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Cambodia. Bordered by Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, this tiny country is the modern-day successor to the original inhabitants of mainland Southeast Asia: the Khmer. With a rich history and turbulent past, there is both much to appreciate about Cambodia and much to be learned.
Since the beginning of recorded history (around the 2nd century of the Common Era), the Khmer people have inhabited Cambodia. Their presence predates by many centuries the arrival of Thai and Vietnamese immigrants in the region. Examination of bones dating to around 1500 BCE suggests similarities between the people living in Cambodia at the time and the Khmer of today. The height of Khmer civilization occurred between the 9th and 15th centuries. This era, known as the Angkorian period, saw the Khmer extend their kingdom into modern-day Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. With the sacking of Angkor in 1431, power and cultural influence shifted westward to conquering Ayuthaya and the Thais.
Cambodia today is the most homogenous country in Southeast Asia. Of the country’s 13 million people, over 90% are ethnic Khmer. Most of the rest are Chinese, Vietnamese, or Cham. Buddhism is the predominant religion, practiced in some form by 95% of the population. Like other developing nations, modernization is changing the makeup of Cambodia’s people. Following the tumultuous events of the 1970s, the Khmer are no longer isolated in Southeast Asia. Long Beach, California, boasts the second-largest Khmer population in the world, trailing only the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
To many outside the country, Cambodia is known for two things: Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge. Angkor Wat, the vast 12th century temple, is among the pinnacles of ancient architectural accomplishment. Symmetry, symbolism, and size characterize the place. On the other end of the spectrum of human achievement is the Khmer Rouge, the radical leftist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s that left millions of Cambodians dead. A product of political upheaval following a century of French colonial rule, the Khmer Rouge hoped to build a self-sustaining agrarian society. Instead, the movement nearly succeeded in destroying the entire country.
Although Cambodia is characterized by much more than Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge, the marks of both are easily seen in modern Cambodian society. Twenty-five years after the Khmer Rouge was officially removed from power, the country has not yet fully recovered. A generation of doctors, educators, political and religious leaders, and intellectual thinkers was wiped out. Corruption flourishes in part because trust among the people wavers. At the same time, Cambodia has survived. That it has is testament to the spirit of its people. When hope is nearly lost, Cambodians peer back into the past – at the accomplishments of Angkor – and refuse to surrender their unique identity.
Cambodia is, in theory, a “multi-party democracy” under a constitutional monarchy. In practice, nepotism and corruption are widespread. Hun Sen, a onetime Khmer Rouge officer himself, has served as the country’s prime minister for more than twenty years. Cambodia’s economy is fueled by agriculture, tourism, and textile production. Roughly 75% of the country’s residents engage in subsistence farming. The Mekong River and Tonlé Sap are the predominant geographic features.
The 200 photographs included in this show were taken across several visits between 2003 and 2005. Volunteer work has made Cambodia a frequent destination for me in recent years. While the temples of Angkor and the lovely natural setting are depicted, the faces of the country’s people highlight the show.
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