Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cambodian Complexities: I have a feeling we're not in Thailand anymore, Toto

Today I'm typing from a close friend's apartment in the Udom Suk neighborhood of Bangkok. Yesterday I walked through graves in Cambodia: the Killing Fields, one of many sights where the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's most notorious mass-murdering regime, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Khmer people not more than thirty five years ago. As I walked, my audio tour guide gently reminded me not to step on any bone fragments, as such remains tend to surface after the rainy season and the soil shifts. I couldn't take any pictures ( I was allowed to take pictures, but emotionally I could not), but I found part of a jawbone with a few teeth lying half-exposed beneath the dusty soil, and pieces of what looked like arm or leg bones appeared near by.

I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The complexities of Khmer culture, both ancient and modern, overwhelmed me as soon as I stepped off the bus in Siem Riep. Before that, as my bus chugged slowly across the border from Aranyaprathet, Thailand into Cambodia, I was surprised at how similar it felt: rows of young and old women selling fruits and snacks, car repair shops and convenience stores dotting the drab, dusty landscape. But as we left the border town, I was struck by verdant beauty: miles and miles of lush rice paddies, palm trees and mangroves. Milky-white cows grazed on bright green grasses as local farmers squatted by their rice crops preparing to harvest. It was so calm, and it was so beautiful. I felt a sense of peace I hadn't felt in a long time.

Yet when we arrived in Siem Riep, the town closest to the famous Angkor temples, I realized that things operate differently here. First, there were no taxis--two or four wheel--in sight. As soon as I was off the bus, twenty or so men approached me asking if I needed a tuk-tuk, which is a motorized rick-shaw, the Cambodian answer to taxis. My first instinct was to walk away and search for a "legitimate" taxi driver, but as I did so I noticed that there were no taxi drivers. There were only rows of tuk-tuks parked along the street. I guess there was no other option. 

As it turns out, there isn't, at least if you're a foreigner, and especially if you want to see the Angkor temples, about 15 km outside of town. My first morning there, on the way to Angkor Wat, I turned around in my seat and couldn't help laughing: a sea of tuk-tuks paraded down the road behind us, fading into the horizon, as if this were a rehearsed, daily ritual. After spending a few days in Siem Riep, I believe this is exactly the truth. The part of Siem Riep that I saw seems to have been constructed entirely for foreign backpackers, and the glow-in-the-dark signs that hang overhead state my case: "Night market" and "pub street" illumine two crossroads like cheesy Christmas lights in a shopping mall. Rows of rowdy pubs with a ninety-eight percent foreign clientele make it hard to believe that this is still Cambodia, the small and ancient country that was up until very recently a United Nations protectorate. 

It's easy to forget this if you stay in Siem Riep, but as soon as you leave--on a drive through the countryside if you have a nice tuk-tuk driver who's willing to take you, or on a speedboat down the Tonle Sap--you realize how poor most of Cambodia is, and it hits you in the face like the hard, strong sun. Most of Cambodia's people are farmers--not commercial farmers, but subsistence farmers. Many take boats into the Tonle Sap river to fish and sell their findings at market, but they rarely make a large profit. I'm no expert on Cambodian economics, but I know that, materially at least, most of these people have very, very little. 

Still, I couldn't help but be taken in by the natural beauty and picturesque tranquility of the fishing villages that dotted the landscape as my speedboat whirred past. Mangrove forests, floating houses and family fishing boats came to greet us like beacons into another world. This was truly foreign to me--a lifestyle so untouched by modernity, yet so at peace with nature. I admit I felt jealous of them. 

One of many fishing boats we passed. 

Homes built along the water. These are not built on stilts, though most houses are, to protect from floods.
There was something that appealed to me about this lifestyle. And yet I wondered what they thought of me and the other tourists in the boat. As we passed, many of them smiled and waved. I wondered how genuine was this gesture. There's no way of knowing, though to me it felt truthful. And that, in the midst of everything else, made me feel welcome.

There was one more place I had to visit before I left Cambodia.  I know most people don't travel for the museums, but I do. Having written a paper on the Cambodian genocide last spring, there was no way I was going to Cambodia without visiting Tuol Sleng, the former prison and interrogation center of the Khmer Rouge.

Tuol Sleng, or S-21 as it is also known, stands in the middle of Phnom Penh, the capital city. From the outside, it is nondescript and seems to blend in with the other beige cement buildings around it. But as soon as I stepped inside I felt chilled. Tuol Sleng used to be a high school; it was built in the sixties during a brief period when Cambodia had a sovereign leader, before the civil war began. When the KR took power, they emptied the city and turned Tuol Sleng into their interrogation headquarters. Here, they imprisoned and tortured thousands of innocent people: members of the opposition government, those with educations, those with glasses, and their families. They also imprisoned a string of westerners here. Their testimonies remain, displayed on the third floor in the original Khmer script for all to see. The kinds of confessions people made up are absurd. The whole thing is absurd. It's impossible to comprehend.

So I just cried. I cried a lot, and I couldn't really stop, but I told myself to keep it together, because these stories needs to be told. I felt so grateful to the hard-working men and women who are now running the museum and guiding tourists like me; they have a great responsibility to share these stories. It's chilling and gruesome to walk through the prison cells, and even worse when you continue on the 15 km journey outside of the city to the Killing Fields, where the mounds dug as mass graves are still deeply imprinted in the earth. I don't think I had ever been that close to human bones before. It's a terrible sight. 

So what now? I left Cambodia early; I didn't want to stay. I confronted reality, and it overwhelmed me, so I left. But for the million and a half that died under the KR, and for millions still living in poverty or under threat of land-mine explosion today, they can't leave. This is their reality. 

I didn't stay long enough to ask anyone about it. My tuk-tuk driver, Alex, told me a little about his life as a boy. He is twenty-six years old, and his parents survived the Khmer Rouge. But he didn't talk about how. He told me how he used to go on the Tonle Sap every day in a boat to fish for extra food to sell at market. He said they were very poor. 

Sympathy, empathy, guilt and a host of other feelings overtook me during my five powerful days in Cambodia. It's a lot for anyone to stomach, and I try not to shame myself for it, though I wish I had answers and cures. If all I can do right now is to tell this small story to someone else, then I can be happy with that. And maybe you can share this with someone else who may not know about it.  I visited Cambodia, and I found a world that was simultaneously untouched and hopelessly crushed by modernity. It isn't fair. Cambodia is so beautiful, and I wish I had stayed for a much longer time.

If you'd like to read more about Cambodia's recent history and to learn about excellent recovery projects like Land-Mine removal, I recommend these sights:

De-mining efforts in Cambodia (this contains information about the Land Mine Museum near Siem Reap, which I also visited. It chronicles the efforts of one former KR child soldier in de-mining Cambodia and helping land-mine victims. Absolutely worth a visit if you are ever in Siem Reap). 

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