On Communism

By: leelefever on December 28, 2006 - 10:31am

I wrote this entry in September of 2006 from Helsinki, Finland just after arriving there from the Trans-Siberian Railway and a month in China.  For a while I was consumed by learning about Communism and needed to get it on paper, so to speak.

This post is a bit of a departure from the usual travel topics and I hope you’ll pardon its serious and dark nature. Having been to Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Russia, Germany and the Czech Republic, Communism seems to be a recurring theme and something to which I’ve devoted a lot of time reading and learning. I’ve developed a fascination for the subject, likely more than any other subject on the trip.

I figure that the root of my fascination is related to the fact that so many smart people believed in it so fervently and killed so many in an attempt to make it work – and the work continues to this day.  To me as an American entrepreneur, Communism is endlessly fascinating because it diverges so greatly from my world view.  The more I learn about it, the more baffled I become that so many could believe that it is a perfectly reasonable way to run a country.

I started the trip knowing very little about the Communist ideology, Marxism, Leninism or the history of the peoples’ revolution.  After reading a number of books, visiting museums, etc., I think I have a handle on some of the basics.  To test myself, I’d like to try to describe my layman's version for you as briefly and simply as possible.

Karl Marx was known as the father of Communism and the author of the Communist Manifesto – the first declaration of his theory in late 19th century. To Marx, capitalism (free markets, supply and demand, etc.) was evil and would eventually cause great misery to the people of the world. His goal was to stop it. 

To understand why he thought this, we must consider the lives of workers in the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.  At the time he saw a world where people were either rich owners or exploited and unhappy workers.  Marx saw this as a great injustice that was getting worse through the growth of Capitalism.  He foresaw a future where Capitalism would create a small handful of rich people and a world of miserable people that would get more miserable over time. This would even be extended to a worldwide scale with the world eventually being run by a few rich industrialists. This was what some called Imperialism and it was the end game of Capitalism.

Marx was successful in convincing a lot of very smart and powerful people that his was the true vision of the world and his Communist ideology its savior.  He promoted the idea that the true power of a civilization lies within the working class and if properly motivated, the working class can rise up in revolution against the rich land owners. This was revolution and it was the first stage of building a Communist system which would be fair to everyone – a single class society that worked to provide what it needed for the whole society. The government owned everything and everyone worked toward a common goal of self-sufficiency.  In fact, according to the theory, there would be no need for government in the future – it would “whither away” as the Communist utopia was achieved. Everyone would be well fed, protected and happy as they worked together as one.

Of course, history shows that this is not the case.  Two contributing factors:

  • Marx got it wrong.  He did not predict the rapid rise of the middle class.  Before he died, he saw Capitalism creating opportunities for a new class that were neither the rich owner nor the exploited worker.
  • Marxism was just a theory:  It described how things should work and what should happen, but it never described *how* Communism or revolution should actually be managed.  It was a theory with no doctrine.

Of course in the 20th century there would be no shortage of world leaders to test the Marxist theory in the form of prompting a revolution and establishing a Communist government – supposedly freeing the working classes from Capitalist oppression.

The first serious revolutionary was Lenin in Russia. He put Marxist theory into practice and established the first Communist government in 1917 and in doing so created Leninism – the way a person goes about revolution and enacting Marxist principles.  This created what is known as Marxism/Leninism and became a complete package for people like Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot in Asia.  They now had the idea (Marxism) and the practice (Leninism) for Communist Revolution.

What has happened since then is the subject of great debate. Most would agree that if there is a winner in the Cold War, it is Capitalism. Many questions remain about what went wrong with Communism.  I’ll let you research the myriad perspectives on what happened and leave you with my own admittedly half-baked answer.

I think there are two main reasons Communism failed.  The first is human nature.  Communism underestimated the human need for achievement, competition and recognition.  Making everyone the same reduced everyone to the lowest common denominator and bred more misery and frustration than it prevented.  The second reason is leadership.  Have you ever heard of the founder of a company having to hire a CEO?  It happens often because the people that start things are not often the best people to manage them.  Revolutionaries are great at revolution, but can be poor at administration and management.  The history of Communism is rife with stories of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot making ludicrous decisions that caused the deaths of millions of their people.  They grew omnipotent through revolution but lacked the skills to use that power in any responsible manner.

