On our first jet-lagged night in Bangkok, we met a group of ex-pat English teachers that had done some traveling around Southeast Asia. When we mentioned Cambodia, one of them – a talker with a flair for the dramatic – got real dark all of a sudden.
“Some of those old guys have been through some heavy stuff … you can see it in their eyes,” he said.
I’d heard these sorts of warnings about Cambodia before. I read enough to have a general understanding of the turmoil this region has seen over the last century. But I’m not sure any amount of reading really prepares you for seeing the remnants of the horrific rule of the Khmer Rouge 30 years later. Kaytlin and I have really fallen in love with this country and it’s people, but loving Cambodia requires taking the bad with the good. And this is a country that has experienced almost unfathomable pain and suffering.
It’s hard to escape that there’s something different here, starting simply with the demographics. Nearly 53 percent of the population is under the age of 24. But older generations, particularly men, are startlingly absent. Only 9 percent of the people are over the age of 55. Many of those you do see are just like our friend from the first night said – broken in a way that’s hard to put into words. They’ve got the wide-eyed, unblinking stare you see in career military men. Many are missing limbs (somewhere between 4 and 6 million landmines are still in the ground in remote areas of the country and hundreds die every year from stumbling on them while farming or logging) and spend their time wheeling around tourist areas in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, either begging or selling photocopied versions of Cambodian history books and Lonely Planets. Many still wear their old military camos around.
When you start reading back on the history of what happened here between 1975 and 1979 (not to mention the ensuing 13 or so years of semi-constant civil war), it’s a miracle the place even functions as well as it does. The sort of minor hassles that start to grate on you earlier (busses late by three hours, the main highway between the country’s two biggest cities being an ungodly, potholed mess, little kids begging with proceeds going to their uncle who drinks too much) become part of the broad painting that is Life in Cambodia. I’m not sure I’ve seen another place that bears the scars of man-made horror more than Cambodia. Three million of the country’s middle class – doctors and teachers and civil servants and actors and musicians and lawyers and architects – marched out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside to see four years of backbreaking labor. People wearing eye-glasses executed because it was obviously a sign they were part of the urban intelligencia. Children told to spy on parents, all marriages arranged by the party. The sort of depths of misery you can only imagine, killing off most of an entire generation. That it’s ruled by one of the world’s longest-reigning authoritarian rulers, Hun Sen, with all of the money in the country being fed to a starkly entitled upper class of big business owners and politicians almost seems like progress in a way. Based on some talks I had with Cambodia Daily Editor in Chief Kevin Doyle it sounds like the recent street protests in Phnom Penh (which added an hour to our tuk-tuk ride back from the Killing Fields) the are as well-attended as any since the late 90s, when there were violent crackdowns on protestors and civilian-dressed government mobs throwing grenades and killing hundreds. What’s changed this time? Social media. Large death tolls would make CNN in this day and age. When you’re reading the ticker at the bottom of the TV, pay attention to this one – these people deserve it.
And not to be melodramatic, but it’s hard to look on this and not think of what role my government and the rest of the Western world played – the bombs they dropped in Eastern Cambodia and Laos (more than were dropped by the Allies on Germany and Japan during the entirety of World War 2) and then dismissive of the massacres that sprung from that chaos. The Khmer Rouge actually serving as Cambodia’s voice at the UN for more than a decade after being kicked out of the capital, as news started to be saturated by what had gone on here, because the UN was too scarred by the fall of Saigon to recognize the North Vietnamese puppet government. Only a couple of the very highest ranking of party officials ever being held trials, and those more than 30 years later. Torturers living next to the tormented.
The world failed Cambodia.
While in Phnom Penh, Kaytlin and I did the S-21 torture museum, the building where the political prisoners were held and tortured before being deposited in the Killing Fields. It was without a doubt one of the emotionally heavy experience of my life. It lingers with you for a few days.
I had a hard time with the rows of wooden cells a few feet wide and 5 feet deep. Claustrophobia and general dread set in when we walked through an entire floor of these cells that was devoid of a single other tourist or staff – just you and room after room of these horrific caskets, free for you to climb in and experience the place where someone starved to death. I’m now convinced that walls hold psychic weight. I had to leave that floor early.
Then after some back and forth with a crooked tuk-tuk driver (there are more of these in Phnom Penh than either of the two other places we’ve been in Cambodia), it was on to the Killing Fields to double down on sadness. I won’t even go into all the horrors you hear about there, but suffice it to say that it’s sobering to encounter what look like sandstone pebbles in the sand path that you later realize are bone chards that still come to the surface after monsoon rains. Even whole skulls and clothes that were worn when you had your throat slit (not worth the bullet) and you were dropped into a pit. And yet the strange juxtaposition of nature taking back over and making it a beautiful place despite the horror.
These people lived through a literal hell that you truly can see in some people’s eyes. Kaytlin and I both agreed that Cambodia would be an amazing place to live. Being there for a month, we made some connections with several Cambodians, but you don’t feel worthy of talking about these experiences with them. Living here would afford you more opportunities to get to know these people and hear their stories, which are criminally undertold.
And yet somehow, Cambodians find a way to be almost unceasingly smiling, vibrant and wonderful.
Currently in southern Laos, which moves at about half the pace of Cambodia. Kaytlin and I are headed out on motorbikes for a few days, puttering around the coffee plantations and waterfalls of the Bolaven Plateau. Missing friends and family during the holidays, but in constant awe at the experiences we’re having.