Cambodia: The Good, the Bad and the Horrific

My experience in Cambodia was the most difficult to write about. The trauma and the wounds of one of the major genocides of our time have not fully healed. Following the Vietnam War, some 2 million people, 25% of the population, were killed by an agrarian socialist government. Between 1992 and 2012, I visited Cambodia several times and watched the changes as they struggled to recover from this horrific past. Although conditions are getting much better, one can still see pain in the eyes of the older people. Some say the sadness has been passed down to the next generation.

Having said that, in recent times many travelers have had outstanding travel experiences visiting the temples and restaurants of Phnom Penh, the fantastic ruins of Angkor Wat, and the uncrowded beaches of Sihanoukville on the south coast.


My first visit in June 1992 was the most memorable and haunting. The wounds inflicted by the Khmer Rouge were still fresh. Although the Vietnamese Army had deposed the murderous Khmer Rouge several years earlier, the United Nations had just taken control of Cambodia that January. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) consisting of 22,000 soldiers from 45 countries became the police, the army and the government. If you know how the UN budget works, you know that the USA was paying the lion’s share of the cost of them being there.

The distinctive blue berets were everywhere. White Toyota land cruisers with the initials UN painted on the side filled the unpaved avenues. In the afternoons and evenings, UN vehicles were double parked in front of the several French restaurants. Pakistani soldiers could be seen shopping in the markets all over town. At night, it was the Wild West. One writer described the scene as “guns, girls and ganja”.  I didn’t see much of the drugs, but I was told you could buy a big bag of weed in the market for a couple dollars. Also, you could get a pizza made with “magic mushrooms” at Happy Herbs pizza restaurant along the riverfront. A thousand bars, massage parlors and brothels sprang up catering to the military.  Bar fights and broken jaws were common.


How did I end up amid all this tumult and anarchy? I was invited there by a Cambodian American fellow by the name of Vanthorn Thach. He was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. Three out of four of the workers in his prison camp died, mostly of starvation. Somehow, Vanthorn was able survive and get to the United States and was now living in San Diego. He heard that I was helping some local Vietnamese start an import export business. He came to my office at the College. He said he had a number of contacts in Cambodia and wanted me to show them how to get started in international trade. I agreed, and a few months later he was waiting for me when I arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh. The adventure began.

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Work came first. Once I was settled in to my simple but comfortable room, I met Mr. Heng, Vanthorn’s contact in Phnom Penh. Mr. Heng and his family ran a small office supply business on one of the main streets in the center. After we talked about possible products to trade and potential trading partners, they offered to show me the main sites of Phnom Penh including the Central Market, Wat Phnom and, at my request, the infamous Toul Sleng and Choeun Ek.


Mr. Heng and Family


The iconic art deco Central Market was something left over from the French occupation. Indeed, you could still see many remnants of French colonization around town including a number of excellent French restaurants.  When I climbed a hill to see Wat Phnom at the top, I received a shock. About halfway up there was a woman holding a baby. I smiled down at her and she smiled back and opened the shawl so I could see the baby.  I was stunned to see how emaciated the child was. It really hit me what these people had been through! And it wasn’t over. I wasn’t sure what I should do. I think I handed her a wad of local money and continued my hike half stunned. That evening I had dinner with Mr. Heng and Vanthorn by the riverside. They acknowledged there was still a lot of poverty in Cambodia especially when you got out of the capital. The Khmer Rouge had caused it, but neither the Vietnamese occupiers nor the United Nations had done much about it.

The next morning I visited Toul Sleng. I didn’t invite Vanthorn along because I thought it might be too painful for him. Toul Sleng was a converted school building that was used as a detention center where supposed enemies of the State were interrogated, tortured and ultimately sent away to be executed. You were considered an enemy of the State if you were educated, could read or had lived abroad. Over a four-year period, the Khmer Rouge managed to execute nearly all of the country’s best and brightest. They meticulously photographed their victims. The photos were still there on the walls. You could see in the people’s eyes that they knew they were about to die. Very haunting. The interesting thing about this instance of genocide was that it was not carried out on another ethnic group or race or religion but it was one group of Khmer people killing another group of Khmer people. It was strictly done on social class or economic class lines.

The same afternoon I took a car and driver 17 miles south out to Choeung Ek. These were the infamous killing fields. I wanted to see this last notorious site and then spend the rest of my visit during much more pleasant things. Once people had been processed in Phnom Penh, they were taken by truck to these fields and stood up along an open pit. They were either shot in the back of the head or sometimes, in order to save ammunition, they were simply hit with an ax. Often their heads were buried in a different place from their bodies. The skulls have been dug up and stacked. In a later visit, I saw that they were put in a pagoda. As I walked around the open pits from where they had exhumed the bodies, I heard crunching under my feet, I was shocked to discover that I was walking on human bone shards. Enough for one day! Time to get back to Phnom Penh.

