Enchantment, Heartbreak, and Admiration: The Kingdom of Wonder

by Emily Ford

The 6:00 am breeze encourages an early start in Siem Reap, and as I am pulled into the busy Psar Chaa, the old market adjacent to our hotel, the alleys provide a glimpse of the day’s activities.  

Children, disturbing the dust that has settled overnight, dodge street vendors already tilting umbrellas toward the sun. Motorbikes zip around women carrying fruit and every manner of carg o on their backs, and I join the madness, climbing into the back of a tuk-tuk to whip down the 148th like the other young people who populate the city. Twenty minutes later, the harrowing drive through Siem Reap’s streets over, I find myself cruising along the Charles De Gaulle, a tree-lined two lane road filled with the aromas of fried spiders, red chile, and nom banh chok. The sun finally peeks over the horizon and the Ta Prohm Kel temple comes into view, along with hundreds of saffron robed monks. “Krom Phleng kar Hom,” a traditional song, plays over old drive-through speakers and Angkor Wat, basked in orange and pink, looms ahead.  

Joseph Mussomeli, the US ambassador to Cambodia from 2005-2008 (United States), once said of the country, “It’s the most dangerous country you’ll ever visit, because you’ll fall in love with it…and then it will break your heart” (Brinkley 3). Mussomeli’s statement rings true for many. He adds of Americans that “all they know of Cambodia is the Khmer Rouge” (3), and they form a sympathy from that knowledge so deep that they travel across the world to see Angkor Wat, to watch ordinary people stroll through their daily lives. Mussomeli’s observation captures my own Cambodian experience. As a young teen, I was entranced; I smiled, I laughed, I

ate the food from local vendors, and I worked with the organization Caring for Cambodia, building patios and serving food; however, the more I got to know Cambodia, its people and its history, the more I too struggled with heartbreak.  

Cambodia sits at the center of a poverty-stricken region, but by almost every measure Cambodia is the poorest, primarily due to events that began in 1975. The Vietnam War had ended, but the agitation it caused in neighboring states played out during the following years (Dobbins 30). After the fall of Saigon, communist radicals in Cambodia, known as the Khmer Rouge, overthrew Lon Nol, the acting military director in Phnom Penh (Hinton 111). During the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power and its five year rule, the regime killed two million Cambodians––one-quarter of the nation’s population (Hinton 104). Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, destroyed every fixture and totem of twentieth-century life, including killing eighty percent of Cambodia’s teachers, seventy percent of the doctors, and almost everyone else who possessed any form of education (Krkljes). Pol Pot liked to say that Cambodia had “returned to year zero” (Brinkley x).  

Similar to the cultural destruction more recently experienced in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria at the hands of ISIS and the Taliban, the Khmer Rouge laid waste to many of Cambodia’s cultural landmarks. Fortunately, Angkor Wat survived, primarily because of its powerful religious association. Walking through its gates that early morning, a sense of peace fell over me, and despite tourists and monks aplenty, a quiet and innocence created by hushed voices, slow movements, soft music, and flowered gardens within the gates contrasted with many other parts of the genocide-torn country. Even after three billion dollars in foreign aid, (Brinkley xix) Cambodia remains largely third-world, but the physical and emotional contrast that Angkor provides to much of the rest of the country, I found mirrored in the fortitude evident in the country’s slums, areas that outwardly remain nothing more than crumbling buildings with trash littered streets, characterized by deplorable sanitation, stray dogs, and roving beggars.

Walking through the detritus of poverty evident in these areas the shouts of children surprise. Through a side alley come three running, laughing, and yelling “suostei.” They greet strangers and welcome them to their home, a tarp held up by sticks and slats of rusted metal situated between sewage canals and old railroad tracks. Their friendliness, though, is quickly understood, for those who live here are eager to tell their stories. One man, who offers water and fruit plates, complains that his wife has been taken––locked up for three months. He claims the government confiscated his home forcing him to reside in the slum.  The man is frightened; he, like many of the residents, has come face to face with the brutality of the government. Yet this man still displays opposition posters in his home, and Cambodians all over the country and world, whether they are survivors of the cruel Pol Pot regime, silenced journalists, refugees, or evicted residents, all hold onto a hope that one day Cambodia might improve and heal, and many overseas are doing things to achieve that. As witness to this perseverance, the sympathy that I was inclined to feel was complimented by growing respect for the Cambodian people.


