Processing Cambodia

January 8, 2013
Current Location: Sea-Tac Airport, USA

As I mentioned before, Cambodia is a kingdom of extremes. My experiences varied so much from the first day to the last, that I almost wish that I hadn’t posted a thing about it until I could process it as a whole.

My first full day in Cambodia was spectacular. It began with one of the most striking things I’ll probably ever see in my life, sunrise at Angkor Wat. Totally worth getting up at 4am for!

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That day, we also saw several of the most photogenic and unique temples of the whole trip, including the Bayon, with its hundreds of gigantic, peaceful Buddha faces.

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And “The Tomb Raider” jungle temple:

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That evening, my new roommate and I struck out on a quad-riding adventure through the picturesque farmland around Siem Reap. Riding alongside the farmers walking their cattle home at sunset was beautiful, peaceful, soul-quieting. It was a perfect day.

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At that point, I thought that’s what all of Cambodia would be like. After spending the next four days in Cambodia, though, I felt naive about the way I’d seen and written about Cambodia in a vacation-y way.

The day after visiting Angkor Wat, we toured one of the secret Khmer Rouge prisons and the Killing Fields, where 3 million Cambodians were tortured and killed in the 1970s. Our tour guide shared the history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge in vivid detail, along with his personal pain. He only shared his own stories within the safety of our tour bus, so I will respect his privacy and fears by not writing about them here.

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Prison Cells
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Khmer Rouge Child Soldiers

After spending the day with our guide, I saw Cambodia completely differently. I looked around me and saw what he pointed out — there are virtually no old people, because they were all killed by the Khmer Rouge. I saw a population that is very obviously depressed and suffering from generationally passed down PTSD, even the children who didn’t experience it first-hand. People are full of barely-suppressed rage — they literally want to kill the former Khmer Rouge soldiers living in their neighborhoods. Except that if they were caught and went to prison for the murder, it would mean that the 10 people dependent on them for food & survival would starve. It’s not forgiveness, it’s pure practicality. And those free schools are not actually free — something like 1/2 the country’s kids can’t afford to go to school, once it comes to book costs and other fees.

It’s obviously a horrible, self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, depression, and destruction. After hearing all this, I couldn’t bring myself to haggle over anything in Cambodia or Laos. A dollar means very little to me, when compared to what it means to a person feeding their family of 10.

I also, honestly, no longer felt safe in Cambodia. I saw what was done to foreigners who were caught by surprise by the Khmer Rouge, and it was easy to imagine it happening out of the blue again. I saw how certain stories could not be shared safely in public to this day. Sometimes I feel numb when seeing these things in person, in the moment. But with our tour guide barely covering his personal pain in these places, I felt anxiety, real and present danger, and I cried very unexpectedly when he showed us the children’s tree at the Killing Fields.

Our guide explained to us that the survivors we met selling their stories smiled at us only because: if they didn’t smile, they would cry. I noticed the same thing about our guide — after each of the horrible things he told us, he smiled for a second or two, at no one in particular. I don’t think for a second that he took a perverse joy in these things. He was just surviving his very present and current pain. I saw those same smiles masking festering pain everywhere I went in Cambodia after that. No one was happy. No one I saw was just poor — they were poor and traumatized.

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We later visited Laos, a poor country with plenty of its own serious regional and political issues, but without the same obvious pain and depression bubbling under the surface. Our tour guide put it very bluntly — the difference between Cambodia and Laos is simply that Laos didn’t have the Khmer Rouge. Laos has plenty of challenges to overcome, like the massive number of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) littering the countryside, crippling families and preventing development of infrastructure. But it seems to have a better chance for real progress within the next generation or two than Cambodia does. If the UXOs can be cleaned up and infrastructure built (no simple task), they are on their way to building something that lasts. It’s hard to see anything more than propping up a shattered population in Cambodia for at least the next generation. But that’s better than nothing.

After my last post about Cambodia and wishing I had a way to send my son’s things over, my mom let me know about a friend who started an orphanage in Cambodia and can take children’s clothing with her when she goes. I’ll be gathering up my son’s clothes and toys. If you want to do the same, let me know, and we’ll make sure they get there.

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