Welcome to Cambodia

Where to begin? As my friend Alicia said over and over again there is just something amazingly special about this city. Before traveling to Asia I probably couldn’t have even told you that Cambodia was part of SE Asia- ignorant but true. And before teaching a full week lesson on ASEAN to my pre-kers I had absolutely no desire to visit Cambodia. When I started making flag color worksheets and PowerPoint for all the countries I fell slightly in love with the Cambodian flag— the massive image of a Angkor Wat stretching from one side of the flag to the other. I knew after that that Siem Reap would become a summer must-see.
As we started planning the logistics phnom phen (Cambodian capital) became a stop over point for us— a way to get between Vietnam to the magnificent Angkor wat. All I can say is that PP took me by complete surprise. Some where between the kindness of the people, the French wine and the hodgepodge of architectural influence I fell just a little bit in love.
But it wasn’t until this morning that I this Cambodian city really took my heart. I was welcomed with open arms into a resilient and healing culture. They invited in to hear their horrific stories of genocide and gave me a chance to feel helpful and hopeful.
So often when a community experiences something as horrific as genocide they close themselves off from others not involved. They present their pain to others with an automatic assumption that those not involved would never understand. They wall themselves off and try to heal as a community on their own.
Cambodians have done the opposite. I still can’t believe that before today I has no idea that a massive genocide happened in Cambodia less than 30 years ago. The man leading the Khmer Rouge was respected by other countries and even invited to be part of the UN. The world had no idea what was happening within the borders of Cambodia, but today I heard their story and they asked that I share that story with others. They want their story to be heard in hopes that nothing like this will happen again. So here goes nothing- I do hope I can do the story justice.
Today started with an early French style breakfast (baguettes, coffee and eggs). At 830 our new friend mr. Lan met us at the restaurant to drive us around for the day (he came highly recommended by our friend Alicia & don’t worry Alicia he was still wearing his scarf and sunglasses).
He led us to his Tuk Tuk and began to tell us the tale of his family and how the Khmer Rouge tore them apart. He lost his father and all his uncles during this time. He told us of how high ranking officials, professors, doctors, nurses and all those that spoke English or that were well educated for taken away and put in interrogation prisons. I’m nodding awkwardly as he tells me his story unsure how to take it all in. Unsure how to relate to a man in his 30s who has somehow picked himself up and carried on after so many bad things happened to him.
He then introduced us to his brother in law and told us his brother hadn’t had work all week and would it be okay if be drove us for the day instead. He said you help me and I help him okay?
And so we set off— 30 minutes later, one new face mask (purchased courtesy of our driver), a stomach full of nervous and our bodies covered with a film of dust and exhaust we arrived at what Farangs call The Killing Fields. Our driver told us to take 2 hours which I felt would be way too long, but smiled and nodded and we went in.
We each took an audio recording and a vow of silence and started our journey through the fields. At this moment all I knew was Mr. Lan story and a brief glance at Wikipedia.
The area was dusty but peaceful and the recording guided me to marked areas all throughout the fields. It showed me the massive graves of over 400 people, remains of bones, torn clothing and a lake that covered the bodies of many that are still buried beneath.
The audio recording was extremely well done. It let you ingest the information in the way you needed to—you could sit, walk the lake or just stare off into the distance. It was wonderful to be there and be silent and listen to this story of a small poor nation that watched its own people turn on each other.
In the center is a memorial that houses actual bones and skulls from the victims. The narrator told us that everyone in the city gathers at the memorial on April 20th of every year on the day that used to be known as the day of anger and has known transformed into the day of remembrance.
The recording ended with four testimonials that were written and said before monks to help them grieve, heal and forgive.
I feel like I’ve gone on too long already, but this day in the fields is something ill never forget. We next went to the S21 museum, an old high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison. Thousands came through the prison and were forced to make up stories about being enemy to their own country. Each person that came through the camp was photographed and the photographs now line the walls of the now museum.
One the best ways for me to see redemption in something so awful is to somehow find away to help/give back. The last room of the museum was filled with drawings of young student’s ideas of peace. A small glimmer of hope.
We left with heavy hearts and ended the day at daughters of Cambodia. A non profit organization for women forced to work in the sex industry. The restaurant, spa and shop now provide 100s of women with an alternative way of life. Another heart wrenching story from PP but this one was a bit more uplifting and the delicious roasted pumpkin salad helped to ease the pain.
I’m sad to leave this city behind tomorrow. I’m still unsure what it is or was about it. I don’t think it’s anything I can say in words, but this place will always hold a special place in my heart.

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