Cambodia / កម្ពុជា
Cambodians have a wonderfully positive attitude
Cambodians are some of the most positive, life affirming people you will meet. In my brief 2 weeks visiting the country I was amazed by the kindness and generosity I received, especially from people who have so little. I have been told that even in competitive games and sports, Cambodians focus more on enjoyment and improving skill, rather than victory. When the Cambodian football team is playing an international match, it’s common for the Cambodians in the crowd to applaud and cheer the opposing team, as well as their own.
I wonder if some of this cultural optimism comes from a people learning to compensate for the horrors in their recent history. Cambodians definitely seem more inclined to feel hope for their future, and appreciation for their present, than despair about their past.
Cambodia has the longest alphabet in the world
The Cambodian language (Khmer) has about 68 letters (depending on definition), more than any other language. Khmer script uses an “abugida” writing system. This means that every consonant sound is always combined with a vowel to make a letter. For example, ក is the letter for the “kar” sound. There are 33 consonants like this.
Then there are 23 vowels they use to change the consonants, by adding them above, below, or to the side. By adding this vowel: ា to the side of this letter: ក (“kar”), it becomes កា (“ka”). They also have 12 vowels that can be used on their own. All this sounds like it makes Khmer script very hard for foreigners to learn, so well done any expats who’ve managed it!
Cambodia has a river that reverses for 6 months of the year
Tonle Sap river is a tributary of the Mekong, South East Asia’s largest river. During the monsoon season, the Mekong river level gets so high that the floodwaters flow “up” the Tonle Sap river, and into Tonle Sap lake, causing the lake to increase its volume by as much as 80 times! When the monsoon season ends in November, the Mekong drops down, and the lake can empty, with the Tonle Sap river once again flowing “down” into the Mekong. Tonle Sap is the only river in the world that naturally reverses like this.
Cambodia has a tragic past
Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia was subject to one of the most traumatic events in recent history. The Khmer Rouge, a brutal communist regime, seized power and began a mass displacement and genocide. Their leader, Pol Pot, held the belief that Cambodia should become a self-sufficient nation. He imposed this idea by evacuating the cities, and forcing everyone to become farmers. This resulted in mass starvation. Those accused of speaking out against the regime were shown no mercy. The educated were also targets, and just wearing glasses was enough to get you tortured to death.
In 4 years, 1.7 to 3 million people were killed at the hands of their own government. That was up to one third of the population of Cambodia, so it’s likely that any Cambodian you talk to will have family who were killed, and anyone over 40 is likely to have had personal experience of the horrors of that time. 23,000 mass graves have been found throughout the country, so you are never too far from a place of torture and massacre. Torture, infanticide, and rape were appallingly common. Methods of death were often incredibly cruel, as bullets were valued more than human lives.
Modern Cambodia is so much more than this episode of its past. However, I still felt the need to share it, as so many people in the world are oblivious to this chapter of history.
They Lead the world in…
The famous Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia is the largest religious structure in the world. The many temples surrounding it cover an area of about 400 km2, with new ruins being discovered all the time. The main temple was built in the 1100s by King Suryavarman II, as a shrine to the Hindu god Vishnu (“the preserver”), and as a capital to the mighty Khmer Empire. As the Buddhist influence in the Khmer empire increased throughout the 12 and 13th centuries, the temple became a centre of Buddhist worship, as it remains to this day. The moats surrounding Angkor and several other temples in the area kept them from being overrun by the jungle, and it is thought that monks have inhabited and maintained the main temple for nearly all of its history. Angkor Wat is a hugely important symbol of Cambodian history, religion, and heritage, even appearing on their flag.