Holiday in Cambodia
I had just started venturing around the world in 1980 when the punk group, the Dead Kennedys, released a scathing single entitled ‘Holiday in Cambodia’. The Vietnamese had recently invaded Cambodia in order to drive the genocidal Pol Pot from power and the group’s leader Jello Biafra used to songs lyrics to poke fun at privileged American students and their blinkered view of the world and revolutionaries.
“You been to school for a year or two
Know you’ve seen it all
It’s time to taste what you most fear
Right guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Well you’ll work harder with a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake
Now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need, my son
Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black”
At that time, of course, and unlike today, most of South East Asia was not open to travel due to the ongoing repercussions from the Indochina war. Naturally, the fact that you were not allowed to travel there and that danger lurked in the guise of the Khmer Rouge made these countries even more exotic and perversely attractive. I managed to visit Thailand and Indonesia but Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – especially mysterious, horrifying Cambodia – remained out of reach. In my desire to be a ‘world traveller’ I had totally missed the meaning of the song’s words.
Flip forward 20 years or so to 2002. I had quit my job bartending and my girlfriend and I were heading to South East Asia for an extended vacation. We were going to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and, yes, finally, Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had been defeated by the Vietnamese after they invaded in 1979 but still lurked around the countryside until surrendering completely in 1999. The smell of danger was still in the air. Some mad, giggling travel agent on Khao San Road in Bangkok got us our Cambodian visas and off we flew into the unknown. We landed in Sian Reap to visit the incredible temples in Angkor and then travelled by boat to Phnom Penh.
What we found was a beautiful sadness. The temples in Angkor were gorgeous, stunning beyond words, but almost deserted. Hand painted signs warned of land mines if you strayed off the track. Services were basic, almost non-existent. The people were wary, distant. In Phnom Penh, we hopped on the back of 2 motorbikes and visited the Killing Fields outside the city. It chilled our souls as did the thought that our drivers could very well themselves have been disciples of Pol Pot. I began to understand the point that Dead Kennedys were making; the juxtaposition of my romanticizing the simmering danger in these places and the actual effects of these conditions on the people who live there.
I have been lucky enough to return to Cambodia yet again in 2015 and what I have found makes me smile. To see a country that was utterly destroyed by a crazed ideology, that started to rebuild less than a generation ago from essentially nothing – no infrastructure, no public institutions – as it is today is quite amazing. Yes, the roads are often appalling and poverty is still prevalent but the spirit and atmosphere are overwhelmingly positive.
I sat in a restaurant overlooking the Mekong River one Saturday evening in the small provincial town of Kampong Cham and watched as young Cambodian couples, clad in jeans and fashionable dresses drew up in front of me on their scooters, pulled out their iPhones and texted their friends to arrange where to meet for the night. After chatting briefly with each other, they smiled, started their engines and drove off into the night and into their country’s bright future.