Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Heart-Wrenching History Lessons
Well, Mikaela and I took a bus, a train, a plane, then a tuk-tuk, but we finally made it to Phnom Penh, the capitol city of Cambodia. What a place! It's loud and hectic, with painfully obvious poverty, yet I can't help but love this country. Cambodian history is not pretty. They have been under colonial rule, subjected to American bombs and landmines(along with the rest of the countries we have visited), and then when the rest of SE Asia was finally able to start putting the pieces back together after the end of the war in Vietnam, Cambodia was experiencing its greatest tragedy: a civil war in which the country was overtaken by a crazy, blood-thirsty regime called the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge sought to rid the country of anyone even mildly associated with the previous regime (and their families), intellectuals and an upper class, and systematically exterminated everyone they thought fell into those categories. The whole of the nation suffered, as this meant no doctors, or medicine. Between intentional killings, food shortages and a lack of medical care, almost 1/4 of the country's population died. This is one of the many reasons it blows my mind that everyone we meet is wonderfully friendly, in spite of everything they have most likely had to endure. The tourist industry provides for many who would otherwise have no way to support their families. This makes for a lot of people in your face pushing tuk-tuk rides or tourist trinkets, and while overwhelming, I am made constantly aware that these are people working very hard just to get by. And the lack of bitterness at the hand they have been dealt, there are just no words. Obviously, I have seen poverty and witnessed people who are struggling over and over again on my journey through Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. But here, they fight tooth and nail for a job taking you across town for a couple of dollars. And they do it with a smile on their face. And if you reply, "No Thank-you" to their well-intentioned pleas, they respond by welcoming you to their country anyway. And all the while that you are experiencing this over and over again, you are in a beautiful country with extraordinary architecture and cuisine, both the native Khmer cuisine (somewhat similar to Thai) and western cuisine that has been heavily influenced by the French colonial rule. Combine this with the ever-present gentle breeze of warm, sultry night air, and how could anyone not love this country? Of course, our time in Phnom Penh was not just about good food and good times. While we did have our fun, we also could not avoid a visit to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the Genocide Museum. What is now a museum began its history as a public high-school, before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison for the torture and execution of anyone they deemed worthy. What can I write about standing in a place where 20,000 people were subjected to tortures I cannot even begin to fathom, then sent to dig their own grave before death by blunt-force trauma in order to save bullets? What words are there to describe viewing the entry photographs of the children that died here, innocent smiles on their faces because they had no idea what lay in store for them? Needless to say, Mikaela and I left Phnom Penh for Siam Reap with heavy hearts.