Have you ever noticed people sitting alone in a cafe. Their faces long and expressionless. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, their face will light up. A smirk appears. It grows, from ear to ear. Aaah you discover. They’re tapping away on their phone. The cycle of smirking continues with each bling bling sound bringing the next message. Sort of like remote control smiling. Fascinating to watch!
I made up my own version of a smiley face game. It’s a simple game. I use the back of a tuk tuk. I’ve played it riding around the streets of Phnom Pehn here in Cambodia. Just look for someone while the tuk tuk is waiting at the lights. They’ll have their similar just going about their daily business expression on their face. All you do is just throw a genuine warm smile at them. And then, watch it come back. There was this one older guy. His smile was so infectious every wrinkle on his warm but age weathered face seemed to open up into a broad smile. It is said the Cambodian smile is an inner smile that represents harmony and spirituality. Whatever the reason it’s heartwarming.
Cambodia has a rich history. But unfortunately this has been shadowed by a more recent dark and gruesome period of the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime. Not even the Cambodians believe this could have happened to them. A period of just over three years where almost a quarter of their population lost their lives. Lost either directly by execution, torture or starvation. And we are only talking about a period as recent as 1975 to 1979.
Interestingly, there seems to be parallels to the history pages of other regions like a number of Latin American countries. Profiteering by foreign national interest, propped up dictators to protect those foreign economic and political interests. Large pockets of the community being degraded to extreme poverty. With nothing to lose, joining what develops as extremist groups. The rest is history. Unfortunately Pol Pots ideals of creating the perfect communal society got destructively out of hand.
And that’s one of the main reasons Cambodians support these somber, and I must say, near stomach churning museum sites. An attempt to never forget. To not let this ever happen again.
There was one relatively lighter side of a story featured at the museum. It’s about a New Zealand yachtie Kerry Hamill. Before his execution he wanted to make sure he would have the last say. In his confession he stated that Colonel Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame) was one of his superiors. He used his family home telephone number as his CIA operative number and mentioned several family friends as supposed members of the CIA. For instance, Colonel Perram was his father’s gliding instructor. Captain Dodds is an old mate of Kerry’s who still lives and Whakatane. He also mentions a Captain Pepper which no doubt was reference to the Beetle’s album. He mentioned a Major Rouse. A ruse in English is a fraud or a confidence trick. Perhaps the most poignant comment in his confession was the mention of a public speaking instructor, a Mr S. Tarr. The instructor’s family name was spelt Tarr. Only the initial of the instructor’s first name S was given. S Tarr is in fact the name of his adoring mother, Esther Hamill. He was no doubt sending a final message to his mother.
Sadly, the likes of the Hitlers and other such misaligned forms of human influencers that sporadically surface throughout human history, we can only hope the impact could never be anywhere as horrible as this chapter.
Despite such a devastating chapter of their past, you can’t help but have so much more respect for the Cambodian people. Their resilience and determination, particularly the young generation, to move forward.
Because that’s the sense you feel as you make your way around the likes of the capital, Phnom Penh. Matching those smiley faced people is a bright, clean and tidy vibrant city. Sure there’s the Kings Crossy nightlife side of the city with its extensive choice of bars and associated entertainment that goes with it. Beyond this you find a vibrant modern and sophisticated residential communities with a growing number of high-end developments.
It just goes to prove, that no matter what horrific adversity may shadow your past, there’s still lots to smile about. Cambodians are proof of that.
Photos: A lovely resort destination island, Koh Rong Sanloem situated off the southern coast of Cambodia, followed by the capital city, Phnom Pehn.
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