Siem Reap, Cambodia—It’s easy to see why Angelina Jolie fell in love with this city, and returned to do a film that honors the Cambodians’ dignity in the face of the most brutal period in its history.
I arrived here with my daughter three days ago to accompany her to a History of Medicine in Southeast Asia (Homsea) conference. Day after day, I’ve been blown away by the beauty of Cambodia and its people.
It was held at the Center for Khmer Studies (CKS), a sprawling compound that houses the Wat Dam Nak Temple, the CKS library (the only one in the entire city) and a beautiful reading room in an almost 100-year-old building restored to its old glory. It still bears marks of bullet holes—painful reminders of the ravages of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. It’s a beautiful building that has risen above a terribly dark period in Cambodian history.
Cambodians are a hardy but gentle people, with a lot of heart and kindness. More than anything, I have been most moved by the graciousness and generosity of spirit that returning Cambodians have shown for their country.
Many of them were still children or young educated adults from the upper and middle class when they fled the regime of Pol Pot. Some were blessed to have been able to escape the infamous Killing Fields with their families intact.
Others, like best-selling author Loung Ung—who wrote the gripping memoir “First They Killed My Father” in 2001—lost her parents and two sisters. Her life story is now being filmed in Cambodia by Jolie, who is directing and producing it for Netflix.
Rethy K. Chhem, president and one of the founders of Homsea, was born in Phnom Penh. A medical doctor specializing in radiology, he earned his degree from the University of Paris VI, plus a Ph.D in education and a Ph.D in history, both from the University of Montreal. Doctor Chhem left Cambodia 41 years ago and returned with his family only last year.
Prior to returning to Siem Reap, he taught radiology, served as department chair at a hospital in Canada, director of the Division of Human Health at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and guest professor at the Medical University of Vienna and Ulm University in Germany.
Other Cambodians have returned home, he said, “After 40 years of exile, just like in the Bible,” to help rebuild the country, which is now slowly rising from the ravages of countless civil wars.
Rethy noted that Cambodia has a very young population, with a median age of 24 years old. “Young people, who have had the opportunity to study abroad, return home,” he said. “They do not see a life overseas; they know there is so much to do and there are many opportunities here.”
But he added that there are also many in his age group who have no intention of returning. “If there is no connection … naturally, there will be no desire to return and help out.”
For a people ravaged by war and genocide, there is no bitterness, only gratitude for all the foreign aid that has come in. The Khmer Rouge wiped out two million people—one third of the country’s population—during its reign of unimaginable terror. From among 4,000 doctors, only 14 were left.
There was a time, up to several years ago, when one in 12 children did not make it to the age of five because of diseases that were highly preventable. But thanks to the generosity of countries like Japan, France, Australia, Germany and Korea, maternal and child health and women’s livelihood are now much improved in Cambodia, although there is still so much to be done. The concept of public health is almost nonexistent.
A place you must visit
Despite the challenges, graciousness and generosity can be felt everywhere—from the honesty and accommodation of tuk-tuk drivers and restaurant waitstaff, to the warm smiles of health workers, the interesting stories told by doctors and historians, and the bright smiling eyes of Siem Reap’s children. There is so much hope and resiliency everywhere.
The grand temples, great shopping areas, delightful spas and excellent food are all wonderful reasons to come to Siem Reap, but it’s the people and how they truly care for one another, their courage and tenacity, that make Cambodia truly special. I would return here in a heartbeat.
If you haven’t been here yet, it’s a place you must visit. In a world filled with fear and uncertainty, a visit to Cambodia restores your belief in the goodness of man and affirms once more the resiliency of the human spirit to overcome even the darkest of nights.
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