Why Cambodia Breaks My Heart – Traveling in Cambodia

In addition to having landed in Southeast Asia in early February last year, and having been here now for over a year, we have extensively around the region in the past.  Our first trip to Southeast Asia was a visit to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, in 2006.  It was one of the trips that I credit with our travel bug infestation.  We thought about living in Asia at some point after that trip, and even looked online at house rentals in Siem Reap.  During our round the world trip in 2009, we spent a total of 7 months traveling the region, including a good amount of time traveling in Cambodia.  

Traveling in Cambodia The Cambodia we saw in early 2009, was different from the one we saw just a few years before.  For that second trip, we visited Phnom Penh to see a friend who was living there.  We returned to Siem Reap to tour Angkor Wat again, and to visit our former tour guide, Nan.  Traveling in Cambodia was a different experience all together. 

Now that we are back in the region, and have yet another friend living in Cambodia, I have been hesitant to travel back for a third visit.  I fell in love with Cambodia during my first visit, as a novice traveler in the region, someone traveling with fresh eyes.  The second trip broke my heart, and has made me less interested in returning.  Although I wonder about how the country is developing now that it has been 8 years since our first visit, I am afraid I know the answer.

Then, I read a thought provoking blog post from Amanda at A Dangerous Business.  Her Thoughts on Cambodia left me sad once again for the country.  She talked of Khmer Rouge history, poverty, infrastructure, and my pet peeve in the region – corruption.  It reminded me of the posts I wrote in my old blog during our trip in 2009, and one in particular about Cambodia, the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, the corruption, and the future of the country, portions of which are included below.  For the full, and very lengthy read, see Pure Evil – the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh.  I wrote about touring the S21 prison and the Killing Fields, but also about our experience witnessing the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal, which was going on at that time. 

After reading Amanda’s piece, and then reading my 2009 post for the first time in awhile, it, once again, breaks my heart that it seems there has been no improvement in the lives of the people of Cambodia.  When, and how, can things change?  Will they ever change?

Evil on Trial While Traveling in Cambodia

Traveling in Cambodia

The ECCC in 2009

The most unique part of our visit to Phnom Penh resulted from the timeliness of our visit.  After nearly ten years of negotiations, the UN, in cooperation with the Cambodian government organized a war crimes tribunal to try five high ranking Khmer Rouge officials.  Pol Pot died in 1998 and was not brought to justice.  The Extraordinary Criminal Chambers of Cambodia, the ECCC, was in the processing of trying Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who was the Deputy Secretary and then Secretary of Tuol Sleng Prison, S21.

My friend, Sonja, was interning with the ECCC during her last semester of law school.  She arranged for Eric and me to have gallery seats during one of the first days of trial testimony.  We rode with her on the free UN bus about one hour to the site of the ECCC, on a former military base outside of Phnom Penh.  Once there, we walked through security.  We were not allowed a camera, or food or drink of any kind once beyond security.  It was more strict than an airport.  Just beyond security was the visitors’ “café” – a small stall with some food and an espresso machine with a few metal tables and plastic chairs.  The café was enclosed by high fences with barbed wire on either side.  I felt like we were in a prison. 

It was pointed out that just on the other side of one walkway, about 50 yards away, was the detention center, where Duch and the other four defendants were held.  There were angry complaints from the guards about the treatment of the defendants.  Apparently, their room and board was more luxurious than what most of the population of Cambodia lives in each day – all at the expense of the government, the UN, and other international sponsors. 

After our coffee, we walked to the court, up the stairs, and through another metal detector.   The gallery was large, possibly holding 300 spectators.  It curved around a center courtroom, but was separated from the courtroom by soundproof glass.  When we arrived, several attorneys and staff were busy in the courtroom preparing for trial.  Shortly before the start time, Duch was escorted in by two guards.  Although he was old, and looked almost frail, he frightened me.  I was transfixed by seeing in person someone I had read so much about – someone who was a contemporary of and an underling to Pol Pot.  When the trial began, we put our headsets on as the trial was conducted in Khmer, French, and English.  

Traveling in Cambodia

S21 Prison

The substance of Duch’s testimony was fascinating in several respects.  After the judge asked the first question regarding Duch’s involvement with M13, a detention center, Duch started his testimony by expressing remorse for the killing and by seeking forgiveness.  He was killing for political reasons, it was not personal.  They were “atrocities he had no choice but to commit.”  He also discussed the background of M13 and his involvement with the Communist Party.  He had an early interest in politics, and felt he “sacrificed” for the revolution, giving up most of his salary for the benefit of the revolution.  He took an oath.  “I raised my hand to respect and to swear to be sincere to the party, the class and the people of [Cambodia] for my entire life and to serve the party, the class and the people for my entire life . . . and that I would sacrifice anything for the party.”  

