Cambodia – A Tattered Nation

I have returned from quite the journey. This is in part why my posts have been lacking. And, having returned, I have a number of stories to tell from my travels.

Living in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, the Lunar New Year (or rather what many other nations know as Chinese New Year) loomed over this country much in the same way Christmas and [Gregorian] New Year’s does over the nation I left behind. They call it Tet Holiday here, and it is undisputedly the number one event in Viet Nam.

As such, many locals take this time to flee the city and return to their hometowns around the country to visit family. Most people have up to one week off, while others sometimes have as much as two. In a city where I’ve met people who work seven days a week with one day off per month, coupled with the layers of tradition that so permeate the culture here, pretty much every aspect of life, many weeks before the holiday, is geared towards the holiday itself.

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This is what happens when a profound hat-wearer, such as myself, encounters something Tet-Holiday-related that is profoundly in need of a hat.

 

Naturally, foreigners living here such as myself are affected by this, as much of Sai Gon empties of locals during Tet. Most expats are allotted vacation during this time as well, whether they work for official companies or their jobs are a bit more independent – such as in my case, where much of my student base is out of town anyway. Thus, the annual stage is set for vacation for many, and my case was no exception.

The plans began with the arrival of four friends flying in from New York, beloved peers I had left behind when I set out from home Ashitaka-style. Fast-forward eight or nine months, and I was waiting at the Tan Son Nhat Airport of Sai Gon after midnight. They landed, made it through customs, and I embraced each of them in turn around 3:00am.

Subsequent days were spent touring Sai Gon, and I was able to show them a few delights of this city I’ve come to love. Vegetarian restaurants, a surprise Cat Café I did not know existed, and the positively divine mango smoothies available. Not to mention the usual landmarks; Ben Thanh Market, the Post Office and mini-Notre Dame, and the usual motley of mad things to be seen in this city that I’ve gotten used to seeing.

Mad motorbike traffic, motor-bike taxis sleeping on their bikes in the middle of the day, people cooking food on the street. The cacophony of horns, the occasional smell of sewage drifting up from grates in the street, the glances from locals that are just as often smiles as they are scowls.

Boy, I love this town.

You wouldn’t guess from its appearance, but a little alleyway filled with cheap blue plastic chairs, located just off Bui Vien Street (the center of the center, in terms of tourists and backpackers), happens to be the best smoothie place in town.

In any case, the real adventure began when we established an itinerary to Cambodia. Having lived in Viet Nam for as long as I did, I actually have done very little traveling. My only understanding of Cambodia was: just some country nearby. I saw it once – passing over it in a plane to Thailand – and getting there was remarkably easy.

Many foreigners living in Sai Gon, with intentions of extending their stay, make runs to Cambodia to hop over the border and return with a fresh three-month visa, so I had heard about it often enough from them.

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My party and I took a bus from Sai Gon to Phnom Penh, and crossed the border at the Moc Bai gate without incident. Throughout this entire journey, I could remember the words written to me from family many months ago, concerned about my mental health for even mentioning going to Cambodia. For those expatriates seeking to merely renew their Vietnamese tourist visa, the process is simpler and does not even require continuing to the Cambodian capital. Our goals were different, of course, as the star event of this journey was the fortress temple of Angkor Wat.

But this post is not about Angkor Wat. Not yet. Nor is this post meant to describe our journey there in any great detail. Not yet.

This post is intended to be about Cambodia as a country, and why it’s a place you ought to know more about.

There is something universally abhorrent about genocide. But it is also easily written and understood as “a word that means something really bad.” We find it instead easier to focus on matters that directly affect our lives – as opposed to the lives of people on the other side of the planet.

This is natural. This is human.

Cambodia is a struggling South East Asian country whose recent history is rife with conflict. I don’t claim to be an expert on the histories of the Khmer Empire, or the current monarchy, or the Khmer Rouge himself, but I have read things, seen things, felt things.

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, "Wow, wouldn't that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne...wait..."

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne…wait…”

Those of us from the West most readily associate the word genocide with the Holocaust of World War 2. While it remains a staggering and breath-stealing example of what humans – not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans – are capable of, the Holocaust is far from the most recent on such a wide scale.

In fact, even to me – a huge fan of the story Maus by Art Spiegelman, and myself a former Jew – feel very little personal connection to the Holocaust. The mists of time have fogged a screen over it, relegating the Holocaust to a historical event from a long time ago.

But in the history classes of my so-called education, I don’t think there was a single mentioning of the Khmer Rouge. No one talked about Nelson Mendela or Rwanda, either. I wonder whether the excerpts of these things have appeared in public school history books at all, and I wonder whether I don’t recall mention of them simply because there was no personal connection from me – and thus, I simply forgot.

As of this post, I am approaching my 29th year of life on this spinning marble. But I’ve had more life-changing experiences in these last two years than the rest of my life combined. I’ve written about one or two of them.

There is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, known simply as the Genocide Museum. Most of the touristy hotspot things to see in Phnom Penh revolve around the former dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge; the Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, things of that nature.

