I first became aware of Cambodia through a song by the early 80’s punk band The Dead Kennedys. I was about 13, living in an upper middle class suburb in New Jersey. My friend Jeff introduced me to DK, and in turn, the song Holiday in Cambodia. I liked it because it poked fun at rich, preppy kids (yes, the irony was lost on me at the time), by comparing their normal life to Cambodia during the genocide of the late 1970’s. Beyond the song, my knowledge was limited to an awareness that Cambodia was probably a dark, dangerous place. While our war with Vietnam was a topic for history class, I can’t recall a mention of Cambodia in school, which seems odd given around 2 million people died during a 5-year period within my lifetime.
Fast forward to my mid-20’s when I start to consider traveling to southeast Asia. I still didn’t know much about Cambodia, except that it was sandwiched between a few countries I’d heard were popular on the backpacker circuit – Thailand and Vietnam. I had also begun to see Angkor Wat pop up in guide books. I figured I’d be in the area, so why not put it on my rough itinerary to visit. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I watched a documentary about the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 takeover. It was also last year when I saw The Killing Fields mentioned in a dialog on the BootsnAll message boards about travel-related movies.
On August 2, 2006, I recorded The Killing Fields. I held onto the movie for 9 months, purposefully avoiding it. I knew it’d be serious and sad, and it’s far easier to watch comedies and vacuous TV shows instead. My attitude changed after watching this past week’s episode of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Our intrepid hosts, Albin and and Melanie Ulle, visited Cambodia. They rode elephants to a temple to watch a sunset, walked around Angkor Wat, ate crickets, and toured the killing fields with a survivor. The city shots of Phnom Penh were just as beautiful as those of the rural areas, and the people seemed very proud of their culture. I wanted to go.
Later that night, I watched The Killing Fields. Based on a true story, journalist Sydney Schanberg leaves his translator/friend Dith Pran behind as Phnom Penh falls to the Khmer Rouge fighters in 1975. Syd returns to NYC, where he’s haunted by the fact that he didn’t ensure Dith’s evacuation (as he did Dith’s family), to the US. Meanwhile, Dith experiences the forced labor camps, and endless violence and brainwashing of Pol Pot’s ethnic cleansing campaign. The story touches on the worst, and surprisingly best, of human behavior.
If you’re as naive about Cambodia’s recent history as I was, watch The Killing Fields, and you will appreciate your life a little more, regardless of how big your problems seem.