From a historical context, the executions started around 1966.  Although Duch did not personally witness executions at that time, he knew they existed.  Prior to his involvement, executions of political enemies were conducted by Lon Nol, the government that was supported by the US.  Duch believed the US policy in Cambodia promoted the rise of the Khmer Rouge.  In his words, “[t]o my understanding, if Richard Nixon did not be quick to allow Lon Nol to start the coup d’etat and allowing Khmer Rouge to cooperate with [Prince] Sihanouk, I think the Khmer Rouge would already be demolished; otherwise we would never be able to stand up again.”  He also said that in response to Nixon and Kissinger’s involvement with Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge took the “golden opportunity” to rise up against Lon Nol to protect the people of Cambodia, under a Marxist belief.

The focus of Duch’s testimony, and frankly, his defense, was on his duty to the party and that he was just following orders.  He recognized the need to interrogate and torture people to gain information on party enemies, who stood in the way of the revolution.   He released people he could.  He claimed he was concerned about the prison conditions, how dark and wet they were and that people died from starvation, dehydration, and the dark.  He supposedly requested that the prison be moved for better conditions, but his request fell on deaf ears.   

Duch did not like his position and claimed he begged for a transfer to a different post, which was also denied.   There was no escape from his position, and he had a “conflict within himself.”  He admitted beating and torturing prisoners, but felt it was his duty to the party and the revolution.  “I had no thought other than following their orders in order to survive.  I knew that the task was criminal in nature, but I had to follow the orders.”  I did not find Duch to be a credible witness.  During court recess, someone in the gallery waived to Duch and he smiled and waved back, as though we were at a cocktail party rather than a war crimes tribunal with victims’ families in the gallery.  

I am certainly glad we had the experience to sit in on a portion of a trial of this magnitude.  I would have loved to hear witness testimony from victims, although I do not know if I could stomach it.  Just listening to Duch justify his actions at the M13 security center, and explaining why people died there, was enough for me.   The testimony did not even begin to touch on the specifics of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.   As much as we were in the 5th row of the gallery separated by glass windows from Duch, it was eerie to think I was sitting so close to someone who caused so much of the death I saw at S21 and the Killing Fields.  

The Aftermath of the Khmer Rouge

What was even more depressing was seeing the remaining effects of the Khmer Rouge on the population while traveling in Cambodia.  Young children who survived the Khmer Rouge were only a little older than Eric and I.  And, that was a generation that grew up without grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, or siblings.  The destruction of the family structure, in addition to the environment, the existence of land mines, and a return to “year zero” has had a disastrous effect on the population.  

Traveling in Cambodia In 2006, when we visited Siem Reap, we felt the people we met, and in particular the children, were so filled with pride in their country and had hope for the future.  With the decline in the global economy and reduced tourist dollars flooding into the country, what we saw in 2009 was desperation and a population focused on getting through today, rather than focusing on tomorrow. 

With respect to tourism, the main industry in Cambodia, the government was not maximizing its resources.  Angkor is unique, but the government has not controlled the growth in Siem Reap.  The expansive and unchecked growth in the region has affected the water table, and to continue at this rate will potentially destroy the historical temples.    The government does nothing.  Phnom Penh and Kampot have beautiful river fronts that could turn into wonderful promenades to increase tourism.  Instead, they were waste lands for garbage and beggars.  Merely cleaning the garbage from the streets would benefit the tourist experience.  The government was not concerned.  They do not believe in “you need to spend money to make money.”

We also experienced more “touts” and hard selling than our first visit.  People were more rude and aggressive than in Thailand or Laos.  When they surround you, all yelling, and grabbing at you, and you think they are pick pocketing or trying to steal your bag, you are on the defensive.  I went from thinking that the Cambodian people were welcoming and friendly to feeling as though there are so many who are untrustworthy.  We were getting scammed by a driver in Siem Reap and had to jump from a moving tuk tuk, with our backpacks and everything, just to get away from him.  It left a sour taste in my mouth.

We met one Brit who spent three months in India, one of the hardest countries to travel in, and a few weeks in Cambodia.  He said it was a country he could not wait to leave.  If tourists are not comfortable or welcomed, and always feel on the defensive, not only are they less likely to return, but their stories are shared and people wonder whether they should go to Cambodia at all.  This is just one example of not thinking about the future.  

Traveling in Cambodia

Cambodia, Tonle Sap, 2006

The reputation of the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, former Khmer Rouge himself, was a reputation of pure corruption.  From Hun Sen, to government officials, to the police, there were allegations that everyone was on the take.  And, the population was aware.  When you know your government is stealing, it makes it okay for you and your family to steal.  As a result, there are rampant problems with employees steeling from employers, not from necessity, but from greed.  One bar owner near the beach shut down his business after his employees stole from him, after he paid them more money than they could make at any other restaurant in the area, and treated them like family.  

Frankly, if the government invested money in the tourism trade, the country would make more money, and there would be more money to skim off the top.  But, the government is so short sighted they do not realize that they could steal more from the people through more investment.  

The government also provides virtually no support services for the population.  Almost everything is provided by NGOs.  Surprisingly, Hun Sen was also making public statements against the war crimes tribunal.  He claimed they have no authority and were corrupt.  He was destroying what little legitimacy the tribunal had.  

