Brewing in Singapore

One man's adventure of brewing beer in Asia.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Phnom Penh

I recently spent four days in Phnom Penh Cambodia and really enjoyed it. And to keep this in the realm of the beer world let me say that while we were there we had some very good Anker beer on draft, and some pretty good Beer Lao in a bottle too. The food (although not as exciting as the selections in Singapore) was good and inexpensive. One night we ate at what was recommended to us as the best restaurant in the country and it was very nice. For four of us the bill was less than $50.00 USD - so yes the food was very inexpensive too. But more interesting by far were the friendly and gregarious people, and Cambodia's complex and interesting history.

Cambodia (Kâmpŭchea) has what must be one of the most troubled histories of any country in the later 20th century. With a long history of being invaded and occupied from one of its bordering neighbors; either Thailand or Vietnam, Cambodia came under French rule in the mid 19th century and remained so until Japanese forces took over in 1941. The Japanese, never gentle as an occupying force, did little the bring stability or prosperity to the region. The French re-established a shaky rule after WWII but the age of colonialism was quickly drawing to a close. In 1949 France granted Cambodia “independence” within the French Union, and in 1953 the monarchy gain full autonomy. Although Cambodia tried to remain neutral during the unrest in of the 1960’s the conflict destabilized the entire region and the Cambodian’s monarch fell to coup led by Lon Nol in 1970.

The pro-western Lon Nol government dragged Cambodia deeper into conflict. By 1972 Cambodia’s border with Vietnam was a war zone, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed, injured or displaced and a civil war threatened the government. The US military continued a massive bombing campaign through out the country even after the 1973 peace accord was signed. In the following two years what the once small band of former government officials, monks and teachers now backed by the communist, gained strength in the villages and surrounding country side and people fled by the thousands to Phnom Penh.

1975 saw the total collapse as the then unstoppable Khmer Rouge took control of the over crowed capitol. The people were overjoyed at the possibility of peace. Within days the joy turned to fear and then to horror. The Khmer Rouge evacuated all of the over 2 million residents to the country side. And then the nightmare of the killing started.

Any former city dweller, educated person or person associated in any way with the former government could be killed for any reason. Among the capitol offences were foraging for extra food, associating with a relative, having owned a business, speaking French, practicing Buddhism, not working hard enough, having associated with a Vietnamese or wearing glasses.

Under the leadership of Pol Pot the Khmer Rouge set up farm camps throughout the country. These were forced labor camps of grueling hard work. Conditions varied depending on location but eventually hundreds of thousands of Cambodians would slowly starve to death at these farm camps. The Khmer Rouge also set up interrogation centers to extract confessions from the guilty. The most famous of these was Tuol sleng (code named S21) where of the over 20,000 people that entered for questioning only 6 are know to have survived. In these interrogation centers people were photographed, questioned, and then tortured to death. And anyone could end up there – even Khmer Rouge party members and some of Pol Pot’s oldest friend.

This Cambodian life of horror went on until early 1979 when Vietnamese troops invaded and took over the country. During the Rouge party’s reign more than 1.5 million Cambodians were killed or starved to death. The population was decimated, a fact that is still evident today, as one looks around and see almost no old people (median age in Cambodia is 21, compared to Singapore where the median age is 38)

The Vietnamese occupation lasted more than 10 years. In 1991 the Paris Peace Accords where withdrawl was negotiated mandated a ceasefire and democratic elections. Factional fighting and armed skirmishes continued to hampered political stability and free elections throughout the 1990’s. The remaining guerilla Khmer Rouge forces surrendered only in 1999. The 21 century has seen a return of political and economic stability. Although far from completely mended - the country remains poor, it is rank the third most corrupt county in S.E. Asia, the income gap is huge, and life expectancy low – overall Cambodia seems to be headed in a better direction. Spectacular Ankor Wat and Siem Reap are quickly becoming a tourist destinations and Phnom Penh (only a few hundred kilometers away) is rebuilding and beginning to look better than some cities in more affluent countries. There is much more to Cambodia then just the last 60 years. Home to some of the largest temple (or Wat) complexes in the world it was once the trading capitol of all S.E. Asia with an empire that extended from Myanmar to Malaysia. And despite the horrors of the past the Cambodian people are genuinely friendly and kind – and excited to have you visit them and tell you about their rich history - before the troubles of the 20th century.

For more on the Cambodian Holocaust