Monday, May 20, 2013

Cambodia the Beautiful, Cambodia the Tragic

Nod and I fell in love with Cambodia. It charmed us from the beginning: gorgeous green countryside, incredible warmth and hospitality from everyone we met, breathtaking temples, delicious food, a sense of calmness and quiet all around. Our week of slowly cycling through the cities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh was one of our very best and most cherished on this trip.

But it wasn't just Cambodia's shy charm that gripped us and has us planning a trip to return. Beneath Cambodia's stunning beauty and apparent tranquility is a dark and tragic history that Nod and I are only just becoming more aware of. The more we learn, the more we can't turn our heads away. What started as a quick glance into a Cambodian history book has turned into a crash course on Pol Pot and genocide, with both Nod and I reading late into the night, even now after we left behind Cambodia for two weeks through Vietnam.

Our thoughts and reflections are so mixed up in these two faces of Cambodia--the idyllic and the horrifying. Even the most sublime moments--watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat, cycling through red dirt roads in the countryside--were interrupted when we remembered that somewhere close by were buried land mines. Somewhere close by was a mass grave. Even our most pleasant interactions with people were colored by our realization that everyone we met over 35 years old had personally witnessed the horrors of genocide, and later of civil war.

And then again, even the darkest horrors we discovered about the Khmer Rouge were tempered by the beauty we saw, and by the kindness and peace we experienced. It's too difficult to discuss these two different aspects of life side by side, so today I bring you a post in two parts: Cambodia the beautiful, and Cambodia the tragic. Choose to read whichever parts you'd like as we try to bear witness to all that we glimpsed here.

Cambodia the Beautiful:

I'm just going to come out and say it: Cambodia is the best. Their food is even better than Thailand's. (Say that sentence out loud to yourself to let it sink in. There is something in the universe even better than Thai food! Who knew it was possible?) We're scouring the web for Cambodian restaurants in Washington, DC, but this is my advice to all you investment bankers out there reading our blog: run out and find a good Cambodian chef to start a new restaurant ASAP, because once word gets out about this, it's going to be huge.

And the food is only the beginning-- their ancient temples at Angkor Wat are more stunning than anything in Egypt, Peru, or Petra. We spent three days riding our bikes and exploring some two dozen temples, and we hadn't even begun to see them all. Their beauty, intricacy, and sheer size and number took our breath away. In short, we have a serious travel crush on Cambodia.

Life was a little hectic before we arrived. We were in Bangkok right before we came to Cambodia, and as I wrote about in last week's blog, Bangkok pretty much tried to kill us with its heat and congestion. We were sweaty, frumpy campers as we boarded a van to take us to the Cambodian border, trying to rest our frizzy heads against the car windows and soak up the blessedly cool air conditioning we hadn't felt in two days. We spent two hours at the border crossing on foot, waiting for harried bureaucrats to stamp our passports and fighting off slick-talking hustlers who were trying to sell us over-priced visas.

Crossing borders on a bus...never fun.

Working out our visas

Once we were across, we buddied up with a chatty Canadian who looked and sounded like a Bill Murray character from a Wes Anderson movie, who entertained us with travel stories for the next two hours and lifted our spirits a bit. The flat, tropical scenery was fringed by red dirt and dotted with water buffalo. We knew almost nothing about what to expect from the town of Siem Reap, but we were glad to feel the urban bustle of Bangkok melt away and excited to begin to explore a country we knew almost nothing about. Perhaps it was because we had no expectations, so everything we saw and learned was a brilliant surprise. Perhaps it really is the best place on earth. But for Nod and I, at least, was love at first sight.

Our first day, we used our hostel's free bikes (+10 points for Cambodia right there) to do a long, lazy 20-mile loop to see the smaller temples built by the Khmer Empire some 700-1000 years ago. As opposed to the anarchic frenzy of traffic in Bangkok or Saigon, Cambodian traffic kind of saunters, especially in a small town like this. People on motorbikes cruise around at 30 mph, just not in that big of a hurry to be anywhere. I passed cars on my bicycle. Even in the busiest traffic we saw in Siem Reap--heading home from Angkor Wat after sunset with every tourist and half the Cambodian families living in the vicinity--a Khmer college girl biked up next to me and rode beside me the whole way back, just to be sure I was safe. Riding on our bicycles in this slow, quiet town gave us a fresh breeze, a tranquil way to appreciate the scenery, and a sense of childlike joy to just be pedaling around again.

