Whenever April 17th rolls around, I can’t help but feel sad. Americans remember December 7th for the bombing of Pearl Harbor and September 11th for the terrorist attacks. Fortunately, our way of life hasn’t changed terribly, but that wasn’t the case in Cambodia 36 years ago.
My mom took this photo 10 years before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Before the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia, foreigners and locals walked together in peace on a calm street like this one above.
Angkor Wat, like now, was also a popular tourist destination before 1975. My mom and a friend traveled to the famous temples in 1965. During this time, Pol Pot spent time in North Vietnam and China. He learned from these countries, but wanted his own brand of government. He certainly achieved that.
The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978 and ruled for another decade. I remember visiting some Cambodian refugees in suburban Chicago in 1978 or 1979 when my Girl Scout troop brought bags of clothes and toys to a Cambodian family. In 1991, I was determined to visit Cambodia and lucked out in that I was in Southeast Asia at a time when a two-year peace process was producing some results and the country was finally quite safe–even the remote areas near Angkor Wat.
Today Cambodia has posh hotels and a vibrant tourist infrastructure, for better or for worse. But the events of April 17, 1975 aren’t so far in the distance.