Mine-clearing rats on a leash, manicured elephants in a retirement home, squid cooked with lotus “in three forms”… Contrary to the banality of its title, The Wonders of Cambodia, tonight’s “Beautiful Escape” demonstrates of appreciable originality. The journalist Jérôme Pitorin has chosen to focus on the initiatives of Cambodians, representative of a young population (half are under 25), who wish to enter modernity while preserving the traditions of the past.

It is still necessary to turn the page on the communist dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge: between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 2 million Cambodians were killed, out of a total population of 7 million. A genocide that left its mark.

Thus Sophany Keal, the director of Sokool Travel who accompanies Jérôme Pitorin on the Angkor site – a must with its 2 million tourists each year -, she fled the Pol Pot regime at the age of 6 to settle with his family in Quebec, before returning to his country. Today, she never tires of showing visitors the temple of Angkor Wat, the country’s emblem, that of Ta Prohm, known for the massive roots of cheese trees that surround it, or the great reclining Buddha of Phnom Kulen.

The dictatorship also left mines behind. The solution found by the Cambodians to eliminate them can make you smile: mine rats. Since 2016, paired and leashed rodents have secured 22 million km² of land and are expected to complete their mission in 2025.

Link between past and present

Coming to terms with the past is everyone’s job. David-Jaya Piot, a Frenchman in his thirties born in Cambodia to a Khmer mother, also left his native country before returning to co-found Kulen Elephant Forest, a refuge for elderly elephants, instead of his parents’ small business, who organized elephant rides.

The young jazz singer Sin Setsochhata has, for her part, chosen the same career as her grandfather, nicknamed the Elvis Presley of Cambodia, as evidenced by the old vinyl records she plays. “But everything shattered for him when the Khmer Rouge arrived,” she said.

We find this link between past and present at each encounter: in the fashion studio of Romyda Keth, a stylist trained in Paris; in a Buddhist school; to the Song Saa Foundation, whose volunteers pick up 3 to 5 tons of trash per month from the beaches; during a monkey dance or shadow theater performance.

In flip-flops and bermudas, when all the locals are dressed in more protective pants and shirts, Jérôme Pitorin has the look of the perfect tourist. That’s good, Cambodia is counting on the return of travelers to develop. They remain few.