Cambodia: A Land That Inspires

No matter how much we thought about this trip before we left, there was no way to predict exactly what we’d get out of it. Our experiences over the last 6 months have impacted us in ways that we expected, as well as in ways that have surprised us.

Cambodia

Cambodia

Even during the planning stages of this trip, we had a feeling that the ancient temples of Angkor in Cambodia would leave a lasting impression on us, and no doubt the sunrise over Angkor Wat is a magical moment permanently etched into our memories.

Cambodia

Cambodia

Cambodia

But our experiences in Cambodia left another enduring mark, one we didn’t foresee. What we saw and learned during our visits to the S21 museum and the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh left us reeling with disgust and incredulity. It was mind jarring to think that the brutal acts committed by the Khmer Rouge were a part of human history; surely they are scenes from the most horrid of horror stories, and not something humans could really have done to one another?

Cambodia

A few of the 9,000 skulls of victims preserved and documented at the memorial site at Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center.

Walking around these two historical sites was eerie and sickening. At S21, an ex-prison and interrogation centre, we slowly floated in and out of the actual torture chambers and tiny cells of past prisoners; their faces in the seemingly endless photographs haunted us with helpless, fear-stricken eyes.

Cambodia

Cambodia

The audio tour at the Killing Fields was particularly thought provoking, offering vivid first hand accounts from all different perspectives. While we knew a bit about Pol Pot’s regime and the Khmer Rouge, we learned a lot in Phnom Penh:

“Who were these people who were such a threat to Pol Pot’s new, pure society? They included educated people, professionals of all kinds — teachers, doctors and lawyers. Anyone who spoke a foreign language, or had soft hands – or wore glasses. Monks and nuns were suspect too. Every city dweller. All these were potential enemies of the glorious state. And, of course, anyone who questioned or defied the Khmer Rouge. They were called traitors. But they were ordinary people, and most had done nothing. In prison they were forced to write and sign false confessions that they had not done the work required of them, or they had stolen rice that belonged to all, or had ignored an order.”

(excerpt from Choeung Ek Genocidal Center audio tour)

Much of what we learned was appallingly difficult to digest. Please be advised that the following story contains graphic details. In the audio tour, one man recounts:

“A guard found two bananas on the body of a female prisoner. He asked her, “Where did you steal these from? I asked you to work, not to steal!” She answered, “I didn’t steal. The guard who took me to work gave them to me.” But the guard, Comrade Chhorn, did not believe her and continued to accuse her. He took a hatchet from his back and beat her neck until she fell down. Then he took a hoe from where people had been cleaning the sewers. And he hit her in the neck. She convulsed and died. They asked the cleaner to bury her. I saw this with my own eyes, even though I could hardly look at it. I couldn’t say anything. It was so painful. That’s how they tortured and killed people. She was killed for two bananas.”

(excerpt from Choeung Ek Genocidal Center audio tour)

Cambodia

Cambodia

These bracelets are left in memoriam at one of the many mass graves in Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. This grave in particular was the site of savage beatings and executions of women and children.

It was a bleak day, and we left feeling pretty dispirited, but we began to notice a contrast. The chilling history of Cambodia is still very much felt by its people, but the effects have not crushed the country’s enduring positive spirit.

We saw it all around us: Phnom Penh is a vibrant, bustling city and center of activity. Siem Reap is home to some of the country’s many smiling Khmer people who are happy to show off the temples of Angkor to the constant influx of tourists. A positive spirit prevails throughout the country that makes one wonder how the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were sanctioned less than 40 years ago.

Cambodia

Cambodia

Cambodia

Cambodia

This brave recovery and sense of positivity is inspiring to say the least. Though brief, our time in Cambodia helped give new meaning to our travels. It made us want to return from our trip as better, more positive people. The spirit that we witnessed in Cambodia – in the face of very recent suffering – is a lesson in itself. No matter what happens, positivity can thrive. Compared to people who have faced trauma and adversity, for us, being more positive should be easy. We have the privilege and freedom to travel, to learn these things about the world and about ourselves. This is a lesson we hope to carry with us long after we return home.

Cambodia

Cambodia

Accommodation:
Angkor Secret Garden Inn, $21/night for a double room, Siem Reap – Recommended
Mad Monkey Hostel, $10.50/night per dorm bed, Phnom Penh – Recommended

Favourite Meals:
Stephie: Big Ringer Burger (burger with giant onion ring, cheese & smokey BBQ sauce), $6.50, Mad Monkey Restaurant (Phnom Penh)
Eric: Veggie Burger (with mango chili salsa), $4, Mad Monkey Restaurant (Phnom Penh)

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