Cambodia: Dark Past, Bright Future

Jonathan Thibeaux
November 30, 2015
Young Buddhist Monks

As the years have passed in my life, I have grown to see that God has a mysterious way of working things out in my life. During my first couple of weeks studying abroad in Shanghai, I had this almost impossible plan to explore Southeast Asia during my 3 months in Asia.. Because of re-entry issues, I soon realized that this almost impossible plan became truly impossible. Shortly after, my plan was rejuvenated through an opportunity provided to make amends for the students that would not be able to visit Cambodia during their Kunming abroad experience IES Abroad offered an extension of our Singapore experience to those originally in the Kunming program, as well as those in the Shanghai program. And to make things better, I was able to tag on Bangkok following my time in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. My experiences in Bangkok, Singapore, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap differed significantly considering their close geographic locations.

After landing in Phnom Penh, it was easy to see that we were not in Singapore anymore. Though young, Singapore had made itself an economically stable powerhouse in only 50 years. Cambodia, on the other hand, seemed way far behind. However, even with its less less modern persona, there was still something very beautiful about Cambodia that went beyond its vibrant blue skies which added the perfect touch to its old city charm. During our first few days in Cambodia, we took advantage of the inexpensive meals; got our retail itch scratched at its huge markets; and of course made stops at the Royal Palace, National Museum, and a few other temples. Blessed with a great tour guide, we were able to site see and gain a bit of knowledge along the way.

Formerly known as the “Pearl of Asia,” Cambodia is home to around 15 million people. Of that total population, 2 million people live in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Once the hub for the Khmer Empire and French colonists, the city sits on the bank of both the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. In its past, Phnom Penh was one of the most revered cities in the Southeast Asia and was considered to be one of the loveliest French built cities. While culturally rich, the city also possesses a very dark past.

From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia suffered genocide under the Democratic Kampuchea’s administration. It amazed me that at its inception, people welcome and celebrated Pol Pot, yet at the time, they did not know what would be soon to come. Because he thought they could pose a possible threat, Pol Pot, the Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea, during this time had all teachers, doctors, lawyers, and any other degree holders killed. Kids were even later forced to kill their parents. No citizens were allowed to own a kitchen, for they all had to eat the same meals at the same time. Uniforms exhibited no social status and 70-80% of the countries population would engage in farming to make them self-sustainable. Those that disagreed with his rule or posed a threat were sent to inhuman prisons and were later sent to killing sites.

While in Phnom Penh, we were able to visit both sites. Stepping foot on the killing site’s grounds, a heaviness came over me. There I heard the cries and screams of the almost 2 million Cambodians who lost their lives during this period. I couldn’t help but to see myself in the faces of the prisoners that were presented to us in the prison. I felt a connection through the past of my ancestors, and my family. In 1979, Pol Pot was thrown out of office and Vietnam took control. Later, the UN would get involved and rebuild the city to what it is today. Today, Cambodia is growing and is the stomping ground for millions of tourists.

The ladder part of our time in Cambodia was spent in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is the go to tourist destination for those who want great food and bar scene, great shopping, and your fare share of temples. Watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat and visiting its many temples, posing for pictures atop the Beng Mealea (an old ruin and jungle temple), and walking through Tag Phrom (Tomb Raider) were simply breathtaking. Not to mention, we got to visit the city’s Watertown as well. After a 2 hour-long bus ride, we were able to sail out to Southeast Asia’s second largest lake and see the Vietnamese Floating Village as well.

Cambodia has so much history. After visiting Singapore, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap provided the perfect contrast. It was there that I was able to see what triumph looks like and how after such a dark past, the country is moving forward. Cambodia allotted me an introspective and visually stimulating experience. I am extremely grateful to have visited a country with such a historically grossing culture. Check out some of my pictures below (out of respect for the dead, I did not take pictures at the killing sites or prisons).

Jonathan Thibeaux

<p>Jonathan Thibeaux hails from Lafayette, LA and is a 5th year biology major at Morehouse College. A self-proclaimed &quot;media enthusiast, writer, motivator, and certified dreamer,&rdquo; he is working hard to catapult himself from a pre-medical past into the world of media and television. At Morehouse, he served as the Senior Co-Chair of the Campus Alliance for Student Activities, Co-Campus Based Leader for the Gates Millennium Scholar Group, Maroon Tiger Columnist, and Presidential Ambassador. Choosing to defer his degree for a year, he will be spending a year in Shanghai, China and Cape Town, South Africa for an immersive educational experience. Through his blog and affiliations he hopes to provide a safe and inspiring space for teenagers and adults to document and experience their lives, without the pressure to conform to social constructs. He hopes to one day work in Marketing as a television executive and possibly even becoming the talent of his own show. This fall he will be blogging for Shanghai, China.</p>

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