Cambodia, what can I say about you? You are unique in your own way, yet I didn’t feel particularly connected to you. When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I was hit with excitement to be in a city that was seemingly more developed and spacious than the cities I visited in Indonesia. In many ways, my first tuk tuk ride was refreshing and my new surroundings reminded me of my time in Mongolia. Structurally it seemed to be a step in the right direction; larger buildings and busier shop fronts compared to the street market vibe that I am used to. There were also many American shops and food options, which spoiled me and disappointed me at the same time because Cambodian food was bomb! However, my visit there was short. No big time adventures and no new faces that were memorable (save for the cute, chunky 5 year old Cambodian boy who gave me candy). Just me reflecting with myself. It was a time for me to reflect and get over the fact that I had to start all over with building my travel confidence. I did visit the national museum and S-21, the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum where I learned about the Cambodian genocide.
To reflect on that experience a little bit, I found myself sick and absolutely appalled, for several reasons, but mainly because I had never even heard of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. It made me think about what we learn in our school systems and what is deemed important enough to teach and what isn’t. The Khmer people really suffered in silent isolation, my country knew about it and as always, were involved to a certain extent and yet, no news of this has ever been to my knowledge. And I fear that this has breezed over the heads of people I know as well. It hurts because 2 million people died as a result of a political unrest that was exacerbated by U.S. bombings on Cambodian farm people in our attempt to cut off supplies for the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. It brought to mind for the first time the casualties of war and how war is rarely just a dispute between the military, revolutionaries, etc. but rather an event that exhausts and kills neutral parties in between. In a war-torn land, everyone suffers.
Here is an excerpt of my reaction to my learning of and experience at the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and the Killing Fields:
“My heart and head is so heavy after learning about and visually seeing the aftermath of such monstrosities. Cells but yay big, equipped with heavy iron bars and chains that were used to lock prisoners in place by the legs. Tiny ammunition boxes that were used to hold the waste of the prisoners. No light. No air. Just blood covered floors and the “silent” suffering of a nation cut off from the outside world.
Photograph after photograph of mostly nameless victims stare at your from the past. Faces that range from the very young child to the old. People who are lost in the mire of unmarked mass graves. People who have been beaten, tortured, starved, electrocuted, raped, dehumanized, sometimes forced to kill. You can still see the darkened blood stains of the past under the iron bed frames that held prisoners against their will. Barbed wired windows and ledges to keep prisoners from jumping to their deaths.
The weapons of torture lining the wall. Whips, hoes, shovels – anything that could be used to bludgeon someone to death. Starving, tortured bodies lay slack – miskills, as it was not their time to die yet. The order for execution had not yet come. The women who were forced into a marriage under Angkar – forced to marry men that they did not know and did not love. Beaten. Raped. Starved and still forced to work in the labor factories until delivery; running on little more than the watery rice porridge received twice a day. Babies starved. Were abandoned by their fathers of arrangement. Others slung up against a tree until their heads exploded and then tossed into a pit with their parents and hundreds of thousands of others. Skull, blood, and brain matter staining the trees…[…]
You begin to wonder about humanity and morality. Why do we have such? Why do we have the ability to judge right from wrong and we do things demonic like this? How dare we “civilize” and call ourselves superior beings in the light of our repeated actions? Where were our Holy books/beliefs then? If this is “human”, I don’t want to be it.”
Cambodia has some of the worst poverty I have ever seen right on the outskirts of the city. Dust, dirt, and trash everywhere. Starving dogs everywhere. Dimly lit shops that I am sure double as homes for some people. Barefoot babies playing in dirt/construction mounds. Brick layers, mechanics, shop keepers – all on the outskirts shabbily carrying out their duties for the day. Chickens running amok. I figure they can’t have modern toilets or good electricity.
All I can do is be extremely grateful for the life I lead. The life my parents provided for me. For I am living in luxury in comparison to some of the people and children I’ve seen during my time here. I eat, I am clean, I have a real roof over my head (tiny shack-like homes were prevalent, made from scraps of whatever they could find looks like). I have lights. Cable. Clean drinking water. Plumbing. Clean Pet. Own room. Transportation. Most importantly, I have the luxuries that gives me time to focus on studies and career goals and dreams. Not everyone has that I am realizing more and more.
With this knowledge, what can I do to make the world better? Even if just a little bit, how can I ease the pain of others while maintaining my own peace?
After 2 days in Siem Reap viewing the ancient Angkor Wat temples, I had finally arrived in Kampot. While I hadn’t explored as much as I did in Indonesia, I was more than satisfied with the vibe of the place. Far more natural and relaxing than Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. I managed to book an awesome hostel right off of the riverfront. On the roof, I could look out along the river and watch fisher boats sail by and just beyond that I could see the mountain surrounded by local houses.
When I first arrived in Kampot, I noticed the lack of bustling and people and wondered if it was a ghost town. I still think that poverty lives here, though it didn’t seem as blatant as it did in SIem Reap and Phnom Penh. Turns out, the town had plenty of locals and not as many tourists, which was a good thing for me. I loved the peace and natural tranquility. Here, it felt so good to be traveling alone, away from noise and crowds and still get the amenities of a modern hostel. So I began to think that maybe this sleepy town was my paradise and I decided to take it slow and easy while I was someplace where I felt comfortable.
By the first of November, I felt I couldn’t have chosen a better town than Kampot as my farewell to Cambodia. 6 am on a sherbet colored morning, I got to watch the sun bring the town to life in real time. This town also had a hidden party spunk. It wasn’t just bucolic Lazy Town like you see on the surface. It is both. I wondered what life was like there as a student, worker, child, mother, father? Did the citizens feel stressed? Or was this town a haven for simple living, vacationing, or Expatriate retired living, or even for traveling runaways (I’ve bumped into quite a few travelers here that just seem to be skipping town to escape their realities back home)? Are the bills paid? Enough food to go around? Or was this a town that possessed resilient happiness and well-being because of the tranquil environment? What about school? The average student’s quality of education? Were there any universities?
And so it was the beginning of November and rather than listening to the leaves scrape and crunch onto the concrete, I’m hearing chattering birds and motor bikes/boats + roosters. Dare I say that I am getting used to this travel thing? For the first time, I felt ok. The fear and ache for home is melting off of me...Right then, I felt freedom at it’s finest. But what I have learned in Cambodia is that freedom is more than just the ability to change locations – So I am working on freeing my mind as they have been bound by the largest chains in my life (fear, angst, insecurities). I realize that TRUE freedom is freedom of the mind. Then the spirit and soul will follow.
Cambodia, you have been your own experience in your own way.