Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Unfair Lumping: Cambodia and Laos

Cambodia and Laos deserve more than this.

Each country rightly deserves its own glowing review in which I introduce the country, give you a little background and then delve into the good stuff, like how we saw a kid sitting in front of us in a mini-bus puke in his sister’s face. Unfortunately for Cambodia and Laos (and anyone who loves a good puke story), time, convenience and word-count dictate that I lump the introductions of the two countries together in one post and then lump our personal trials and tribulations in both places in a later one.

Call it unfair lumping. 

Which, now that I think about it, perfectly describes my teenage years.

So let me tell you a little bit about these two countries, which are both very similar and worlds apart. Cambodia and Laos look a lot alike: the same rainy season-drenched rolling green hills (which apparently are dusty brown during the dry-season), the same foggy mountains, the same expansive rice paddies, the same rural villages of stilted bamboo houses, often built on the banks of a muddy river. The same smiling, welcoming, kind people, traffic-clogged streets, honking motorbikes, golden pagodas. 

Both are exceedingly beautiful. Both are exceedingly poor.

Both are Buddhist, studded with temples and monasteries, full of shaved-headed monks in bright orange robes, striking against hazy, rainy, green-gray backgrounds.

On a more sinister note, both countries were ravaged by carpet bombs dropped from American planes during the US’s secret campaign against Vietnam. As a result, both countries are full of inhabitants with missing limbs, dead parents and displaced families.  More bombs were dropped on Laos and Cambodia, countries on which America never actually declared war, than on Germany and Japan combined during WWII. Today, while undetonated American bombs continue to maim and kill Khmer and Lao people, neither country could easily be located on a map by most Americans.

On the surface, Cambodia and Laos have a lot in common. Both countries live in the cultural and economic shadow of their more advanced neighbors, with Cambodia being more similar to Thailand, and Laos to Vietnam. But as you get further into the culture of each country, you realize that the real difference between them is in their national psyches.

While both countries have seen their share of tragedy, Cambodia’s story is much darker, and the terror more recent, than Laos’. The Khmer (Cambodian) people endured years of civil war and American bombs during our Vietnam War, only to have the violence worsen beyond imagination when a revolution in 1975 put the militant Communist Khmer Rouge regime into power. The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to turn Cambodia to a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperation, and to this end, the regime began slaughtering anyone considered to be cultured, educated or an “intellectual” and therefore a threat to their ideal. This doomed demographic included politicians, doctors, teachers, artists, academics and many others. Even people who wore glasses were considered as intellectuals and consequentially executed.  Their families- including the elderly and children- were either killed alongside them (often in front of their eyes) or sent to “labor camps,” where the vast majority of inmates starved to death or were murdered. While the exact numbers remain unknown, it’s estimated that in just three years, nearly two million Khmer civilians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge before the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the regime.

Although the Khmer Rouge’s rule officially ended in 1979, they continued to rein terror on Cambodia for two more decades from their hideouts in the hills near the Thai border.  There they waged guerrilla warfare, including attacks on villages, transport systems and civilians, and planting countless landmines that, to this day, continue to claim the lives and limbs of Cambodians- many of whom weren’t even born at the time of the conflict.

What is even more shocking than the fact that these horrific events took place less than 35 years ago is the fact that most people outside of Cambodia know nothing about them. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge against their own people are one of those horrors against humanity that remain largely ignored by the rest of the world.

Kind of like Korean pop music, only bloodier.

You may be wondering why I insist on sharing this depressing story with you, but I promise there is a good reason. Without the background, one can't even begin to understand present-day Cambodia: the country's difficult past is still soul-crushingly evident, even today. The country is not only impoverished, it is also culturally and emotionally damaged. The vast majority of the Khmer people are smiley and resilient, kind and capable. They have lived through hell, had their culture, history and national pride destroyed, yet they remain stoically hopeful for the future. Their strength is truly inspiring.  But behind that remains a significant portion of the population that seems, I don’t know… desperate, like their nightmarish past has zapped all dignity out of them.

I certainly don’t blame them. I wouldn’t be skipping in the streets either if my entire family was slaughtered in front of me. But in Cambodia, much more than in the poorer countries of Laos and Myanmar, one sees many, many people begging. Filthy toddlers dressed in rags stand in the streets of Phnom Penh with their hands outstretched to passing tourists. Six-year-olds troll restaurant patios begging people to buy bracelets or books. Young women with dirty babies sleeping in shoulder slings wave baby bottles in our faces demanding money. Double amputees scoot themselves around restaurant chairs on pieces of cardboard, most so down-trodden that they dare not even ask directly for spare change.

The vendors too seem more desperate than in other places we’ve been, and more likely to use their desperation as a sales tool. Everywhere in SE Asia we have been hassled to buy things, to take tuk-tuk rides, to sign up for tours (I’ll cover this phenomenon in another post), but only in Cambodia have we felt that even the vendors are begging-- begging us to buy something, anything, not because we need what they are selling but because they need the money. The most common response to our replies of “No, thank you” is either “Pleeease, I need money,” or “Why noooooot?!”

In contrast, the Lao people seem infinitely more independent from tourism. Of course there are the vendors and the tuk-tuk drivers, but by and large they can be deterred with one “no, thank you” instead of six, even in the most touristy areas. In two weeks in Laos, we have only seen one guy begging, and he seemed like the kind of run of the mill crazy drunk one sees everywhere else in the world. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Communism, but the poorer Lao people seem to be better off, if not economically than emotionally, than their richer (but still incredibly poor) Khmer neighbors.

That said, the Lao people still have their own problems to deal with, albeit slightly less damaging ones than internal genocide. I know I’m insisting on this America-bombed-the-hell-out-of-Laos thing, but it is important for me as an American to understand how my country’s war affected the beautiful place that I’m traveling in, full of wonderful, welcoming people.

The answer is that our war is still affecting Laos.

In the hopes of deterring the transport of Vietnamese troops and munitions through Northern Laos during the war, the US Army dropped an estimated 260 million bombs on the country between 1964 and 1973. It’s reported that during those nine years, around 580,350 bombing missions were flown over Laos. To put it into perspective, that works out to be one planeload of bombs dropped on the neutral country every eight minutes for nine years.  

Believe me, I did the math.

As if that isn’t unfortunate enough, it is thought that nearly 80 million (or 30%-- I did the math again) of those bombs didn’t detonate and remain hidden in Lao soil, needing nothing more than a hard strike of a shovel or tractor blade to explode. Since 1964, more than 50,000 people have been victim to these hidden “bombies,” not to mention all of those killed during the attacks themselves.

There are of course numerous organizations* in place trying to find and safely clear away the “unexploded ordnance.” Unfortunately, given the slow and dangerous nature of the work, it is believed that at the current rate of clearance, it will take over 100 years to rid Laos completely of this deadly legacy.

All of this in a neutral country on which the US never officially declared war. I love my country, but damn.

And on that cheery note, I’m going to end this rant. Puke stories are sounding pretty good right about now, huh?

* For more information about some of the organizations operating in Laos to clear the bombs and assist their victims, click here and here.

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