Life and Death in Modern Cambodia

A young journalist's reflections on a nation of contrasts and contradictions

As Cambodians visited temples and gave alms on their ancient day of the dead in September 2004, I was holding a diaperless newborn.

I had been working for a newspaper in the county’s capital Phnom Penh for nearly all of 2004, when a colleague, Kuch Naren, invited me to her hometown for a weekend. The child was thrust into my arms by its grinning mother—Naren’s cousin—almost as soon as we entered the woman’s hut.

Before moving to Phnom Penh, all I knew of Cambodia was from the film, The Killing Fields, which depicted the country’s genocide under the communist Khmer Rouge regime in the mid 1970s. This fall, a United Nations war crimes tribunal finally began investigating the surviving leaders of the regime that thirty years ago wiped out as much as a third of the country’s 7 million people.

I imagined a place with such a bloody history would be filled with bedraggled citizens. But instead, I found a place of contradictions where the same people who grew up hearing nightly AK-47 blasts could also flash the most disarming smiles to strangers they passed on the street. I found a country where life, even birth, continues among the memorials and monuments to the dead.


Cambodia’s Buddhist philosophy is interlaced with rituals of homage to spirits of nature and spirits of one’s ancestors. Miniature versions of temples, called stupas, serve as elaborate gravestones dotting the rice paddies in a country where much of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

Despite the poverty, elaborately framed photographs of deceased relatives decorate the walls of almost every home. When Naren and I entered her cousin’s home, we passed just such photographs.

With the baby in my arms, I wondered how many children had been raised in that very room. I wondered how generations had gone without cloth diapers—luxuries too expensive for most Cambodians to afford. And as the tiny angel curled its finger around mine, I wondered what a mother did if the infant had to go?

“I imagined a place with such a bloody history would be filled with bedraggled citizens. But instead, I found a place of contradictions where the same people who grew up hearing nightly AK-47 blasts could also flash the most disarming smiles to strangers.”

A second later, I found out.

A warm flood seeped through the blanket. It spilled on to my arms. It spilled on to my jeans. It spilled onto the ground.

I yelped. The baby screamed. His mother cackled with laughter.

The mother swiped her baby out of my hands—a bit too late if you ask me—and held him out over the dirt floor.

Humble Beginnings

Naren hurried me home to clean up, which involved a dousing in freezing well water on the front lawn. Naren’s house, like her cousin’s, had no running water. It was built on stilts. They had only squat toilets and a well in the front yard. I had known Naren was from the countryside—we had worked on several stories together—but I had never expected such a humble beginning.

Naren was the only female Cambodian reporter in our office. She was always decked out in the latest fashions—pink leather purses, ruffled shirts or heels decorated in bows. She zipped around the city in a red moped. Her giggle could often be heard above the howls of the other Cambodian reporters, but when she raged at one of those reporters, even the office keyboards fell silent.

Naren was Scarlett O’Hara. Her Tara was a little village called Suong in Kampong Cham province.

Frankly My Dear…

One of her suitors had driven his champagne-colored Toyota to Suong to visit on the same weekend. I could tell he was smitten so I asked Naren if they were an item.

She laughed. “I think he is gay.”

Gay! The guy was clearly not. He swooned every time she was around. He drove to the countryside to spend days with Naren’s mother and nights in a completely separate section of the house.

But even at 23, Naren knew her mind. She was the youngest of half a dozen children. Her mother was toothless. Her father died in the mid-1980s, when she was only a few years old. When I asked how he died, she said she couldn’t explain, which means it probably was a medical problem. In Cambodia, people regularly die of waterborne illnesses and other ailments that have been eradicated in the United States.

No Comfort

His ashes were entombed in a stupa near the village temple. Whenever Naren returns to her village, she visits her father’s stupa. The only time I saw her energy fade was when she approached her father’s concrete obelisk. There were only one or two others in the temple grounds, meaning her father would have been a prominent figure in the village. But that seemed to give Naren no comfort.

She stared at the stupa’s tiered steeple and epithet and her usually rosy cheeks turned slate gray…even the liveliest of women understand the gravity of death in Cambodia.

As Naren, her non-boyfriend and I visited the temple that day, a villager picked reeds in the surrounding rice paddies. A bright red rooster foraged for sustenance. And across the street, Naren’s cousin was caring for a brand new child—a new life among the monuments to the dead.