We begin our visit to Cambodia with a trip out to the killing fields near Phnom Penh. For most of us on this bus, the sole reason for taking this trip to Cambodia is to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. However, it is impossible to come here without considering Cambodia's recent history. It was only 36 years ago that Pol Pot lost complete control of Cambodia, and even then, he still wielded power until his death in 1998. During his reign, estimates are that between 2-3 million Cambodian citizens were killed (which accounted for 25% of the entire population at that time), beginning with the most skilled and talented of the population. The educational system was dismantled and economic growth came to a stop. In the 40s and 50s, Cambodia looked like a sure bet to lead SE Asia into the future with a growing economy, rich agricultural base, and a relatively well-educated population. By the time his 4 year killing spree upon his own people was halted in the late 1970's, only 2 teachers and 4 doctors existed in the entire country! As a result of this genocide, the Cambodian population was dumbed down to the point where today the country still remains backward and undeveloped compared to its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam.
Our tour leader is the face of the new Cambodia: optimistic about the future of Cambodia while realistic about its past and the challenges they face. Before we go to eat at a roadside restaurant, he coaches us about the staff. This restaurant, part of a developing resort complete with golf course, has only been open for 6 months and he wants to warn us that the service may not always be very professional. "They will want to talk to you to practice their English. They are trying to learn the hospitality business so don't be afraid to correct them if they do something wrong like serving from the wrong side. They will appreciate it." By the time we get back to Bangkok, it looks as sophisticated as Manhattan after a week in Cambodia.