My guess is that human history will show Communism as a destructive and deadly force in the world, not because of the idea or theory, but its implementation.  It enabled the centralization of absolute power that bred mass corruption and quickly became unmanageable.  To give you an idea of the level of destruction, consider the number of deaths in these countries in the Communist era:

  • China and Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1950’s)  - 30 million dead from starvation
  • Cambodia and Pol Pot’s Communist Revolution (1970’s) 7 million dead from starvation and executions (1 in 7 Cambodians)
  • Russia and Stalin’s Iron Rule (1920-50s) – 40 million dead from starvation and executions

… and this is not counting the unquantifiable misery wrought on families and individuals in these countries as secret police, hidden agendas and propaganda were a fact of life.  

Could a system of government that produced numbers like this be considered a positive force in the world?  I think not. Yet, the Communist Party is still a major player in world politics.  In Vietnam and Russia it has considerable power and of course in China, Cuba and North Korea it is the dominant force. How could this be? How could there still be demand for such a system?  The answer lies somewhere in the real world security and equality that Communism provides the working class.  Despite the horrific past, some people still yearn for a system where they can depend on the government for everything – they are ready to trade freedom for security.

Maybe the real root of my fascination with Communism is related to how it helps me to understand all the things I take for granted.  The more I learn, the more I wonder what my life would be like if I was a child of Communism.  With an entrepreneurial American worldview, I find it nearly unfathomable.

For more reading, check out the Wikipedia entries on:  Communism, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Karl Marx, Marxism, Capitalism, Dictatorship of the Proleteriat, Imperialism


Wei vs. The Monsoon

By: leelefever on July 18, 2006 - 1:06am

It's safe to say that we have a love/hate relationship with tuk-tuk drivers. They are the most annoying part of being in public in Asia, but they can sometimes offer a good time and a good laugh.  When we arrived in Siem Reap Cambodia, we happened to meet a young guy named Wei that ended up being our tuk-tuk driver for three days- and boy did he end up earning his money.

On the third day, we wanted to get off the tourist trail a bit and asked about some ruins called Beng Mealea that are about 2 hours outside of Siem Reap.  Wei told that he had never driven a tuk-tuk there, but he would do it for us.  We left at 7:30am the next morning. 

Wei is a handsome guy and every time we would leave him to do some sight seeing, we'd come back to see a pack of Cambodian girls around his tuk-tuk.  He said "all they want is my money", with a coy smile.  His English skills and good nature made us like him too and we felt a little bad to put him through so much.

The Beng Mealea ruins have only been open to tourists since about 2001 because of land mines.  The attraction is that they are mostly untouched- viewed in the condition that nature left them for some 800 years. Like most things in Angkor- an incredible sight.


Within about one minute of arriving back at the entrance and waking up Wei, it began to rain.  It rained very hard for a while and then let up, so we decided to make a move toward Siem Reap.  At first, Wei refused a rain coat, perhaps wishfully thinking that it would not be needed. We choose to close ourselves into the tuk-tuk and stay dry. Along the way it rained a bit more, but there was an ominous could hanging on the horizon in the direction of home.  It did not look good.

About an hour from Siem Reap, Wei decided to put on his poncho and braved some fierce winds and rain without a whimper.  I stuck my head out a couple of times and told him it would be OK to take a break.  He told me not to worry about it and continued to power on, holding one hand over his eyes to see. It just rained harder and harder and we could only wonder what it must be like on the front of the tuk-tuk.  Wei was showing his determination in the face of adversity.

Just minutes from home, it seemed like a hurricane had come ashore in Siem Reap.  I have never seen rain come down harder- it was as if the wind was blowing directly downward onto the ground, splattering the drops into mist upon impact. The Cambodians are used to monsoon rains, but the ones around us were visibly shaken by the force of this rain and wind.  