No visit to Cambodia would be complete without seeing Angkor Wat. I bought tickets to Siem Reap for Vanthorn and me on Royal Air Cambodge, a questionable domestic carrier that is now defunct. A few years after we flew the airline, Teng Boonma, a Cambodian tycoon, got so angry with Royal Air Cambodge when they lost his luggage that he took out a gun and famously shot out the front tire of the airplane. We had no other choice but to use this airline. The only other way to get there was to go overland for six hours through countryside still controlled by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge Army. The US Embassy had issued a travel advisory that under no circumstances should Americans travel overland. Even though they had been defeated, small bands of young Khmer Rouge with AK47’s were still active. Several foreigners had been kidnapped.

Angkor Wat was well worth the risk we took in getting there, however. Covering more than 400 acres, it is the largest religious monument in the world. Starting out as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century, it later became a Buddhist temple. It is a prime example of Khmer art and architecture. The carvings in the stone are exquisite. We saw the main temple of Angkor Wat plus some of the outlying temples such as Bayon and Ta Prohm. Highly photogenic, Ta Prohm was later used as a set in the movie Tomb Raider. We pretty much had the entire site to ourselves. We saw very few other visitors. In 1992 Angkor Wat only had 5000 visitors for the entire year. In 2015 it had 2 million visitors (mostly Chinese). I’m glad I saw it then even though it was a bit dangerous.

Ankor AK47

In fact, I liked Cambodia so much I invited my brother to travel with me there the next year. He had been working on a masters degree and was very interested in art, religion and anthropology. Angkor Wat was like a feast for him. While I enjoyed Angkor for the second time, I was anxious to see as much as I could of the rest of the country. After enjoying Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat, I booked us on a flight to see the beaches of Sihanoukville. Again we flew Royal Air Cambodge. The US Embassy travel advisory was still in effect. No land travel for Americans. It was a 3 1/2 hour bus or car ride to the South. The flight got us there quickly and safely.

Sihanoukville was just starting to develop in 1993. The beaches such as Ochheuteal, Otres, and Serendipity were pristine and uncrowded. Seafood was cheap and plentiful. Even today, the town is considered a travel bargain. In fact, many longtime expat residents of Thailand have been moving there in recent years to escape rising prices in Thailand. Visas are much easier to obtain there as well.

Gene Angkor

Brother Bob and I enjoyed our three days at the beach. It was when we were ready to leave the trouble began. I went by the office of the airline to confirm the flight time. The manager told me that the flight had been canceled completely and the next one was scheduled three days from then. It would’ve been lovely to stay there for another three days but the problem was that we had a flight from Phnom Penh to Vientiene, Laos to catch the next day. Our only choice was to go overland if we wanted to make that flight. Well there was a bus a couple of times a day. But the embassy strongly advised against it. A couple of teachers were kidnapped from that bus the year before. Perhaps we can ask to sit in the “no kidnapping” section, I jokingly said to Bob.

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As we walked up the street to the bus station, we saw a young foreigner using a copy machine in a shop. I stopped and asked if he had any ideas how we could get to Phnom Penh. He was an Australian named Steve. He said that as a matter of fact he was going to drive there that very day.  He had a boat moored in the harbor. Someone had stolen his starter motor and he needed to go to Phnom Penh to get a replacement. We were welcome to ride along if we wanted to. Now in my mind I was thinking which is safer bus or car? Well, this fellow was an Australian and had been living there for several years. He seemed to know what was going on. If the road wasn’t safe, he wouldn’t be driving it. Again, the risk paid off. We made it back to the capital, but I have to admit every time we went through one of the many roadblocks, I was a bit anxious. Steve seemed to have all the right decals on his front windshield, however. When we would reach a checkpoint, the Cambodian military would see all his decals, salute us and wave us through. It turns out that Steve was very well connected with the Cambodian military. We suspected his boat was used to bring in special “supplies” for the generals from neighboring Thailand. He didn’t talk about it. And we didn’t ask. We were grateful for the ride back to Phnom Penh.


Meanwhile back in the capital, the blue berets were still there and they stayed there until the end of that year at a cost of US$1.6 billion. Their second major goal besides peacekeeping was to hold an election. A party affiliated with the royal family won 45% of the vote and a new government was formed in September with Prince Ranariddh as the first Prime Minister. The only problem was that the second-leading vote-getter was a military strongman named Hun Sen. Since he controlled the Army, he demanded to be named Second Prime Minister. From that position, he eventually was able to take over the entire government and eventually banish Prince Ranariddh. To this day, Hun Sen is still the dictator of Cambodia and has managed to suppress any opposition and to “win” every single election for the last 35 years. So much for the United Nation’s ability to establish democracy.

Despite it’s tragic history and the lack of a free political system and economy, Cambodia is still a delightful place to visit. Tourism is quite important to them and they are very friendly and take good care of the tourists. It’s worth a visit.




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