I and my party decided that, as visitors of this country, we felt an obligation to see this museum. Most tourists came to places like Cambodia to have a good time, and the landmarks of Phnom Penh are far from uplifting – and there was universal agreement that we should expose ourselves to the truth and the bad, rather than keep ourselves wrapped up in tourist bubbles as most people tend to do.

To call the museum a tourist attraction would be like calling Auschwitz an amusement park.

Long ago, this place was a school for children. Then when the Khmer Rouge took over and commenced his genocide of educated, artistic people (especially targeting those people of certain ethnic persuasions), the school was converted into an interrogation camp.

Pay the fee, take your ticket, pass through the gate. The sounds of the city behind us faded as austere silence permeated the courtyard. Birds tweeted, wind rustled the branches of the trees that dotted the concrete walkways. No one spoke among us and my party dispersed about the main square.

It took some time for me to organize the mix of emotions and cognitive thoughts swirling in my brain while walking from one room to the next. The rooms themselves were mostly barren, save for an occasional lone bed-frame with a few rusted chains and manacles upon it. Upon the wall of some rooms, a large photo could be seen on display, showing the unidentifiable body of a man or woman who had been subjected to the interrogation.

These were pictures taken presumably after the place was stormed and the guards fled. I could see the black and white depiction of a tiled floor  — the same tiles upon which I stood upon, gazing at the image — covered in blood. I saw limbs strapped to the bed-frame, a dripping, heavy metal rod nearby. The imagery was the very definition of the term graphic.

Other rooms had walls covered in photos of people who died there; mugshots of Cambodian men and women and children, some of them smiling. Display cases bore small piles of “clothes worn by prisoners,” and when walking about the rooms one had to watch one’s step, as there could be found the occasional steel ring hammered into the floor.

I can remember feeling my eyes get misty. I can remember hearing other tourists walking and chatting as they passed from room to room. My friends were each affected heavily by this; as it was our second day in Cambodia, but their fifth day in South East Asia. The direct-exposure to poverty on this side of the planet affected everyone, though I know I had gone through that initial shock mothers prior.

The museum instilled each of us in turn with strong emotions.

One among us found herself so nauseated she had to find a bathroom, where she emptied the contents of her stomach.

Another found himself so overwhelmed by what I can only describe as the energy of that place that he had to leave. I didn’t see him go, but I later learned that it took about fifteen minutes for the emotions to overwhelm him before he went to wait for us outside the entrance.

I, for one, found myself increasingly worn with each room. There were at least two main buildings, each with five or so floors – I barely got past the ground floor on each building before I couldn’t handle it myself.

I found another travel-mate outside in the courtyard, sat a book’s chuck distance away. After awhile I moved closer, saying only “I don’t know why, but I don’t want to sit alone.”

I remember feeling simple animal kinship in that moment. As though despite any differences in upbringing, creed, bloodline, education, or preference were all invented as a means to divide us and forget a very fundamental fact:

Human animals. We are all human animals.

We waited quietly for the rest of our group, unsure where everyone was at that moment. I sat thinking about whether it was appropriate to break the silence. Eventually I did, expressing that very thought.

My companion informed me that while he had been walking, he happened by a group of other tourists. They weren’t nearly as affected as we were. Some even pointed at the photos and laughed.

Whether these people were making light of the severity in order to cope with what they were taking in, or they were genuinely insensitive people, I will never know. Regardless, their mere utterance of words in that place seemed taboo to me.

There was a time when I wondered whether I was an empath. I used to feel things other people couldn’t – or maybe it was my imagination at work, inventing reasons to feel more special in a world of mundanity.

The Genocide Museum (among other places) did not instill me with anything beyond what my cognitive senses brought me. While my friends might have felt them, I certainly didn’t feel any “ghost residue” as I had been half-expecting.

No, the Genocide Museum is a place of solemn recollection. Seeing bedframes used for unspeakable tortures, photographs of victims before and after, or passing under trees in the courtyard whose bark probably drank of the blood of those lashed to them … it leaves an impression.

And in spite of it all, this recent history, the people of Cambodia struggle on. The people of these various war-torn countries exemplify a resilience such as I can scarcely imagine.

I remember walking with Thorneater later that day, and we talked of our experience. Only one word came to describe that afternoon.

Awe.

Awe at what humans — not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans — can do.

And what they, for whatever reasons or under whatever pretexts, they cannot feel.

And yet I’m increasingly convinced that people are inherently good. We are all just animals, this I heartily believe, but when men, women and children from countries that suffered atrocities of immeasurable horror can be so open and welcoming to strangers, it gives a sense of hope such as I’ve never really felt back in New York.

I decided before, and though brief homesickness and life obstacles shook me once or twice, that I can’t go back and leave this all behind.

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One response to “Cambodia – A Tattered Nation

  1. You’re not traveling right unless it affects you so deeply. This is why we write–to tell the stories that need to be told. You do a beautiful job. Looking forward to the next 3 posts!

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