Wednesday, September 1, 2010

a peak into Cambodia

After all these months of being stationary, I realized I forgot to even mention word of Cambodia, one of the countries I’ve visited which had the most impact on me. After a tearful goodbye to Chiang Mai & my lovely family of friends there, I took the overnight bus to Bangkok and then local buses to the Cambodian border. I first made my way to Siem Reap, which was at that point the place I wanted to visit more than anywhere in the entire world.

Just 3.5 miles away lies Angkor Wat, a complex of huge, beautiful, enchanting temples which are the essence of Khmer architecture. Built in the 1100’s, Angkor Wat was at one point the center of power for all of Southeast Asia. Hard to believe that center could reside in Cambodia, which today is a genocide tattered fraction of the glorious nation it once was. But the temples remain, some looking more like ruins then anything, but stoic & stunning nonetheless. I rented a bike for a few days in the town, and the time I spent alone, peddling through all the many miles of amazing Angkor Wat, are among my best days in all of Southeast Asia. The temperatures were scorching hot, so I would leave my $1 outdoor, mosquito net covered dorm bed very early in the morning, sit in the shade somewhere for an hour or two during lunch & the peak of sunshine, and continue on until sunset before returning to town.

I made 3 friends in Siem Reap that I went out with every night & drank way too much cheap whiskey with – but each morning when I left for Angkor Wat I left alone. There was something so profound to me about this place, I had to soak it in in my own time, in my own way, and the feeling of euphoria & connectedness I had there cannot be paralleled.

With the friends I’d made at the guesthouse, we moved from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The drinks we consumed on the bus ride there had us feeling a little goofy on our stereotypically insane tuk-tuk ride through the city once we arrived. I had a very good friend from Thailand living there at the time, so I called good old downtown Molly Brown to meet us for dinner & drinks in this curious capital. We sat on the sidewalk of a decent place right along the Tonle Sap River, and had countless limbless people come to ask us for money during the course of our meal.

Something you might not know about Cambodians – they have been to the edge & back. Between 1975 – 1979, the leader of their country, Pol Pot, tortured, murdered, exterminated and drove to death through forced labor nearly 1/4 of the total population. This “cleansing” was aimed to bring civilization to “Year Zero”, through killing all educated people (including people that could merely read or wore eye glasses) and having a peasant class which served as a collective/Communist society. There is an entire generation of people in Cambodia that almost doesn’t even exist today. An entire generation that doesn’t have parents, and many generations that live in distrust of their government or anyone around them. If you pick up a book such as First They Killed My Father, it’s not hard to see why.

The Viet Nam War ended in 1975. Although Cambodia wished to remain neutral, their proximity to Viet Nam cursed them to even more death & disaster. Because southern Viet Cong were escaping into Cambodia, America took the opportunity to carpet bomb the countryside in search of them, while innocent Cambodians paid the price. Today, Cambodia has one of the worst land mine problems in the entire world – it is not safe to wander off the beaten path there, as active land mines are triggered all the time. Hence, the limbless men, women & children roving the city. It’s upsetting & tragic to think of all these people have gone through & then to see the results in your face when you are in a city such as Phnom Pehn. Nevertheless, Cambodians are a very resilient people & they have a good Buddhist attitude for the most part.

Throughout my time in SE Asia I met a lot of Cambodian monks who impressed me more than almost any group of people I’ve ever met – that they could remain so peaceful & understanding after such utter devastation is beyond me. When you compare this attitude to the one of over-privileged Americans & Europeans who complain about things so trivial and worry about matters so meaningless, it makes me slightly nauseated.

Back to Phnom Pehn – had a good time with Molly, as always. It was different from our carefree attitude of Chiang Mai, however. In Cambodia we had some very real conversations; some very real tears were shed on both our ends when discussing the horrifying history of these people.

I went to visit a place called S-21 while I was there. A former high school turned security person under Pol Pot & the Khmer Rouge, it is the location where blameless Cambodians were brought in by the truck load everyday (about 20,000 people were brought there in 4 years) & repeatedly tortured in unspeakable ways & then brought to the Killing Fields for execution. The floors of the building are stained in deep, dark blood. Now a genocide museum, you can see instruments of torture on the floors of some rooms, along with the iron beds inmates were tied down to. There are entire rooms on the bottom floor filled with “mug shots” of people – the Khmer Rouge kept systematic records of everyone they persecuted. There are entire rooms filled with pictures of women & children who were brought in to S-21 to be brutally tortured and killed. I walked silently up & down the aisles of pictures and sobbed. A Cambodian woman grabbed me by the hand and said “look at them, look at the children”. The walls felt like they were caving in & I felt an inward desire to run away.

The last area of S-21 is filled with cells that prisoners were held in before being taken away for their imminent death. They are barely as big as a person can fit in width wise and not long enough to stretch your legs out while sitting. Blood again fills these floors & the bricks provide no sunlight or hope to anyone who must have been unfortunate enough to be in them. As I was in this room of cells there were also 2 monks quietly passing through, poking their heads in each one, contemplating, and then moving on. These cells started to feel like my own & I practically had to run out of there to get fresh air for fear that my lungs were going to collapse & I would suffocate under the sorrow. Imagine what the prisoners must have felt.

I took a motorbike taxi to the Killing Fields, where prisoners of S-21 were brought to die in mass graves. Walking around there it seemed like an oddly peaceful place; birds chirping, trees all around, away from the buzz of traffic & people. It started to rain which was such a blessing; because my emotions were so exhausted I hardly knew what to think anymore. I threw on a poncho & hopped on the back of my driver’s motorbike & away we went back to the city. There was a tremendous amount of traffic & I looked around to everyone else on their motorbikes… some entire families on one bike, some people who must have been over 80 or 90 years old, some infants, some monks, some professionals, some people in the oh-so-charming Cambodian style of wearing long sleeve & long pant pajama sets as regular clothes. All the sudden my heart, which felt so depleted after what I’d seen that day, was once again filled with hope & love for these incredible people. A monk on the back of a motorbike next to me must have caught my exuberant smile, because when we made eye contact I could see his eyes laughing & his whole face lite up in a gigantic smile as well. We were in it together – caught in the rain, on the back of motorbikes; dirt, people, animals and road side stands all around.

Cambodia touched my heart in a very special way – I cannot wait to return, hopefully to work teaching English to the people who want more than anything to be educated & make a better life for themselves & their families then what the generations before them have had.


Post a Comment

Design by Wordpress Theme | Bloggerized by Free Blogger Templates | free samples without surveys