Over a period of a few short years, the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed nearly two million Cambodians or one-fourth the population; the equivalent of New York, California and Florida combined.

Remnants of the Khmer Rouge were still active up to a dozen years ago in isolated pockets so I expected a Cambodia still reeling from this holocaust and set on revenge. The reality is complicated but it is far from a citizenry seeking vengeance.

Cambodia is a place of surprises.  Its’ markets are more mellow than expected; the pace slower even amidst urban chaos.  The people kind and shy despite the myriad degradations faced, past and present.  Cambodia too is a flawed but developing democracy where civil society is taking shape, in the press, NGO’s (sometimes restrained by the government) and in protests over corruption and land grabs.

While there the press noted the conviction of Duch, one of the worst of the Khmer Rouge executioners.  And while most people lauded the sentencing there was no great joy in the streets; for some a sense of relief and justice, for others musing over whether the tens of millions of dollars spent on the trials would be better used for education, social services and job creation.

Perhaps the Khmer smile masks deep sorrow but the overriding sense of being here, in the capital Phnom Phen, the ruins of Angkor Wat or in the sleepy riverfront town of Kampot is tranquility. Maybe it is their Buddhism which is more than a religion (97% practice it) but rather a way of life.  In this, there is a belief in the present, in knowing of the transitory nature of things and the innate worth of all transient beings – great or small.

If there is a level of forgiveness in this Buddhism, for unspeakable crimes committed, I believe that within all of us too there is the capacity to forgive and, as we evolve, be forgiven.

In that lesson (plus the trip itself) Cambodia is beautiful.


About Dr. Roy Nirschel

Thirty years experience as an educator; international traveler, occasional writer, on a personal journey. Author of My Seasons in Saigon (available at Upon the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States I promised to go to Mexico; I did! Carol and I are here now. In the spirit of full disclosure, I promised to go to Mexico if Hillary Clinton was elected president too. The Seasons in Saigon are over; I am uncertain about Vietnam for many reasons despite my love for the country. Now it is Mexico time.

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