Cambodia – Siem Reap, Day 1
We flew to Cambodia from Bangkok, and immediately I was struck by how rural Siem Reap seemed compared to the frenetic city of Bangkok. We checked into our very charming cabana-esque hotel, and then went to an artisan’s guild where blind and deaf people can learn to carve wood, paint silk, and make other silk products. This is a program that lasts 6 months to a year, and after the students have been trained, they sell their wares in markets. It was really neat to see the way they make their pieces, but my favorite part of that experience, by far, was the gift shop.
In the evening we climbed up a mountain to watch the sunset at one of the temples in Angkor Wat, a temple complex built by Khmer kings during the time of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 13th century. This temple complex is massive, covering miles of temples devoted to Hindu gods. A combination of animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism influence Cambodian religion, though Buddhism is practiced more widely than Hinduism. I asked our guide whether she knew of any other countries that had this dual influence, but she said she didn't know.
During the period of the Angkor Empire, Cambodia was very powerful and the empire included the majority of Southeast Asia. This glorious history contrasts shockingly with the post-colonial period and the Khmer Rouge genocide, and throughout the history following Angkor Cambodians have revisited its grandeur. The Khmer Rouge gave Cambodians hope that they would achieve a glory similar to that of Angkor, and Angkor history is taught more than the history of Cambodia’s post-colonial period in most schools.
A Khmer Story
Climbing the mountain to the temple was satisfying, as was struggling up its steep narrow steps to get a panorama of the lush Cambodian countryside. However, the most meaningful part of the trip for me was talking to someone that our group met at the temple. It is cliché to say, but he really did have a twinkle in his eye and a kind smile. He told me about his life during the Khmer Rouge era, which he survived through a fluke. He was born in 1958, which made him 17-23 years old during the time of the Khmer Rouge, and was forced to labor in the fields, becoming a human ghost. He said that Cambodia was a “country of girls” due to the emaciation caused by starvation. He shared with me that the Khmer Rouge killed his father and brothers. His father approached him when the Khmer Rouge came, and told him that he would now be the head of the household. His background comprised a family of academics, which the Khmer Rouge especially targeted. We read in one article that after the genocide, only 3 PhD’s were left in all of Cambodia. Currently the lack of educated people greatly affects Cambodian society, and the need for more schooling is exceptional.
I tried to remain “neutral” while asking this man questions about his life during the era, and ask in such a way that would not elicit a “formula story.” In the two days of class prior to the trip we learned that the Cambodians who survived the genocide now have a structure for understanding and retelling the tragedy in a way that is not so raw and painful as it would be without the formula for their narrative. This man does not have a unique story, however, there was really nothing that seemed formulaic or sterile in the way he told it. When he said that his mother died of a broken heart through barely contained tears, all I could register was the profound sadness in his eyes. I understand that conflict resolution requires thinking more deeply about individual stories, contextualizing them, and using theories to understand how they connect to the bigger picture. I must admit that I was not thinking of a single theory as I stood talking to this man with such a gentle soul tell me about how he rebuilt his life after all of the love that he had previously known was systematically destroyed during the time of the Khmer Rouge.
After pausing to watch the sun disappear behind the horizon, I asked this man whether he had heard of any of the books we had read in our class, particularly First they Killed My Father. I was curious about his reaction to this book because apparently it was deeply criticized in Cambodia. His face grew stony and he said that books, movies, and documentaries fail to cover the immense tragedy that occurred. He said that even The Killing Fields, which I found hard to watch, does not do justice to the genocide. I was surprised at how forthcoming he was about answering any questions I had, because many Cambodians do not openly talk about this time in history. During the Khmer Rouge era, he forgot how to smile and had to relearn this after the Pol Pot regime fell. He said that a general sense of relief did not even begin to occur in Cambodia until 1998, when Pol Pot died. The most awful part for him is not knowing now who were former members of the Khmer Rouge. They blended back into society after they had committed so many atrocities, and a sense of fear pervades the Cambodian psyche. The fact that Khmers killed Khmers during the Pol Pot era adds even more complexity to the conflict, and survivors of the genocide do not know who to be angry with or who to forgive.