The words “Kilong Ung Insurance Agency Inc.” stood bold and big on the bright red wall of the State Farm office. As I walked in the door, I first noticed the simple furnishings placed strategically around the room––a couch, a few fake plants, two armchairs, and a coffee table––yet as I took a closer look I realized that Kilong Ung’s name was not the only thing proudly displayed. On the walls hung four black frames, three of which contained certificates from the Royal Rosarians and one, the largest, a degree from Reed College. Next to the door, on the coffee table, sat two large golfing trophies, each engraved with Kilong Ung’s name, and next to the trophies sat a picture of a Cambodian school classroom, a small space with simple wooden desks and smiling children, prompting a memory of my previous visit to a Cambodian classroom outside Siem Reap. Ung’s cheerful wife greeted me and led me to his office. A small man with large ears and a full head of hair, Ung stared intently at the computer in front of him. On our entrance, though, he immediately stood and smiled, shaking my hand and inviting me to sit.

Kilong Ung was born in the early sixties in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, a place known for arts and music according to Ung. The youngest of eight children, he was raised humbly and happy despite the intrusion of the Vietnam War.  He went to school and lived out a normal childhood, “doing all the normal things despite the rockets and things from the civil war going on at that time,” he said. In 1975, however, Ung’s life changed drastically. The Khmer Rouge rapidly emerged in Cambodia, quickly recruiting peasants and spreading to every part of the country. As they expanded, they committed large scale genocide, and Ung and his family were frightened because of who they were and what they looked like. “I have lighter skin because I have some Chinese in my blood,” he explained. “People with lighter skin in Cambodia were treated more harshly.” Add their education and Ung’s family knew they would be targets of the Khmer Rouge. The communists flooded into Battambang and the family was separated immediately by gender, marital status, and age. As the only boy, Ung was ripped from his family and transported to a slave camp.  

“I was all alone,” he told me. “I was separated completely from everyone else. While some of my sisters had each other, I was all alone.” Ung struggled to make eye contact and looked down at his restless hands, visibly still unsettled by the experience. At the slave camp, Ung faced many horrors. While only twelve years old, he was forced, at gunpoint, to work thirteen hours a day, every day, for five years; the work was brutal. “There is no vacation, there is no break,” he said. “I was given a bowl of rice porridge for lunch and a bowl of rice porridge for dinner and that is all water and about a tablespoon of solid rice, and that was it.” So, on the verge of starvation, Ung had to risk his life every other night and sneak off to find bats, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, and rats to eat.

Five years of enslavement passed slowly, and when Ung was finally released in 1979 he was a different person. Lack of proper nutrition had stunted his growth, leaving him only five feet tall and extremely thin and ill. He was seventeen years old, both of his parents and two of his sisters had died during their years apart, and Ung and his remaining sisters had no possessions. Nevertheless, Ung and his oldest sister escaped the ravished country finding their way to the United States with nothing but the clothing on their backs. Remarkably, having arrived in Portland knowing no English, Ung flourished and graduated from Cleveland High School. “I wanted to be able to tell my story,” he explained. His achievements continued: “I graduated from Reed College with a math degree, and then got my master’s degree in statistics.” Ung’s haunted expression vanished, replaced by the content expression of a justifiably proud man.  

Ung’s exceptional accomplishments in Portland notwithstanding, the horror of the Khmer regime, his struggles with the memories of the labor camp, and the deaths of his relatives along with 1.7 million other Cambodians, motivated him to share his story in order to honor the victims less fortunate than he. In 2008, he published his memoir, Golden Leaf, and went on a book tour to publically discuss his experiences; meanwhile, Cambodia continued to recover from the aftermath of the Khmer regime’s atrocities. “People were still starving,” Ung said, “there was still war, there was still political and economic insecurities.” Cambodia, trying to pick up the pieces, had to deal with families separated and displaced, thousands of orphans, millions of landmines, an obliterated education system, a decimated economy, and a culture that needed rediscovery. Of these problems, the education system continued to be largely neglected and in disarray, and preserving cultural heritage was a luxury hard for the nation to afford. With the majority of Cambodia’s teachers killed by the Khmer regime, the quality of education decreased leading to high dropout rates (Unicef); moreover, increased poverty pushed many students out of school as parents, “especially in rural areas, could not afford the direct and indirect costs related to education and families often required children to help at home with chores and field work” (Unicef).  In 2009, to help rectify this situation, Ung created the Golden Leaf Education Foundation (GLEF) and began raising money to build schools in Cambodia.