(I should mention that riding our bikes in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, was another matter entirely. Sure, the traffic looked pretty low key, and I was riding a boost of confidence from our quiet days of pedaling around back country roads in Siem Reap. Renting bicycles was even my suggestion. But actually jumping into the thick of traffic with motorbikes weaving around me, traveling any which direction and often against the flow of traffic, had me feeling like a little minnow in a big sea on more than one occasion. My supportive partner, having easily zipped across a busy street of traffic ahead of me, lovingly took footage of me stranded in the middle of an intersection. I believe that I was repeating "I am a strong and confident woman. I am a strong and confident woman" over and over as I tried to summon up the courage to dart head first into traffic. In the end, I had to commit the major faux pas of actually just stopping traffic so that I could scoot across. Fail.)

Looking decidedly out of place in city traffic

A look of mock horror to mask the real horror of weaving through Phnom Penh's rush hour traffic

To be fair, though, this was the scene that I was looking at in fear. Navigating this was a teensy bit more harrowing than DC's gorgeous bike lanes.
Around Siem Reap, smaller temples were practically empty when compared to the more famous complex at Angkor Wat itself. Nuns tended Buddhist shrines inside some of the temples, offering incense sticks to visitors. There are basically no ropes or barriers marking spots off limits or unsafe, so we had full reign to duck into every doorway, examine every intricate carving up close, climb to the top of the temple towers, and examine its beauty from every angle. And this went on and on and on--the first day alone we saw as many as a dozen temples, and by the end of our trip, we had seen maybe a dozen more.

Local kids came up to sell us guide books and coconut water. It was steamy hot, especially by the middle of the day, so Nod and I bought a water or a coconut at every single stop we made. We think we drank about two liters of water each, ate nothing (heat=no appetite for us), and never actually needed to go to the bathroom all day. The Wazi travel diet was definitely in full swing.

Coconut water = the elixir of life

One of the loveliest things about these temples is the fact that Cambodians love and visit them even more than the foreigners. In so many other places-- Egypt's pyramids, Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan--admission prices are high, the sites are far away from most people, and many nationals never have the chance to visit.
A Buddhist shrine inside one of the temples
 The main temple of Angkor Wat has been in nearly continuous use, and it's a symbol of national pride. At sunset, Cambodian families had picnics on the banks of the moat outside the major temples, and we met several Cambodians who come to visit most every weekend, or for family holidays. Even near the backpacker joints and noisy hostel bars where they advertise foot massages for a dollar, or where you can have fish nibble off your callouses (a kind of unnerving experience, I don't actually recommend it), Cambodian families would also come to get a shoulder rub or a pedicure, or to sit down at the same street side restaurants. The effect was to feel like part of the family, a welcome guest in a Cambodian town, rather than part of an invading hoard of tourists.

Local monk that Nod befriended
And then the food...well, you'll just have to try it to believe me.

Cambodia the Tragic:
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. The previous regime was seen as corrupt, dependent on the Americans, and responsible for allowing Cambodia to be dragged into the Vietnam War. 200 days of American bombing in Cambodia had ruined lives and livelihoods, and people were hopeful that a change in regime would bring peace, national dignity, and a return to normalcy.

Instead, Pol Pot and his part instituted a murderous and extreme form of tyranny in the name of achieving a kind of ultimate communist society in only four years. In two days, every city was evacuated, and every citizen assigned to a labor collective in the countryside. Families were split up. In the collectives, people worked as many as 20 hours a day with little food.  Professionals were the first to be singled out: any doctor, school teacher, engineer, professor or intellectual were all murdered. Anyone with ties to the former regime were murdered next. As the party's paranoia grew, they turned on themselves, killing party cadre and Khmer Rouge soldiers suspected of failure or disloyalty. Torture prisons were used for interrogations, but people were killed in the cover of night in so-called Killing Fields that dotted the country. There, victims would be bludgeoned to death to save bullets. If one person was suspected of a crime, his or her entire family would usually be killed along with them, including children. 

The Khmer Rouge was only in power for three years, eight months, and 20 days. During that time, they murdered at least two million Cambodians, out of a population of only eight million. At least one million more Cambodians died during the Civil War that followed, and victims continue to be claimed by landmines and unexploded bombs littering the countryside.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded to overthrow Pol Pot. Pol Pot fled to the Thai border, keeping as much control over territory and civilians there as he could. That area is now one of the most heavily mined in the world, as Pol Pot and the new Cambodian government fought a Civil War for the next twenty years. 