Wei had had enough.  He stopped and came around to the open back end of the tuk tuk with a smile- letting us know that he had given up for a while.  We laughed until we felt the tuk-tuk convulse a couple of times.  It was being shaken by Wei's shivering. The water had sucked every bit of warmth out of him and he was miserable.  He finally climbed into the warm and dry cab of the tuk-tuk with us to recover before finally making it home.  

We had to hand it to him- he tried his best to get through the worst that nature could offer and he did with a smile.  We tipped him well and told him to spend it on a party with his friends, where he could tell stories about being his battles with the monsoon.

One Day: Sihanoukville to Siem Reap, Cambodia by Bus

By: leelefever on July 13, 2006 - 9:07am

3AM: Lee wakes up to watch last half of World Cup finals.  Goes back to sleep happy for Italy and wishing bad, bad things for Zidane.

Wake up and pack.
7:05AM: Go to front desk to check out and order breakfast to go.  Find only one worker- a bar keep.  Order is placed as kitchen shows no signs of life.
7:15AM: Take bags to front desk... Food is being cooked slowly, checkout process begins, slowly.  Feel anxiety about catching 7:45am bus.
7:35AM:  Breakfast is done, but no takeaway containers. Must wait for someone to run next door. tick-tock tic-tock.  Finally board the backs of two motorcycles (motos) for the bus station.  Board bus with little fanfare.

8:15AM: Cambodian karaoke plays on the bus TV and sound system.
11:15AM: While arriving in Phnom Penh, Sachi notices a large stream of ants traveling up and down the window on her left as the woman beside me utilizes a third bus-supplied barf bag.  Sachi feels thankful for motion patch.
11:55AM:  Arrive at first bus station in Phnom Penh only to reboard same bus to go to main terminal to catch new bus for 6 hour ride to Siem Reap. Our bus to Siem Reap is full.  Walk to other bus companies, find another 12:30 bus to Siem Reap for US$7 per person.
12:48PM:  Depart Phnom Penh for Siem Reap with an ETA of 5:30pm.  We'll see.
1:48PM: This bus smells like urine and the AC doesn't keep the sweat away.
Lee commences all out assault on bus toilet door, which swings open incessantly just feet from his seat.  After closing it for the 12th time, resolves to find a solution.  The urine smell will be defeated!
4:17PM: Lee breaks a new sweat with each close of the toilet door.  No one seems to appreciate the effort.
5:43PM:  Lee continues to be mocked by the bathroom door and it's rank smells.  Despite fastening a canvas strap supplied by the bus people (a victorious solution), a steady flow of fellow passengers fail to recognize our plight and the door remains open for most of the time.  Grrrrr.  Lee admits defeat in the final moments.
Arrive in Siem Reap and into the typical SE Asian madhouse of tuk-tuk drivers, bags emerging from the belly of the bus and astounding inefficiency.  We take a tuk-tuk to our hotel and retire for the evening after spending 10 hours on Cambodian busses.

Angkor What?

By: leelefever on July 13, 2006 - 8:06am

The reviews of Angkor Wat are invariably the same.  The words "stunning", "amazing", "incredible" abound, as do comparisons to the levels of human achievement that produced the Pyramids at Giza of Egypt and the Taj Mahal in India. Our hopes and expectations were high, perhaps too high, because Angkor Wat was not all that we thought it would be.  Perhaps we have temple fatigue.

Angkor Wat is a site that should not be missed on any trip to Cambodia and I do not mean to diminish it's reputation.  It is huge, it is impressive and it is very old. However, it just didn't measure up to the sky-high expectations. The towers, when you are standing next to them, didn't seem as big or ornate as I expected. I also didn't expect that the corner rooms at the base of two of the towers would be used a toilets. Your milage may vary, but we enjoyed the other ruins at Angkor much more than Angkor Wat itself. 

Our favorite of the temples near Siem Reap was Ta Phrom, where the ravages of nature have been left for our enjoyment.  Much of Angkor was overtaken by jungle in the 1000+ years since the temples were built and most have been cleared of organic matter. The trees and roots of Ta Phrom are still very much a part of the scene and make for a magical experience that seems like something out of a movie. There is something special about seeing life overtake these structures over so much time.  It reminds me of candle wax dripping over the stones.