On Tuesday in Siem Reap I had noticed an abundance of children wandering the streets. While rare in the United States, in Cambodia school aged children bustled along midweek with the rest of the workforce selling fruit, zipping through traffic on their bikes, and approaching tourists with handmade bracelets and art. Jamie Amelio, the founder of Caring for Cambodia, was as surprised as I to find kids working for money at such a young age. In 2003 when visiting Cambodia with her husband, a nine-year old girl approached Amelio asking for money to pay her school tuition. Heartbroken but skeptical, Amelio told her that “if she would take her to visit the school, I would give her the dollar,” and what she saw “changed her life” (Amelio). Cramped into a tiny classroom with barred windows, seventy-five students patiently waited for a teacher to show her face. Amelio remembers how students “shared a pencil they had broken into small pieces” (Amelio). Upon her return to Texas, Amelio started the organization Caring for Cambodia, (CFC,) a nonprofit that builds schools, trains teachers, feeds and clothes students, and provides healthcare. Two years after its founding, CFC built its first school outside of Siem Reap.

On Wednesday in Siem Reap, I visited a CFC school after grabbing a quick breakfast and taking a tuk-tuk out of town. Within twenty minutes I bumped along a dirt road, occasionally ramming my shoulders against my mother and father. Around us spread the Cambodia that news reports often described: single room houses with walls made of brown palm branches stood wobbly on wooden sticks; trash littered the road, dust permeated the air, and the polluted Siem Reap River languished, brown and still. Eventually the gates of the Amelio School, a contrast in its bright blue and intricate design, came into view and I exited the tuk-tuk on shaky legs.

The school was oriented in a horseshoe, and contained three yellow and brown buildings that blended in with the orange tinged grounds. The buildings’ windows were adorned with bright blue shutters and orange blinds. Behind the center building stood a covered dining area with seven rows of tables and a large black pot steaming with that morning’s breakfast. Utilitarian to be sure, the school grounds nevertheless seemed luxurious compared to the surrounding neighborhood. Students participated in a variety of activities––swinging on a swing set, playing soccer, and peering at us around building corners. After touring the school, we spent time serving the kids breakfast and eating with them at their tables. They were dressed in white and blue uniforms, their eyes sparkling despite the early morning. Their casual demeanor and happy expressions suggested they considered the school home; my thoughts returned to the many children wandering Siem Reap’s streets, and I realized CFC’s work had only just begun.

Cambodian education is run by the state, meaning that the government controls what is taught in public schools and the amount of money the program receives. Bribery and corruption is endemic. Currently the curriculum is limited and only 13% of students make it through primary education with only 3% graduating from secondary school. Entering the classroom each day, the students hand the teacher money, and to receive good grades, the student hands the teacher more. Some parents, unable to pay the bribes, pull their children from school, and “38 percent of Cambodia’s children between ages seven and fifteen work part-time” (Brinkley 212). The system is run on a bribery chain. With the first link students pay their teachers, in the second teachers pay their principals to keep their jobs, and finally principals give a portion, called the facilitation fee, to the Education Ministry. A “facilitation fee is required before the ministry releases funds for the schools” (Brinkley 208). However, the money is untraceable and sometimes never appears again, slurped up by the government officials for fancy homes and cars. From a young age, students are exposed to this corruption and instead of going to school to study, “you go to school and learn how to bribe people” (Brinkley 208).

Caring for Cambodia approaches education differently than the Cambodian government. Building private schools, CFC develops their own curriculum with clear American influences. Starting in primary school, students learn English as a second language, and technology, math, and science are incorporated into the program. Entering secondary school, CFC students are expected to problem solve using knowledge from multiple subjects, and sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology are taught seriously.

Like Amelio and CFC, Ung and The Golden Leaf Education Foundation hope to impact Cambodia through education.  GLEF is built on an unconventional principle: “to empower humanity by enhancing educational opportunities internationally, in memory of genocide victims and in honor of survivors, ‘golden leaves’” (GLEF). Golden leaves, a term conceived by Ung as he wrote his memoir, are defined in three ways: 1) a survivor of a heinous act against humanity, especially genocide; 2) a person who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide; or 3) one who survives against extreme odds (GLEF). Ung declares the term comes from “spirit and human resilience;” the intensity of his gaze and earnestness apparent in his voice and demeanor as he explained this to me visually demonstrated his commitment to these characteristics: “I was a leaf at the mercy of the wind. The wind carried me from one remote part of the world to another. It blew me through turbulence and catastrophic weather. It took me to a Khmer Rouge labor camp and lingered for an eternity. It dehydrated me and nearly starved me to death. I helplessly watched the mother of all winds ruthlessly crush my tree into lifeless pulp. Like an almighty Olympian god when the wind wanted to toy with me, it blew me through rockets and bullets. While two million leaves disintegrated, I persevered. Through an extraordinary journey I discovered myself. I am fortunate and I do not easily perish. I was a golden leaf. But against all odds, I survived, laid down roots, and became a tree.” He laughs a bit, stares at me again, gazes at his hands, then peers back at me and, more softly continues, “If I were to extend this, it would be about the golden tree. As a tree, I will use my wood to build schools for children around the world…with Cambodia as the low hanging fruit. But unfortunately, there is only so much wood a tree like me can yield. So, I need fellow trees. I need a forest, hence, The Golden Leaf Education Foundation.”  To date, GLEF, under Ung’s leadership, has built five schools and supplied materials and money to many others.

