In reading about Cambodia before our visit, we were struck by how thoroughly the Khmer Rouge had managed to destroy Cambodian culture, art, and education. In a failed social experiment that lasted until 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge military government tried to transform the country into a self-sufficient agrarian utopia, with all traces of foreign culture—or intellectualism of any sort—obliterated. Artists and intellectuals were killed (or managed to flee, if they were lucky). Monasteries, which formed the basis of the educational system, were destroyed, along with much of the knowledge they had held and passed on. Cities were abandoned; books and artworks were burned. Many, many members of the older generation, who could have taught their skills to younger generations, died in famines or politically motivated executions. (In all, about a quarter of the population perished during the Khmer Rouge’s reign.)
We came to Cambodia from Bali, which was an amazing place for art, religion, and tradition. Its elaborate culture developed over a thousand years with little disturbance. By comparison, we didn’t know what to expect in Cambodia. What remained of the arts of the Khmer people in such a poor country after such devastation?
We were happy to find that seemingly everywhere we turned, Cambodians were working very hard to regain what was lost. It feels like they have not only survived and endured the unthinkable but are now determined to improve their own and their children’s lot.
There is a huge emphasis on education: Schools are free, but kids need supplies, and teachers need to be trained. (After years of studying while he earned his living transporting tourists, our tuk-tuk driver is taking exams to enter a two-year teachers’ college!) We saw many people working hard to learn English (often while working hard to earn a living) and to send their kids to as much schooling as possible. We also encountered people who run programs looking for volunteers to come to their remote villages and help teach English. We were impressed with their initiative, and maybe one of these days we’ll be brave enough to come help.
We chose our guesthouse in Siem Reap—Seven Candles on Wat Bo Road—because it is operated by a Khmer family who also runs a foundation dedicated to helping local schools by providing books and other much-needed supplies. We watched box after box of school supplies (pencils and pens, notebooks, backpacks, even bikes) get sorted, packaged, and sent out to schools. Young adults came to the guesthouse on weekends and evenings for classes in computers or more advanced English. And this was just one of many education-related programs operating around the city and the country.
Traditionally, Buddhist monasteries were the libraries and schools for Cambodian communities. Children from even the poorest families could send their boys off to become novice monks and know that they would be cared for and taught (at least the basics, sometimes more). After the war, the few monks who had survived were joined by senior monks from neighboring countries to rebuild the pagodas and schools. Today, many village children are once again being educated here. Buddhism seems to be strong now, and we see many young monks. (Some serve for only a short time, while others make it a lifelong vocation.)
Young Cambodians are learning more than reading, writing, and math. In Siem Reap, we went to a performance by wonderful circus troupe called Phare, in which acrobats, jugglers, dancers, musicians, and even painters worked together to create a very moving story about recovering from the ghosts of the past. It was like a mini Cambodian Cirque de Soleil, full of energy and invention. The performers are graduates of a school for the visual and performing arts in the city of Battambang that was founded by young people who had received art therapy while living in refugee camps on the Thai border. They wanted to bring the healing power of the arts back to their villages, and over the next 20 years they gradually built up a strong program to train Cambodian children who showed artistic talent and help them start careers. The school teaches painting, music, theater arts, circus performing—and even graphic design and animation (lucrative skills in Southeast Asia). The circus raises money for the school and gives graduates a place to earn a living while practicing their performing skills.
In a similar vein, the Cambodian Living Arts program focuses on finding the few living masters in various arts who have survived and bringing students (often street kids) to them in order to train a new generation of traditional musicians and dancers. After watching a movie about the founder of the program while we were at home, we sought out one of their dance performances in Phnom Penh, which was charming and exuberant.
Traditional crafts are as important as the arts (and maybe easier to earn a living at). A group called Artisans d’Angkor, based in Siem Reap, works to train villagers in traditional skills such as wood and stone carving, lacquering, metalwork, and silk weaving. We had a good time touring their workshops and silk farm and seeing the array of beautiful things for sale at their shops, ranging from tiny metal boxes to large stone or gilded Buddhas (which seemed popular with the wealthy Chinese tourists). The silk production in particular is an amazingly difficult and time-consuming process; we appreciate handmade silks much more after having seem them being woven.
Westerners who see photos of Cambodian life may think the country looks destitute or downtrodden. But that’s not what we’ve felt while we’ve been here. There is plenty of material poverty, but people are working hard to improve their lot, enjoying themselves when the opportunity arises, learning new skills, and taking great pride in what they create.