You want to root for the Cambodians. After the incomprehensible horrors these people have been through, with nearly a quarter of the population (nearly 2 million people) massacred by the Khmer Rouge, with nearly 250,000 killed by U.S. bombing over the course of four years in the late sixties and early seventies, with the untold misery wrought by the extensive land mines strewn throughout the country -- after all of this, any visitor to Cambodia will find that these are some of the kindest and warmest people anywhere.
This is still a small country, with a population today of only 14 million (which is growing at a rapid clip). The tourism industry here is still relatively young, but the slickness and professionalism of Siem Reap's tourist services make you realize that the Cambodians learn quickly. It's incredible how many people here speak English -- and how well they speak it. And it's not only English -- you run into Cambodians everywhere here that speak French, Japanese, German, Korean, Italian, and Chinese with remarkable ease and assurance.
And it's not only the tour guides and hotel staff. Everywhere you go on Angkor, you are trailed by Cambodian kids who want to sell you cold drinks, t-shirts, magnets, or bamboo flutes. Some tourists seem to find this annoying, but the kids are actually really interesting and shockingly smart. Mrs. Octopus and I started talking to a boy named Chai who must've been about 10 or so while we were waiting to watch the sunset at Pre Rup. We bought a magnet from him and told him our names and that we lived in California. He then proceeded to say the following: "The capital of your state is Sacramento. The capital of your country is Washington, D.C. The population of your country is 300 million people."
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that many American adults -- never mind American 10 year-olds -- wouldn't know all of that. Chai told us he learned some of this stuff in school (where he said he had just come from), and some of it from tourists. We told him that his English was excellent and that he should keep studying hard in school. After Chai left us, he went over to sell stuff to some Japanese and Korean tourists, surprising them by appealing to them in their respective languages, and bargaining with them in their languages as well. (Chai was pretty happy to have us take his picture -- I'll try to post it when I get back. UPDATE: Photo below.)
There are undoubtedly unimaginable reservoirs of grief and misery behind the grace and warmth of the Cambodian people you meet during a brief stay here as a tourist. But you can sense that these people are ready to rejoin their neighbors in Southeast Asia and in greater Asia as the continent races into what looks to be the Asian century. Once great civilizations are ascendant once again in India and China. As long as it remains standing, Angkor Wat will remind the world that Cambodia was also once home to a great empire, and a civilization that produced some of the greatest works of art on earth. I, for one, hope that the darkness is beginning to lift here in Cambodia, and that its people will benefit and prosper as Cambodia retakes its place in the world community.