Cambodia. Ah, how do I even begin to describe this place whose bloody history still bears so much of an influence on the way some tourists choose to see it. I will admit with my tail held tightly between my legs that before coming here, I knew next to nothing of it's past. More shameful is that reading my Lonely Planet (what my Couch Surfing host in Phnom Penh would flippantly called the "Lonely Idiot")'s elucidating introductory paragraphs was my first exposure to names like the Khmer Rouge, and Pol Pot - all designations I had heard before but had never bothered to explore further. I don't know what kind of favor I'm doing myself by revealing this, but alas, it is truth.
In any case, by the time my plane touched down in Siem Reap, my intrigue into the bloodbath that had ensued beginning April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly began "liberating" cities throughout Cambodia, began. While I would inevitably go to Angkor Wat and the surrounding ancient temples, my interest lay in what stories I might be able to uncover from this country's locals, and what personal accounts I might be able to gain from asking often inappropriate, probing and at times, selfish questions.
Anthony Bourdain, early in his career, decided to stop taking photos of his trips after visiting Angkor Wat. The history, the towering peaks, and the breathtaking views were, in a word, impossible: their beauty impossible to be captured, their calmness impossible to convey on record, and their majesty impossible to conceive from a relayed image on our rectangular screens. In some ways, I very much agree. Faced with the famous temples of Angkor Wat, whose steeples resembled the sandcastles I used to build when I was little, like drips of cement that dribbled and rolled down each pike, and later Angkor Thom, and Banteay Srey, a picture could not compare. I frequently stopped to take a photo, but after clicking the button, I could only think that the resulting image looked flat, inadequate. Above all, there was no way to capture the peace of this place before the crowds come. There is a magical stillness that only exists in the moment.
At the time of the sunrise, despite the mass exodus crossing the mote bridge into the giant gates, silence prevails. Silence, and crickets singing in unison - and once the sun had come up, the sound of the occasional tourist brushing his Tevas against the stone floor, or a couple speaking softly to each other, remaining quiet as if compelled by an innate respect for an almighty power beyond our comprehension that rests in these ancient monoliths. There is a calmness in the order of things - a timeless sameness to the way the flies lift off the grassy spans and how the morning sun yields a transient quality of light that bounces off the moist slabs of rock, glossed over in morning dew and rain residue. It is a beautiful place, and when you emerge from the Bayon, you are surprised to feel like a king, looking out to all of your subjects. You think to yourself, ah, I have done well for myself. As in Versailles, the Met, any building, in fact, my favorite part of this place is the steps - weathered by the people who built it 800 years ago, it is remarkable how intact this castle remains.
By 6:42 AM, I had discovered another reason why being at Angkor Wat would drive a person to never take pictures again: tourists - the flocking, headache-inducing, picture-ruining pests! Like ants that pool around a fresh drop of strawberry italian ice that has dripped off of your spoon onto the hot tarmac on a blisteringly warm, summery day, all of them - all of us - were there in search of the serenity and ostensible calm that this place could provide. As my body was continuously pushed and nudged and smacked by sweaty-palms and wet backsides of men in their 50s who - yes, yes, I know, you're on vacation - should not be wearing tank tops, I dreamed of a giant fly swatter to squish every single one of these tiny insects, polluting the quiet embrace of the trees of Ka Prohm, and squandering the chance to bask in each temple’s all-presumed power and awesomeness. What I'm getting at, of course, in far more words than necessary, is that past a certain hour, the temples were teeming with tourists; I have so many pictures of every and anyone's child.
Under the oppressive sun, my tuk-tuk driver, Prohm (sometimes pronounce, "vroom! like car!" had said) and I moved to a shaded area for lunch. He would become the closest thing I had to a friend in Siem Reap. We had met at the airport when I had first touched down, the first stop in my solo travel, and thus found me wildly vulnerable, impressionable, and –you guessed it, stupid. He had driven me through the streets of the city outskirts as I took in the blackness of the air, the smell of coal, and the muted silence of the city’s periphery. There was a noticeable dearth of street lamps, and when I had asked why it was so dark, he had solemnly reported, “It is the government—corruption."