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Evidence of Genocide, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

By: leelefever on July 12, 2006 - 2:17am

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia has a dark reputation on the tourist trail from a horrific past of genocide - not unlike Dachau, Germany or Rwanda. Indeed, Phnom Penh was the center of the Khmer Rouge “revolution” that left over 1 million Cambodians dead. While a majority of the deaths occurred through starvation, malnourishment and poor medical care, thousands died at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers.  Cambodia has created two genocide memorials that make up two parts of the machination of death implemented by Pol Pot.


The first memorial is a former school that was turned into a prison when schools were outlawed.  The prison was called “S-21” or “Tuol Sleng” and it played a central role in the identification and execution of those accused of treason within the Khmer Rouge itself.  Of the over 20,000 people sent to the prison, only 7-12 reportedly survived. 

Pol Pot and the others running the show became increasingly paranoid and convinced that CIA and KGB agents were operating within their ranks. Unbelievable means of torture were used to bring out “confessions” including electricity, mutilation and burning. The accused were forced to name other “spies” and faced a choice of naming other innocent people or dying. This created a vicious circle of needless death as these soldiers named one another in an attempt to save their own lives.  In the end of course, all involved were executed. 

Many of the deaths actually occurred at what is now known as the “Killing Fields” which are mass graves about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh.  Perhaps the darkest of the sites I’ve visited, the Killing Fields offers an absolutely chilling experience of walking across mass graves where the soil is littered with human bones and clothes of victims.  Signs are posted by trees that say things like “Killing tree against which soldiers beat children” and “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads”.

 While these memorials are sad, gruesome and effective, I think it is a bit unfortunate that Cambodia is known more for genocide than it's beautiful beaches, waterfalls or incredible ancient ruins.  I'm seeing a nation on the rebound who is ready to shed all the baggage and move on.

Pol Pot and his Murderous Khmer Rouge

By: leelefever on July 12, 2006 - 1:55am learned a bit about the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodian history lately via books and visits, I’ve been struggling about what I should share here on TwinF.  I want to say so much – too much.  I find myself being overwhelmed with interesting, horrifying and heartbreaking stories that a single blog entry cannot do justice.  I’ve resolved to focus on just a few points:


  1. Modern History of Cambodia in 100 words or less
  2. Only seven Doctors Left
  3. Year Zero

Modern History of Cambodia in 100 words or less

In 1975 a new Communist government came to power in Cambodia called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot.  Pol Pot instituted an extreme and cruel version of fundamentalist Communism that quickly forced the population into farm labor.  Further, the regime outlawed money, markets, schools and religion.  Families were split apart; starvation and brutal murders became commonplace.  By 1979, when Vietnam invaded, over 1 million (1 in 7) Cambodians had lost their lives and every part of Cambodian society lay in shambles – all in the deranged pursuit of Communist Utopia. 

Only Seven Doctors Left

I met a Cambodian man in our hotel lobby that was watching BBC World News when a news story came on about the upcoming trial of some now-elderly Khmer Rouge leaders.  His name was Dom and he spoke with obvious emotion. I was interested to know his story.  In 1975 he was 2 years old (same as me) when Pol Pot came to power.  His father, a physician, was immediately separated from the family after being identified by his profession.  Dom never saw his father again.  The systematic execution of intellectuals was a strategy implemented by the Khmer Rouge.  People who were deemed to be educated were potential enemies and enemies had to be “smashed to bits”.  When the regime finally crumbled, some estimates conclude that there were only seven physicians left in all of Cambodia - seven doctors out of 7 million people.

Year Zero

Pol Pot’s goal was to turn Cambodia upside down and into an agrarian society.  According to his plan, the population would work to produce crops that would be exported to bring in money to fund social products and industry.  This is why money, schools and religion were banned- they were not needed for farming. Cambodia would revert to a pre-industrial backward-looking culture.