Each of these issues can be traced directly, in my opinion, to the results of the Khmer Rouge.  The population had to do what it could to survive – beg, borrow, and steal.  And, when the perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge war crimes were not prosecuted, were reintegrated into society, were involved in government until 1998, and held a seat in the UN until 1998 – there were no consequences to actions.  The Prime Minister was former Khmer Rouge.  

The sex trade was a big issue in Cambodia as well.  And, our untrustworthy nature saw every middle aged, lonely white man as a sexual predator.  Eric was offered marijuana and sex several times.  He was threatened by a 10 year old boy on the beach because he did not want to buy sunglasses from him.

The entire picture was depressing.  A country we felt so strongly about last time, left us disappointed and heart broken on the return visit.  I hoped that the work of the ECCC would allow wounds to heal and allow the people to move on.  But, without support of the government, and concrete efforts to combat corruption on every level, I don’t see how the country can move forward, emotionally or economically.  

I need a drink.  I promise it will be more cheerful after this. 

Have you experienced traveling in Cambodia during the last decade?  What has your experience been?  Do stories like this keep you from traveling in Cambodia, or encourage you to see it for yourself?


  1. We just were in Cambodia a few weeks ago and felt much the same as you did. We couldn't wait to get to Bangkok to relax! Spent three weeks and felt constantly on guard. In Phnom Penh we were reminded daily to be careful with my handbag so we didn't get robbed. The tuk tuk drivers in PP were relentless and greedy. I couldn't understand why there were so many Lexuses in Phnom Penh having just come from Vietnam where everyone drives a scooter. Then I googled it and understood the depth of corruption (Cambodia is one of the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world).

    Even in Kep, the sex tourism was in our face to the point We left dinner early when an older white European guy sat down with his very young "date". This made me lose my appetite.

    I loved Angkor Wat and if I go back to Cambodia, I would probably just fly into Siem Reap.

    My friend also went to Cambodia a few months before (just Siem Reap and PP) and loved it. I still don't understand why.

  2. We visited Cambodia last year and… did not love it. We didn't hate it, but feel deeply ambivalent about it, largely for the reasons that Amanda raised in her post. It was one of the first places on our trip where we truly felt like walking wallets to the locals and the amount of corruption we saw was truly staggering. We met some very kind, very gentle people while in Cambodia, and had some incredibly moments and saw some beautiful things, but it didn't make up for the negatives we experienced. I have noticed that most of the people who rave about Cambodia visited about 3 or 4 years ago… I am not sure that the Cambodia of today is such an easy one to love.

  3. Steph and Del, I agree with all of your comments. I would not say I disliked my last trip to Cambodia, and there are still good things about the country, but I am in no rush to return. And, it is sad that you both felt so similarly.

  4. Totally agree.Visited Cambodia and Vietnam a few years ago.Loved Siem Reap but PP felt very uncomfortable and edgy.OF course the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng are there but it was more than that.The people were so abject and downtrodden it just felt like we were there to be taken for a ride.IT wasn't personal but they were so needy.We felt pushed and badgered by beggars in India but it was different.I so hope things will change there soon….

  5. Ruthi, I do agree that there is some closure, some resolution, and some sort of promising development to solve these kinds of problems!

  6. I was in Cambodia a year ago. We were only in PP and SR for a few days each. I can't say I witnessed anything that particularly put me off (corruption etc, unless you count the very aggressive touts and child beggars), however the poverty plus the harsh environment definitely made it a place where visiting once was enough. It was just very heartbreaking to see, and I wilt in that kind of dusty heat.

    FWIW, we definitely stayed a little way out of the centre in both cities, and I am married to an enormous and physically intimidating white guy.

  7. NZ Muse, I am also married to a giant, and generally felt safe there. But you are right, so much there is heartbreaking.

  8. I know exactly what you mean, the country has such a horrible past and I even saw a difference between 2008 and 2011. I had my bag stolen too, but still found many people to be amazingly friendly. I just hope in another decade things have sorted themselves out!

  9. It is always good to see such impressions. It is just a shame that I doubt if anyone will take note. They remind me of the quote by former US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart. (https://sivers.org/book/CambodiaCurse)

    For those of us who live and work in Cambodia, and despite the constant frustrations and setbacks, there are still millions of poor who need our help. They need our help not four us to provide external solutions for them, but to help them produce their own, that they are capable of if they have better governance. The main problem is that the status quo continues, despite vast aid and development money still coming in, from your governments, from private donors, even misguided celebrities. And while impunity remains, you have the right condition for the worst atrocities of the Khmer Rouge to recur. If you can, please turn your concerns in to representations to persuade decision-makers where you are not to continue such support to the “the devil they know!”

    Please see for example:
    Irresponsible tourism http://newhorizonsunlimited.org/pdf/children_at_risk.pdf ; white savior complexes http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/white-messiah-complex/ ;
    Totally misguided giving https://au.lifestyle.yahoo.com/marie-claire/news-and-views/world-reads/a/24879988/the-former-sex-slave-who-fooled-the-world/ etc.

    • John, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, especially being someone on the inside, who is seeing it all first hand. Continue to spread the word, and continue fighting the good fight!


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