Cambodia plus 25

By Marianna Edmunds | Mar 23, 2011

In January, I went to Cambodia to research a documentary on young artists who are creating a new cultural identity in a country often still referred to as “the Killing Fields.” Thirty years ago, a cultural and population genocide under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was halted; 25 years ago I first went to this country with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes to produce a piece on the 10th anniversary of the end of the American war in Southeast Asia.

So it was a trip I took with haunted memories.

Landing in Phnom Penh in a Cathay Pacific Airbus evoked memories of the first time I landed in this capital in a Russian prop jet from HoChiMinh City (the former Saigon), a plane with wooden seats, no air, and when I dared to look out the porthole windows, offered a view of threadbare tires that never came up. The plane never flew higher than 3,000 feet.  Beads of sweat broke out on our foreheads from the intense heat inside the cabin, and no one talked as propeller engines drowned all conversation. We were silent and the atmosphere was sullen.

Bradley had been one of the last reporters to leave Cambodia in April 1975 when the U.S-backed Lon Nol government collapsed and the Khmer Rouge took over the capital. He was returning to report on Cambodia six years after the end of Khmer Rouge’s deadly four-year reign. Almost two million people had been killed or had starved -- anyone with a smattering of education or knowledge of any foreign language. A rich and ancient culture was nearly destroyed, along with a thriving agricultural economy based on the export of rice and fish that had sustained Cambodians for centuries. Despite recurrent fighting in pockets of the countryside, Cambodia was slowly returning to life. It was 1985.

I remembered then seening moon-sized craters from the ‘secret’ U.S. bombing raids of the early 1970s.Now the pock-marked terrain is hardly visible. And instead of silence, the plane was buzzing with conversation, seats filled with tourists, non-governmental organization workers, businessmen, Westerners, Asians and wealthy Cambodians.  It was a far cry from the ancient prop jet in which our television crew of four represented the majority of passengers.

We landed and headed into the capital, so different from the Phnom Penh I remembered that had been so quiet, with few people on the streets, and bikes the main form of transport. I remembered children younger than five years old in doorways, tended by grandparents in the amber light of hurricane lamps. Electricity was sporadic and rare. A generation was missing. What I remembered most was the resilience and gentleness of the Cambodian people, as they looked only forward. Today, the energy had increased a hundred-, or a thousand-fold. The faces were the same, but there were more, many more, and of all ages. But the majority were young,  certainly under 30.

Once again, I was coming to make a film, and again it was to be about the present, how Cambodians were defining their future. The boulevards were no longer dark. fishing boats moved up and down the river, the streets were flush with motorbikes -- tuk-tuks -- and hotels, markets, restaurants had exploded all over the city. Billboards of Western women advertising fashion and well dressed men promoting condoms dotted this radically changed urban landscape. It was a new and different Phnom Penh. The soldiers were gone. It was a new era.

What follows are journal entries, blogs,  slides of life and impressions from this visit,  of  a new and emergent generation, and the revival of a vibrant culture, such a signature of this country.

Traveling through Cambodia in a Yuk Yuk
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