“We don’t really like the Vietnamese or Thai people….or Koreans”
“Oh? Who do you like then?”
“We like Indians!”
This brief exchange with a Cambodian co-worker is a fairly typical expression of Khmer people’s views on cultural conflicts and relationships within Asia. Regional politics are complex and often based in long-standing distrust or mutual dislike. But between the Cambodians and the Indians, to my completely surprise, there seems to be nothing but love.
Cambodians frequently stare at me with a fascinated yet knowing look, and when given the opportunity, will inquire “You Indian?” Sometimes they’ll even add a “you have Indian face, it very nice. We like.”
Trying to understand where this familiarity and borderline-reverence stems from, I’ve searched Cambodian contemporary and ancient history for links with India. And they weren’t difficult to find. After all, Cambodia was a Hindu kingdom for over a millennium and is home to the largest Hindu temple in the world (Angkor Wat). Even after the Kingdom adopted Buddhism in the 13th century, Hindu iconography and Sanksrit terminology still persist in Cambodia. Many Cambodians see India as the birthplace and home of the beloved Buddha and, given the means, would like to make a pilgrimage to India. In one particularly poignant exchange with a Khmer tour guide, he explained to me that he would like to visit Bodhgaya, India (the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment) to ask the Buddha how he could allow the Khmer Rouge to destroy his people.
On a more contemporary and lighter note, when television and radio first arrived in Cambodia in the late 80s and 90s (after the infrastructure and livelihood of the people were destroyed by Pol Pot’s regime), some of the only programming available here were Bollywood movies, television shows, and songs. Even today, the TVs in restaurants and bars are frequently showing Bollywood
soap operas (dubbed in Khmer, of course), and I often hear snippets of bhangra or Hindi ballads floating out of homes.
While Khmer people are generally shy and reserved, it has been a great pleasure to see their excitement about India and their affection towards me, even though it’s undeserved. Not only have I developed a mutual affection for, and solidarity with, the Cambodian people, but I have also come to appreciate and admire India’s cultural and historical legacy in Southeast Asia. I’m so proud!