling.

  • Emiel
    Posted at 19:56h, 07 May Reply

    I so love this story!! It is wonderfully written, compliments. But above all it describes in a powerful, yet humble way how you feel about the Cambodian people. You know we traveled in Cambodia as well last year and I am about to launch another post about fabulous Battambang; we loved the people and I fully understand how you felt.

    Great post!

    • Amy
      Posted at 03:07h, 08 May Reply

      Thanks Emiel 🙂 We loved Battambang too and were taken on an amazing tour of the countryside by the generous tuk tuk driver I mentioned above. I’m glad so many other travellers loved the Cambodian people as much as we did.

  • Alyson
    Posted at 21:46h, 13 May Reply

    It’s so shocking that all this was within my lifetime. I remember it being in the news. I’ve read many books about the era and been deeply troubled by them, but, as you say, Cambodia is amazing, and beautiful country, beautiful people. It’s shocking though to pass from the richness of Vietnam or Thailand into Cambodia, such a contrast, or it was in 2001, the last time we were there. We’re looking forward to going back.

    • Amy
      Posted at 01:32h, 14 May Reply

      You’re right Alyson, we travelled into Cambodia from Vietnam and were staggered by how much poorer the county felt. I will always remember the kindness and resilience of the people we met in Cambodia though and we had such amazing experiences there.

    Posted at 12:30h, 17 June Reply

    aww.. it was so lovely and nice of those villagers. i have personal experiences with Cambodian villagers and they are sooo warm hearted and sweet 🙂

    • Andrew
      Posted at 11:19h, 18 June Reply

      The Cambodians are such amazingly friendly people, one of our favourite places for sure.

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