Five thousand Cambodian refugees live in Oregon and over 80% of them fled from the Khmer Rouge or the regime’s aftermath (Multicultural Topics). As a Cambodian citizen and refugee, himself, Ung found solace in the numbers and joined the Cambodian American Community of Oregon immediately upon its organization. CACO’s mission is to “UNITE people of common interests, PRESERVE Cambodian history, heritage, culture and language for future generations and friends of the community, and EMPOWER the present and the future generations” (Cambodian-American). The refugees came to Oregon and “brought the cultures and traditions of Cambodia here with them and we have never evolved because we wanted to preserve those traditions,” Ung states. To do so, CACO has built a Cambodian school in Portland, runs a traditional Buddhist temple, and teaches Khmer, dance, and traditions to new generations. He explains that the traditions they keep alive in Portland are gradually dying in Cambodia. After the Khmer Rouge devastated the country, necessary rebuilding has modernized the country but ignored much of its culture. To keep their community together, Ung and his fellow refugees preserve history and heritage, and practice traditional events such as weddings; he continues, “as we get older, we need to keep ourselves relevant by keeping ourselves together,” and that, for many refugees, is how they persevere through memories of personal nightmares and homesickness.


Youk Chhang, another survivor of the Pol Pot Regime, remembers in an interview with Brinkley, that during the Khmer Rouge, “nobody reacted. Everyone was passive. That was how you survived. You pretend to be deaf” (14). Then, after the war, “people were hiding their past behavior. To survive during the Khmer Rouge, you had to steal, cheat, lie, point fingers at others, even kill. And now you are ashamed. So we act passively, like we are deaf, to hide our past behavior. The problem is, now people don’t see this is a problem. Today it has become the norm for us. That’s what’s scary” (14-15). Troubled over past behavior and the enormity of the challenges to rebuild their society, some Cambodians, and observers of Cambodia, conclude that the country will never heal, that no one will be able to move on from its history. Caring for Cambodia, The Golden Leaf Education Foundation, Kilong Ung, and the members of the Cambodian American Community of Oregon substantiate a far more optimistic vision for the country and its people; they see hope and change in everyday life, and they see, and contribute to, Cambodia’s rebuilding. They believe eventually their role in Cambodia diminishes and they desire, in Ung’s words, “to not build any more schools. Five, ten years from now, maybe instead I will have to find something else to do.”

“To be a warrior is to be Cambodian,” an expression I heard but its meaning a mystery before I met Kilong Ung. Mussomeli’s observation regarding love and heartbreak rang true for me as I experienced the country on my first visit.  CFC’s work, and my small contribution to it, was inspiring to be sure, and the grandeur of Angkor Wat was undeniable; but the poverty, eviction sites, education challenges, and the history of the Khmer Rouge influenced a feeling of pity hard to ignore.  Time with Ung, however, focuses one’s attention on the possible rather than dwelling on the difficulties or obsessing on injustices. Ung’s spirit is equally evident in the work of the Cambodian Americans and refugees involved in CACO striving to keep Cambodian culture alive, and in Amelio and CFC’s on-going dedication to incrementally improve conditions for all Cambodians.  Moreover, the attitude of students in the CFC school I visited and the perseverance and hopefulness evident among some of the country’s most downtrodden reveal people decidedly not paralyzed by heartbreak. None of these organizations or individuals reflect the malaise to which Mr. Chhang refers. Indeed, I’ve come to realize, the warrior analogy is a far more apt description of the Cambodian character than any other I’ve come across. While acknowledging Cambodia’s difficult past and present, I’m inspired that these conditions will not define its future; Cambodian’s, and those that wish to help them, will soldier on.

Walking out of Ung’s office after our meeting, he offered me a parting piece of advice. “The aliens come to earth from Mars and they learn from us, but we are not learning from them. Pay attention, learn from each other” He says. “Boom,” and spreads his arms to form an explosion.

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