There has been so little justice for the horrors suffered by the Cambodian people. Because Vietnam installed Cambodia's new government (which was made up of a different faction of the Khmer Rouge that had fled to Vietnam), the U.S. and most western countries refused to recognize it. This meant that Pol Pot's group continued to represent Cambodia at the U.N. and receive western aid until the mid-1990s. In 1998, Pol Pot died under house arrest at the age of 72.

In 1999, four main leaders of Pol Pot's group were arrested. The first trial began in 2007. To date, only one has been convicted. Members of the Khmer Rouge still make up the current government. Most received amnesty.

Nod and I still cannot begin to process all that we have seen, all that we have learned. Our education into Cambodian history began just two weeks ago, when I picked up a book about Pol Pot and the Killing Fields. I picked it up because I had heard these names before, and because I remembered that something like a genocide had happened in Cambodia. But beyond that, I didn't know much.

By the time we arrived in Cambodia, we had read enough to be horrified by the scale of these dark events, shocked by how recently this all happened, how these perpetrators have still not been brought to justice, and ashamed at our own ignorance. And then when we went to the idyllic, beautiful, peaceful town of Siem Reap with all these stories of death and Pol Pot in our head, we realized that we understood even less about what it means to be a post-conflict society. We were awed by the resilience of people, the ability to continue living and starting anew despite the years of horror. But we didn't know, and we still don't know, what it's like for victim and perpetrator to live side by side now in peacetime, or what it's like for the younger generation who grew up after the worst of these horrors had subsided. And so we're still learning, still reading, still reaching out for understanding. 

When we were in Phnom Penh we went to two different places: a former torture prison known as S-21, and one of the Killing Fields nearby where inmates of this prison were killed and buried in mass graves. 20,000 inmates came to S-21. According to researchers, they think only 137 were ever released alive.

One of the survivors of S-21, who has written his memoirs about his experiences under the Khmer Rouge

We were fortunate to meet two of them, who work at the prison now by sharing their stories. The rest are buried in mass graves in the fields outside the city, which were discovered after the Vietnamese recaptured the city.

Prison S-21

When the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh and found prison S-21, they documented everything they saw. A few children were left alive there, who had hidden when they heard the Vietnamese fighting forces. Otherwise, all that was left were the bodies of 14 Khmer Rouge cadre who were killed in one last outburst of paranoia--the leaders were worried to leave anyone behind who knew too much about their operations. The Vietnamese buried the bodies, but left everything else. The prison was opened as a genocide museum only a short while later. There are still blood stains on the floor. Prison cells are filled with photos of the victims, taken from the Khmer Rouge's files left behind.

A room in S-21 where a body was found after the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh

Prison cells

Photograph of a prisoner and victim of the regime

We had a guide take us through the prison--she was 14 years old when the Khmer Rouge first came to power. From her, we learned how her family was taken away from her and never seen again; how she ate live frogs in the field to keep from starving to death; how she was tortured and threatened whenever she fell too ill to work. She takes sleeping pills at night to keep the nightmares at bay. 

The prison itself was housed in a former high school, a sickening twist that made the whole place more surreal. The sun was high in the sky and glaring down on the dirty white walls, making everything too bright and leaving us dizzy and with dry mouths. I remember that there was a stench to the place, but this smell could only have been a product of my mind as the stories we heard became too vivid and overwhelmed us.

Barbed wire prevented prisoners from killing themselves by jumping off the railing

A prison cell

I have been in difficult, somber places before. At the holocaust museum, for example, I remember how my stomach tightened and my throat closed to see victims' clothing, to see the ovens. Museums that so faithfully recreate places of suffering transport you there in a meaningful way. But never before had I actually stood in a place of death--it took some time before I could make myself understand that it was here that bodies were found, it was here they carried out torture, it was here that people saw there last glimpses of sunlight behind wooden cell walls before they were secreted away to be killed. We have been haunted by what we saw.

When we had seen all there was to see, we hired a tuktuk to take us out to the killing fields. I remember that we didn't speak much on the trip. It was a relief to let the scenery go by us, to look at anything green, anything living. When we arrived a half hour later, I was sorry that we had gotten there so quickly--everything we had seen in the prison was still causing a wave of nausea to rise in my throat. 

There are some who rightly raise questions about this kind of so-called 'tragedy tourism.' But when the moment came, I didn't feel that way. We came to pay our respects, to be a witness to those who had none at the moment of their death. These were the two thoughts that made it even possible to enter, to willingly take on still more sights and stories of tragedy than we had already witnessed that day.