In talking to Cambodians I heard a theme regarding the Pol Pot time that related to starting over from “Year Zero”.  I’m only starting to grasp what it means for Cambodia to start over from Year Zero.  Once Pol Pot had been driven out, Cambodia started to rebuild, but found that the very means to rebuild had been eliminated.  Hospitals had no workers, schools had no teachers, government had no administrators – the cornerstones of modern society had been systematically eliminated.  The Khmer Rouge had murdered a generation of people that could have worked to speed the country’s recovery.  Instead they were left with former soldiers, rural farmers and broken families to rebuild a country that was “revolutionized” into the stone ages. 

The more I learn about the Khmer Rouge the more unbelievable it seems and I get the feeling that Cambodians that are my age feel the same.  I don't get a sense of anger or hatred as much as disbelief. From my own perspective I cannot get past the fact that Pol Pot and his cadre were absolutely convinced that their plan would actually work and would be a good thing for the country.  Simply unfathomable.

Kabal Chai Waterfall, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

By: leelefever on July 8, 2006 - 3:58pm

I sometimes feel like we're talking a bit too much about our activities and not so much about our experience, if you know what I mean.  We aim to change that a bit, but for now, an experience we had yesterday deserves a little publication.

Don is a friendly Irish ex-pat that runs Coaster's Bungalows where we're staying in Sihanoukville.  Yesterday, Don saw me on our balcony and said, in his Irish accent "Hey! Are you leaving today?  We're going out to the waterfall, if you wanna go, meet us at the bar in 30."  Waterfall?  We had not heard about the waterfall!  Upon looking at the guidebooks (Footprint and Rough Guide), no waterfall is mentioned.

As it turned out, we got to follow along on a waterfall trip with Don and his family (wife Carrie and daughter Anna).  After driving for about 30 minutes (including a "shortcut" through barely passable roads") we went down a long dirt road that ended at some shacks and a washed out bridge.  After being ferried over the river we came upon a waterfall, or actually a set of waterfalls that were certainly among the best I've ever seen. Given a little more care and infrastructure, the falls have the potential to become a national landmark- they are that impressive.  

 Situated at the convergence of two rivers, the water falls fall into a basin that appears to have dropped about 10 meters all at once, creating a valley where you are surrounded by waterfalls from two rivers.  Stunning.

The highlight is a set of falls that flow off an outcropping, enabling people to climb behind it in short ledges. What a weird feeling.  It's a bit like the first time you snorkle and your body has to learn that it can, indeed, breathe underwater.  With water flowing over your eyes and mouth and crashing over your head, threatening to grab you and slam you on the rocks below, the experience is a more than a bit breathtaking.


 Water rushing by overhead...

 Don, our guide for the day...


If you want to visit the Kabal Chai falls, ask about it at the guesthouses in Sihanoukville.  It is best in the rainy season for obvious reasons and the rivers dwindle to a trickle in the dry season.

A Holiday in Cambodia

By: leelefever on July 7, 2006 - 3:08am

Since Cambodia became an imminent part of our itinerary, I have had the Dead Kennedy’s song “Holiday in Cambodia” playing a soundtrack in the back of mind.

It's time to taste what you most fear
Right Guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear

It's a holiday in Cambodia
It's tough kid, but it's life
It's a holiday in Cambodia
Don't forget to pack a wife

The song was published in 1980, just a year after the failure of the Khmer Rouge regime and reflects some of Cambodia’s reputation from the time (full song lyrics). I think it is safe to say that Cambodia has come a long way since 1980, which was the nadir of its backward progress. 

A holiday in Cambodia can now be taken with no irony whatsoever. Sihanoukville is a southern town with miles of beaches, friendly people, a laid back vibe and good food.  Beaches in Cambodia?  Yes- and they are quite nice.  Below is where we stayed and a place we recommend for Sihanoukville: Coaster’s on Serendipity Beach.  Don’t stay in the town- head for Serendipity Beach.

Don’t get me wrong though, Cambodia has a way to go, and that is part of the allure.  The roads off the main strips are pretty horrid, the majority of buildings in town are run down and it isn’t as clean as Thailand.  Luckily, these things can all be remedied with time and investment.

