Cambodia is one of the saddest, happiest, charming, impressive, crumbling, richest and poorest countries I have been to. It is truly a land of contrasts.

Recent history, between their undesired role in the Vietnam war, to the horrific rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, to the ensuing present of widespread extreme poverty and awful infrastructure, has been tumultuous, to say the least. But so many of the people persist with such genuine kindness, strength and peace, I was totally enchanted. Their smiles are absolutely infectious.

Going back in time, to the Khmer Empire of the 8th to 15th century, one finds one of the most impressive complexes in the world, Angkor Wat, and other equally impressive temples within the surrounding area of Angkor, such as Angkor Thom two kilometers to the North. These temples were built at the height of the Khmer Empire’s power in the 11th and 12th centuries, when most of Southeast Asia was under their control. The temples of Angkor Wat were originally constructed as Hindu temples, but followed the trends of the Khmer Empire and their rulers towards Buddhism, and by the end of the 12th century the temple complex was Buddhist, and is now the world’s largest living religious monument.

I was personally most blown away by the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, which I managed to see in the setting sun with no one around, simply magical. The most notable feature of this temple are the massive carved faces, which are positioned in groups of four facing in the cardinal directions. The expressions on these faces communicate a certain unique strength and peace that survives in the Cambodian populace to this day.

Arriving along the atrocious Cambodian roads to the capital of Phnom Penh a few days later, after a brief stop in Batombong, the reality of sadness and desperation that many Cambodians suffer from, is much more evident. It’s an ugly, sprawling and filthy city, with oh so many children, and dogs, living on the streets. The Cambodian smile can still be found, but under current conditions, and with what has been suffered through over the past half century, it is harder to accept it as genuine, or possible, in this city as compared to less chaotic parts of the country.

In Phnom Penh, I became more familiar with the extreme horror that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge inflicted on the generally peaceful populace. Coming face-to-face with some of the horrors, I visited the former prison S-21, where institutionalized torture was carried out on a huge scale, and also visited the “Killing Fields,” where tens of thousands of men, women and children were shot (or clubbed when bullets were becoming too expensive), and thrown into mass graves. One disturbing monument to these events is a tower full of more than 10,000 human skulls, many of which you can see the bullet wounds to the cranium, some of these skulls being extremely small.

The Khmer Rouge was one of many terrible unforeseen consequences of the Vietnam war in this region (along with countless thousands of still active mines in Cambodia and Laos that blow children up every year!) , having formed originally in 1968 as an “offshoot” and eventual partner, of the Communist Viet Cong.

Skulls of Victims of the Khmer Rouge, recovered from Mass Graves in Killing Fields near Phnom Penh

The Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, under their leader Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar), between 1975 and 1979, and proceeded to further tear their country apart. Hundreds of thousands were executed directly, while millions died of famine and disease as direct results of negligent and misguided social policies. In all, approximately a quarter of Cambodia’s population, around two million people, died during these four years of Khmer Rouge tyranny.

Away from these depressing scenes, I moved towards Southern Cambodia, a land of peace and sincerity. While the vast majority of families live in conditions that anyone would label as “destitute”, or “extreme poverty,” with no electricity, lack of running water, an entire family living in one hut with one big room, etc…the people themselves are rich. Generosity is genuine, as when they have so little, they give so much. I felt welcomed and honored during three separate stays at people’s homes.

The stay for me that perhaps best represents the genuine kindness I am referring to was near the town of Kep, where I was invited to stay with Sotheasky Pah, a 24 year old man who professed dedication to both sustainable agriculture and development of Cambodia’s youth. I’d met Sotheasky on a bus on the way to visit an unconventional Catholic Priest in Kampot, but thankfully made the effort to come back and visit him on his farm in Kep.

I didn’t know what to expect with the farm stay, but it ended up being incredible. I often approach these kinds of invitations in a curious but slightly skeptical way, not knowing if something is desired from me or what the intentions are, but Sotheasky is undoubtedly one of the most good natured human beings in the world. He runs this farm, with a couple of workers and a cook, who prepare fresh meals from the vegetables he grows and meat from a local market. The farm is also located in a lovely setting, in the middle of a set of mountains, which I was told in ancient Chinese philosophy portends very good luck for a farm. There was a pond for swimming, and it is just incredibly peaceful.
At 5:30 and 6:30 pm every day Sotheasky teaches the local village children English, at no cost, believing that it is critical for their potential to become “empowered” in the troubling circumstances in Cambodia. Of course I helped with the English teaching, at 5:30 with the little kids (from seven to around 14 years old) and 6:30 the older youths (14-21 or so). Especially the young kids were so eager to learn, and really happy to be there, and I enjoyed helping them a lot. Their parents, the one’s that could take some time from their agricultural work to come by, were also extremely sincere and grateful. All seem happy, with beaming smiles, but you know they want their children to have better lives.