When I was a teenager, I read the book The Third Indochina War by Zeng Guoyan 1. It was written against the backdrop of the tense Cold War era, when the earlier East-West detente came to an end, underpinned by such events as the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the brief Sino-Vietnam border war. It was an eye-opener, and left a deep impression on me. Reading this book again today, when the pertinent issues have long ceased to be relevant, the life-and-death struggles of the late 1970s and early 1980s seem to me quite surreal.

Cambodia was one of the hot spots during the Cold War. I wondered what it is like now, some four decades after the dramatic events that shook the world. Is it still licking its wounds caused by years of warfare and upheaval? I visited the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and the western city of Siem Reap last July, coming to the conclusion that, while the country is still working arduously in rebuilding itself, it is far from the depressing place that many documentary films depict it to be. Instead, I find Cambodia a relatively livable country.

I had read about the Phnom Penh Pochentong International Airport. Today, it is simply known as Phnom Penh International Airport. While rather small, it is exquisite and orderly, with a terminal building characterised by Southeast Asian architecture. When I was on the Government and International Studies Society’s Vietnam (Hanoi) Study Tour, I became quite alarmed by the severe air pollution in Hanoi, the capital of the so-called “Motorcycle Kingdom”. Phnom Penh seemed to be a lot cleaner than I first imagined and, its air quality wasn’t that bad either. Between Hanoi and Phnom Penh, I am more comfortable with the latter.

In terms of development, Cambodia still has a long way to go. Even in the capital city of Phnom Penh, where power outages are still common, it lacks many things that we take for granted, like bus service, even taxis are in relatively short supply. The standard means of public transportation is the auto rickshaw. As in the case of Thailand, Cambodians call their auto rickshaw ‘tuk-tuk’. On the other hand, quite unlike the legendary auto rickshaws in Thailand and South Asian countries like India and Sri Lanka, the Cambodian version is probably best described as a motorcycle with a cabin attached to its rear, rather than a purpose-built unit.

Some two million people call Phnom Penh their home (as of 2013, Cambodia’s population numbered about 15 million), and they commute by driving cars or riding on motorcycles. Despite the fact that there are 1.2 million registered motor vehicles, the spacious city of Phnom Penh, which has a relatively low population density, is welcoming and laid-back.

Khmers (ethnic Cambodians) make up 90% of the population, while the largest two ethnic minority groups are Vietnamese and Chinese. Most Cambodians are Buddhists, but there is a small Muslim community as well. As a Buddhist country, Cambodia’s landscape is dotted with temples, and it is common to see monks walking on the streets. Buddhism is also a component in the country’s school curriculum. In terms of territorial area, the Kingdom of Cambodia covers 181,035 square kilometers, slightly larger than China’s Guangdong province (179,800 square kilometers). Generally speaking, it is a flat country.

In this country nestled between Vietnam and Thailand, Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012), twice king of Cambodia 1941-55 and 1993-2004), was a dominating figure in Cambodia’s modern history. He was the father of modern-day Cambodia, achieving independence from France in 1953, as well as an active actor during the long and turbulent Cold War years. For those who went through the wars and ultra-leftist rule of the 1970s and 1980s, the 1950s and 1960s, when Cambodia was governed by Sihanouk, are remembered with much nostalgia - an l’age d’or of peace and prosperity. King Sihanouk was a romantic, having many interests, with film-making as his biggest hobby. You can find his films on YouTube. The current King is Norodom Sihamoni (1953-) a ballet dancer and teacher who has a strong interest in the arts.

Some people may find aspects of Cambodia resembling those of its neighbours. This may have something to do with history. The Khmer Empire used to be the leading hegemon in Mainland Southeast Asia and its ways figured heavily in neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, manifesting in language, culture, traditional architecture and cuisine.

Regarding the architecture in Cambodia, two buildings from the French era left a deep impression on me. The National Museum of Cambodia, built in 1917 as an art gallery, looks Southeast Asian rather than French. It houses many Angkor artifacts. The impressive Central Market is an art deco era marvel built in 1937. The interior of the Central Market has few columns, resembling a sports stadium. It is now a market specialising in the sale of gold ornaments and watches. The contemporary market is well-organised, with numbered stalls and is generally clean.

I also visited the Royal Palace. The premise exhibits Southeast Asian and Buddhist flavours. The Palace complex was damaged by small arms fire in the past, and has since been completely rehabilitated. In the Royal Palace complex and temples around Phnom Penh, seven-headed cobra statues are a common sight. The cobra is considered a good omen. My understanding is that the seven-headed cobra symbolises the monarchy, while the nine-headed one represents the Buddha.

As for Cambodian cuisine, I was most impressed by the ever-popular amok dish. Amok refers to the process of cooking curry in banana leaves or coconut shell with steam. It is a traditional dish that contains fish or chicken, accompanying thick coconut cream, lemongrass and various spices. I also like Banh chiao or Cambodian-style fried pancakes. Typical fillings include bean sprouts, pork, shrimps, lettuce, peppermint leaves and perilla.

1 Guoyan, Z. (1980). The Third Indochina War. Hong Kong: Qi Shi Nian Dai Za Zhi She.
(HKBU Library call number: 578.1938 8069)