The feeling we get is that Sihanoukville is on the verge of an explosion.  People who have grown tired of the scene in Thailand are discovering the coast of Cambodia and you can’t go anywhere without seeing construction in Sihanoukville.  One day, today may be the good ole days before it became crowded and lost its small town charm.  Of course, we are here in the low season, so our perceptions may be one-sided.  Either way, Sihanoukville is better than we expected- enough to cause us too add a little time to our trip here…

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia with Mongkol

By: leelefever on July 6, 2006 - 1:50am

Before we left Seattle, I had a call with a fellow Blogger named Beth Kanter who has strong ties with Cambodia. Beth has been a wonderful contact and hooked us up with a young Cambodian guy and blogger named Mongkol who is moving to the US in a month on a Fulbright scholarship and attending Boston College. Yesterday Mongkol was our gracious tour guide to Phnom Penh.

For those that may have seen what I said on a local news story, it was that guidebooks are great, but we’d prefer to meet locals who can give us another perspective on a city and our day with Mongkol did just that.  He said “So, do you want to be with the other barangs (foreigners), or go where Cambodians eat?” We left town to “eat boiled corn”.

After about 30 minutes of driving we arrived at a strip of restaurants right on the edge of a marsh.  This was no regular restaurant.  The kitchen was on the land, but the tables (sitting areas) and roof rambled out over the marsh for about 80 yards on bamboo stilts.  With every step, the floor bounced and swayed. Each little sitting area was square and included three hammocks and a bamboo mat.

The boiled corn and pickled radish was fine, but one part of the meal will always stick out in my mind- the boiled “baby duck” eggs.  Mongkol mentioned them on the way and I remember seeing something similar on the TV show Fear Factor (not a good sign).  He ordered a few eggs and I was on the fence as he explained that some are some eggs that are more “mature” then others. He opened the first egg and I couldn’t believe my eyes – it contained a baby duck with eyes, a bill, feathers and feet.  He didn’t say it, but I think it was more mature than he wanted too.  He ate it and I found myself doubting I would do the same.

In the end, the next egg was much less mature (much more amorphous than duck-like) and I ate the whole thing.  Truthfully, the taste was not bad at all, but the idea of eating a duck fetus was not a nice image – a vegetarian’s worst nightmare I'm sure.

We both think a lot of Mongkol and look forward to hearing about his experiences in the US, where we’re sure he’ll do well.  We appreciate so much the time he spent with us answering our myriad questions and introducing us to his Cambodia, baby ducks and all.

Laid Low

By: leelefever on July 3, 2006 - 1:59am

After India, even places known for unsanitary conditions seem all the more worry-free.  This may have been the case with Laos, which was much nicer than I expected, but lacks infrastructure nonetheless.  We jettisoned the hand sanitizing lotion in Thailand/Japan and did not look back. Perhaps we should have as we've both been laid low by minor ailments lately.  Just a little head cold and some digestive troubles to welcome us to Cambodia.

I'm hoping Sachi will have some words for you about Laos soon, but in the mean time, I'd like to talk about currency.  First of all, I didn't realize until we were already there that Laos (or the People's Democratic Republic of Laos) is a communist country with an almost free-market enconomy (a bit like China).  Anyway, much like Cambodia, multiple currencies can be used.  The Lao "kip" is joined with the US Dollar and the Thai Baht.  There are 10,000 kip for each American dollar, making for wallet-bulging stacks of change. 

Officially, the Lao government says that the Kip is the only and required currency.  However, Lao Airlines, the government-owned carrier will only accept payment in US dollars.  Such is the state of affairs in Laos.

Here in Cambodia, the defacto currency is the US Dollar ($1 to about 4000r).  The Cambodian Riel is often given for change to the dollar, but at a grocery store today I noticed a cash register that looked just as it would at home- stocked with US money. I used 10 minutes (US$.20) of Internet time today, payed with a one dollar bill and received 8 bills of change back in the Cambodian Riel.  Wallet bulging.

I fulfilled a couple of my trip-long goals today by visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Seng Prinson here in Phnom Penh, both big parts of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1975-1979.  I'll have a lot to say about that soon.

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