Here, though, in the light of day, as we ate our lunch together, we got to know each other. Prohm is smart; he is perceptive, funny, and an avid learner. Intimate cultural distinctions excite him—Americans say "absolutely, very, extremely," whereas Brits say "of course, really?" he would animatedly describe. He wrote out the Khmer alphabet for me, and I taught him some Chinese. We fought over the tenses of "know/knew/had known." He divulged his love of language and kickboxing. As we spooned our curry into our mouths, we laughed over his impressions of different English accents he had heard through the years; he described his former kickboxing regimen, how he had been fat 2 years ago, and how he now jogs in the heat with 2 t shirts and a hoodie sweatshirt to make him "strong" as kick boxers "don't have big muscles but are strong." Though slim, and very fit, Prohm said, "Cambodian women don't like me, they like men with big stomach. Bigger stomach means more money."
For an additional fee, following lunch, we went to Banteay Srey, an isolated series of towers an hour-long ride away famous for its intricate carvings. On the way there, we would pull over at the giant "pool," or a lake of sorts, that had originally been reserved only for kings, and he taught me kickboxing, while I asked self-defense moves. "Kick me," he would say, to prove his skills, putting me in a headlock. At that point, I suggested we move on.
Banteay Srey was a quiet slumberland of delicate patterns and ornateness. Finally, away from the crowds, the crickets resumed their choral cries, and I sat down in a corner and began to draw. One second gorgeous, the next pouring rain, I found shelter under a stone doorframe with a burly grey-haired man. He was from Nice, France. He knew where my grandmere lived. "le monde c'est tres petit," his wife called out from across the road, under her doorframe. The rain eased up enough, and Prohm met me at the exit to take me to my last stop of the day, the Landmine Museum.
The Landmine Museum was started by Akira, a child soldier, named one of CNN's heroes in the past decade for his work in demining the thousands of unexploded land minds that litter the country's terrain, and was a sobering reminder of the more recent history that existed here, in spite of the splendor of the Angkor complex. The space was small – a central encasement filled 7 feet high in clear plexy glass displayed remnants of small mines that had been taken from areas of Cambodia – mostly Northwestern area, where, I would later learn, is where my tuk-tuk driver, Phrom had grown up. What I saw was jarring – in place of the large, clean spaces of a modern museum were simple bulletin boards displaying newspaper clippings describing the incident. Others, titled “WAR PROPAGANDA” rudimentarily cut out from a piece of paper was encircled with photos of Khmer Rouge troops “liberating” cities throughout Cambodia, while faded print-out pictures of Pol Pot and other key figures who would assist in the systematic killing of about 1.7 million people in a mere 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge rule filled the empty spaces, accompanied by short biographies.
When I emerged, almost two hours later, Prohm rushed me into our tuk-tuk, as we would make it back just in time for closing. "You are upset?" "Yes, very." "You have not been to Choeung Ek," he said almost cheekily. During the ride, we did not speak much. 40 minutes later, "Are you tired?" he asked, noticing my silence. "No, just upset - I have so many questions." He kindly pulled over, and peeled back the memories that I believe he would have much preferred to have kept wrapped tightly shut. He began, "This is my country." He is the tenth child in his family, and describes more of the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's reign, following Pol Pot's death in 1979. Born in 1981, when he was 8, he was not allowed to go outside because land mines were going off constantly -“sometimes I think I still hear it, andI jump." During the ensuing years, as the Vietnamese took over, he recalls how he and his brothers "ate everything - I live in the forest - frog, cricket, snake, turtle. We eat to live. We eat tree leaves most." Then, he volunteered information about the death of his eldest brother, who had been killed by the Vietnamese - “that is why I do not like the Vietnamese right now, not yet.” The Vietnamese had believed his brother to be a Khmer Rouge, when, in reality, he was only in the government army. No sooner that this brother had been killed, Phrom described how his family was being pursued – the details of which were absent, for by this point, I could see his eyes wandering to the surrounding grass, as he played with the screws of his tuk-tuk – anything to avoid eye contact. "I only know 10 years of war, my brother 20..." he shook his head, looking down, trying to shake away tears that had long been suppressed and would never come, " but my mother, my father - 40 years they know of war." He was not speechless, but the grief he felt provoked snorts, little guttural attempts to speak, as if grasping for words was like gasping for another breath. His parents, save for one brother, are in a refugee camp in Thailand. He sees them from time to time when they visit him here. I asked if he wanted to live with the brother who lives in Phnom Penh - "he doesn't like sport, and for me, I do not want to live with him." He continued to shake his head, "he does not like sport." I wish I could have had something more to say than, "I'm sorry."
