Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Complexity of Cambodia

Cambodia seems at once part of, and removed from, the rest of SE Asia. It borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, yet seems worlds away from them all. I was warned that the people would be aggressive and to hold on to my purse tightly. And although Cambodia is incredibly impoverished, it is also a country of immense beauty. Its history is both glorious and tragic, mesmerizing and bewildering, noble and shameful. Cambodia is perhaps the most complex country I have visited, and one that takes more than a few days to comprehend.

I started in Siem Reap. From here, I spent two days touring the temples of Angkor, the ancient city built in the 12th century. There are 72 temples within the Angkor region. Walking amongst these stone towers, decorated with intricate carvings of both Buddhist and Hindu gods, one begins to imagine what this place must have been like 850 years ago. Monks would spend their days praying, while the king and royal court would watch dance performances within the grand palace. Villagers would hold market and sell their wares, while flute music floated through the air.

I toured about a dozen of the temples in this region, with the crowning jewel being Angkor Wat itself. The temple is considered one of the best examples of of Khmer architecture, with stone towers soaring high above the once-crocodile-filled moats below. Bas reliefs adorn the walls, depicting Hindu stories of battles won and lost amongst ancient gods. One cannot help but marvel at the strength of these buildings to withstand centuries and the timeless artistry within their walls.

Though Angkor is the pride of Cambodia, it is only a piece of Cambodia's real identity. There is a story of unbelievable horror and tragedy that lives alongside Angkor's glory... the story of genocide under Pol Pot's regime from 1975-1979. Today I visited the killing fields of Choung Ek, a place where thousands of Cambodians were executed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. A stupa has been erected to house the 8,000+ skulls excavated after the genocide ended. I stood there, looking at the stacks of skulls of men, women and children, and an overwhelming feeling of grief washed over me. I choked back tears and forced myself to wander through the grounds and try to gain some understanding of what exactly transpired in this field where over 100 Cambodians were executed daily during the nightmare.

The executions were part of a "purge," that sought to rid the country of any resistance to the communist party. Any person seen as intelligent or suspected of resistance would be interrogated, tortured, and eventually killed. Their family members would be executed as well in order to avoid any future revenge. The methods of the torture and killing were unthinkably brutal. Electrocution, strangling, and bludgeoning to death were only a few methods used in the "extermination" of these innocent people.

After almost 4 years of genocide, 1.7 million Cambodians were dead... one-quarter of the entire population.

It is impossible to understand how or why something like this could have happened. How can millions of people be systematically murdered under the nose of agencies like the UN and nothing be done to stop it? How can young boys be brainwashed into murdering their families? How can someone hold a baby by its legs and smash its head against a tree?

And why does the dark side of human nature rear itself so horrifically in a place of such deep-seated faith in Buddha and his tenants of love and kindness?

Herein lays the complexity of Cambodia and the contradictions that trouble these people. At first glance, Cambodians are happy and proud of their country. School children on bicycles wave to Westerners in tuk-tuks. Waiters recommend the local Angkor beer. Hotel staff say goodbye as if you are their distant relatives and they hope for the day when you return again to say hello. But underneath their cheerful veneer is the sadness of loss and the pain of unending grief. Most people have a friend or a relative who they lost during this dark period. Some people, including the current king, lost their entire family.

How does a country heal in the aftermath of such atrocity?

Although I will leave Cambodia tomorrow with more questions than answers, I will also leave with inspiration. To see a people face their days smiling in the shadow of such a tragedy proves that their resolve to move forward is perhaps even stronger than the stone that built Angkor Wat.


  1. Intense and riveting dad

  2. I see a changing women, from each post. I see someone who is caring and loving. I see someone with deep understanding and a strong insight into human nature. Hope to see you home soon and hear more Dad

  3. Thanks for sharing the story. We didn't make it to the Killing Fields, but I have heard it's one of the most poignant experiences one could ever have.

    Safe travels, friend.