There are more than 300 known killing fields in Cambodia, some of which are marked with memorials, and some of which are buried deep in the jungle or surrounded by land mines. The ones outside of Phnom Penh serve as the largest memorial site, and the field has taken on some of the peaceful, hushed tones of a place of reverent remembrance. But the park-like feel of the fields only removes some of the edge from the shock of what you see: bones still crunching under your feet, bits of cloth surfacing in the mud, empty graves once filled with bodies, loudspeakers once used to blare revolutionary music and drown out the screams of the dying, pits where babies were thrown in alongside their dead mothers.

Bones that still wash up from the killing fields

That night I couldn't sleep. We find ourselves with more questions than insights, so many basic facts we still don't know, and even less that we comprehend. 

When we were in Siem Reap, we visited a land mine museum. It's run by a man who was once a child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, and who later switched sides and fought with the national army during the civil war. As a child and as an adult, he had been tasking with laying thousands of land mines. Now in peace time, he works to clear landmines and rehabilitate children who have been injured and maimed by the blasts. It gave us the idea that we could return to Cambodia sometime soon, perhaps to providing some physical therapy, perhaps only to learn, witness, and respond as we are able. In the meantime, we remember our still more important task is to witness for the atrocities still ongoing, such as those today in Syria, and do what we can to try to bring them to an end. We join our prayers with others for peace.

Finally, to close this ever-long blog post, I wrote this journal entry the night we returned from S-21 prison and the Killing Fields. I thought I'd include it here as a more raw response to all that we had seen, a different kind of witness less tempered by time and clear thoughts.
Journal Entry, May 16

It's not every day that you calculate the worth of a human life. It's a hard thing to look brutality in the face and wonder how it got there, to ponder what motivates someone to throw a baby against a tree or torture a neighbor with electric wires. Just to hold these thoughts in your head makes your legs grow weak and your head pound.

I am not a political scientist. I am not well equipped for discussions about the best military strategy to stop bloodshed when it breaks out, nor do i have much patience for dry academic arguments about why, usually for cited reasons of national interests, we've sat by as so many massacres have been carried out in the world. These debates have always seemed so abstract to me anyhow, so devoid of what war must always bring about: heavy lead bullets, the rip of flesh, dry mouthed fear, the death of dreams.

I am a historian-- my task is to understand life as it happened, not to prescribe what should be. And all I see is that human lives are too often the currency used to buy and sell the cheap thrills of political glory. It's an economics that I refuse to understand. It's a marketplace that I will not abide by.

The twentieth century saw waves of blood shed caused by political leaders eager to sacrifice the lives of others for their own fleeting glory or misplaced sense of purpose: Europe's wars and holocausts, Stalin's purges, China's famines, Chile's dirty wars, Darfur and Sudan's civil strife, Rwanda's genocide, and--most on my mind-- Pol Pot's murder of nearly one-third of Cambodians in the span of only three years. The slogan 'never again!' rings bitterly hollow as we watch the horrors of Syria unfold nightly on our TV screens, knowing that--once again--the wanton slaughter of civilians proceeds apace. Once again, the leaders of the world must carefully weigh the relative cost of human lives: those of far off victims, those of our own soldiers. In these calculations, foreign civilians are cheap, expendable by the millions, so it seems, unless compelling state interests are involved. From far away in marble state capitols and mahogany war rooms, a single human life can be worth very little, indeed.

We went today to the Killing Fields and to the prison of the Khmer Rouge. We went to pay our respects to the dead. We went as students, trying to learn about the madness of humankind, about the evidently irrepressible urge to murder one another that the world is so plagued by. We left haunted by the swiftness in which Cambodian life turned ghoulish, by the decades it took before the harm ended. Our feet crunched over bones from mass graves that rain and earth have not yet filled in because it has all been too recent. Had we been born in another place, these could have been our parents.

Cambodia is so recently scarred: the cities that were evacuated and abandoned to forest growth are still a raw jumble. The missing limbs of amputees and land mind victims remind you of the danger that persists, how the land itself has been poisoned by those that sought to maim and terrorize their own people. International tribunals have only just begun to bring any sense of justice or closure. Men and women wake with nightmares or lie sleepless in their beds, remembering those they lost, unable to erase what they saw.

To this, to everyone we've met, to all who were touched by these chilling years, we say: we see you. We are witnesses now; we cannot unsee you or forget what we have learned. So this today is our first testimony, our first account and faithful recording.

1 comment:

  1. My dear friends! How you can write about such tragedy so beautifully astounds me! Cambodia was a tough but beautiful country to visit for me too. Can't wait to hear more very soon! Thanks for sharing your journal entry, loved hearing your thoughts!