Minutes later, as we set to driving, our tuk-tuk got a flat tire. I was honestly glad to stop - the thought of riding back in silence after what he had told me knotted my stomach. The woman who fixed his tire, just another lady who had a shanty bamboo shack along the road, was married to a short 5'2" stoutly, muscularly fit man with dark skin and a big smile. Despite his age, maybe 5 \0 or so, he remained firm, all his skin clung to his form, revealing the muscles that lay underneath. Like Prohm told me, kick boxers don't have big muscles, but they are very strong. This man, who I'll call the compact fighter, and his 3 children came out to play. The oldest child was maybe 9, and the other, a 3 year old with the most adorably round black eyes, crusty- shirted and eating the end piece of a banana, the residue all over his arm and face, indicating he'd been holding it for manyminutes, sat on the bars of a machine, balancing precariously. He did not speak, just watched, glassy-eyed. the third, maybe 2, paced wearing a dirty t-shirt and no pants, parading behind his older brother. Prohm and I battled a little more as the lazy-eyed wife fixed his tire, until the fighter hopped like a spritely ninja.
His front two teeth were weathered down but they did not detract from his cheeky smile inviting me to slap him. He curled his fingers, asking me to kick him, so he could show me his defense - I did ; and wham! his arm slapped it away, twisting behind my back, stepping between my legs, pivoting and twisting his torso, and motioning his final move to the fighting dance, a slow motion whack of his elbow into my face, stopping just short of my nose. Wow. The invitations continued as he sought to teach me good defense moves, unlike Prohm, who generally used more kicks, slower more graceful, you could see this mean was lightning quick, simple, and unpredictable, disarmingly small, and excited by fighting - by the challenge of a foolish competitor whose jaw he could undoubtedly break. Though we were "Playing" after 7 minutes of "hit e again...try to get close to a pretend threat, " I was actually tired, and each time he wrapped his elbow around my neck, or twisted my arm - just to show me! - his reaction time was infinitely faster than what I could handle. We both laughed, but by the end, I threw my hands in front of my face, and said, "I'm scared!" He loved it. An easy meal, almost. like challenging ayear old to a spelling bee - you can’t help but want to keep playing. Twice, though, he indulged his need and tripped his 9-year-old son from behind, knocking him to the ground - the only thing that made Prohm laugh uncontrollably.
We pulled away after about 15 minutes of play. Prohm explained that he had been a fighter in the 80s - "a kick boxer? A competitor, like you?" "No, he was in the army. From his training." This was a man who had learned to be feared, to be their best, the quickest to survive. It changed my whole perspective - the child play that I had been engaging in.
There is a heaviness to this place unlike any sensation I have ever felt – more than likely, following this very jarring paradigm shift as to what things are truly important in life, and after my weighty conversation with Prohm, I could only see this country as a place that still reels, ten years later, from the devastation brought on by greed and megalomania. In Cambodia, that you are approached in the streets by a man with no arms, propping up a basin of books for sale on his shoulders, touting an attached card taped to the front that reads, "the war is over, but land mines are still here, " or "I want to work" or "I will not beg; I have a family," as you sit at your outdoor cafe sipping your $3 coffee with cream and sugar is to see the effects of war - that he is only one in thousands of Cambodians with a similar story.
I bought a copy of First They Killed My Father while seated at an outdoor café – palpably seated on one end of the grossly long economic spectrum – from a girl who sold withered books from a basket, parading from tourist to tourist. She was the first who had approached me; in my time there, many more would sidle over, often limbless holding poorly laminated photos of their families with harrowing tales of residual landmines that had destroyed, limb by limb, their livelihood. I read the book from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and would finish just before crossing the Cambodian border into Laos, and compounded my all-consuming Cambodian experience. When we crossed the border, the grayness that hovered cleared as we moved into Laos. I cried.