Cambodia was born of legend and has been a “Kingdom of Water” since time immemorial.
Once upon a time, according to legend, a Dragon King ruled over a land of swamps and water. One day an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya sailed by and the Dragon King’s daughter paddled out to meet him. The Indian stranger fired a magic arrow into her canoe and frightened the Dragon Princess into marrying him.
The Dragon King was poor and had no dowry so he drank up the water that covered the land
to make his kingdom larger, a gift worthy of his son-in-law.
The new land was bountiful and from now on, the kingdom was known as Kambuja.
Every year this ancient myth is re-enacted as much of Cambodia disappears under the floodwaters that pour in from the Mekong river. The resulting silt has turned the Tonle Sap basin
into one of the most fertile regions on earth: with up to 3 rice harvests a year and the largest source of fresh water fish in the world Cambodia has all the makings of a rich and self-sufficient country.
For more than four centuries, from 802 AD to 1432 AD the Khmer Kingdom in Angkor city capitalised on this potential and created one of Mankind’s greatest civilisations.
A legacy of colonial rule under the French was replaced by the tragedy of Cold War politics. During the Vietnam conflict, Cambodia suffered indiscriminate bombing by US planes hunting down the Viet Cong and renegade American GIs.
The fall of Saigon in 1975 ushered in one of history’s most tragic genocides. Under the banners
of nationalism and liberation Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge henchmen systematically eradicated
all concepts of family, love, education and commerce. In the 4 years following the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 the Khmer Rouge, backed by China, were responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million fellow citizens.
This bloody experiment was brought to an end by the Vietnamese who occupied the country
in December 1978 and remained in control till 1989. Civil war between the Khmer Rouge and other Cambodia parties plunged the country into turmoil once again, and it was not till 1998
and a mass amnesty of Khmer Rouge veterans that some semblance of order was re-installed.
Cambodia remains as one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. During our filming
we failed to meet a single person who had not suffered direct losses within his or her family -
- either to the Khmer Rouge, to starvation, or land mines. Much of the population would like to see the Khmer Rouge brought to trial but there appears to be no interest within domestic political circles. China and Thailand (who saw the Khmer Rouge as a counterweight against Vietnamese influence in the region) are understandably reluctant to having their dubious role in the Khmer Rouge genocide exposed. The scars continue to run deep.
It is against this historical background that we spent November 2002 filming on the Tonle Sap
and in Prek Toal where we spent an incredible month with Cambodia’s boat people and fishermen. Some of them are among the world’s poorest people, often earning less than 50 US cents a day, but all of them were hard-working, full of smiles and good humour, and endowed with great dignity. It was a privilege to share their company.