As soon as we cross the Cambodian boarder, there is a noticeable difference. Besides fewer houses along the shore, there is less activity in the water. At times we feel like we are the only boat out here. It seems peaceful at first, until we are told the reason for the quiet. Underneath the calm surface of the water there are undetonated bombs.
Eyes always on alert, not sure who is listening, our guides in Vietnam and, even more so, in Cambodia have been careful with his/her choice of words. The after shocks of war are still reverberating, they remember what they have been through and don’t want it to happen again.
Cambodian communists, the Khmer Rouge, killed between 1.7 – 3 million people between 1975-1979. Massive genocide of the educated, political, and ethnic Cambodians were sent to “re-education” camps and brutally murdered in the Killing Fields, or starved in the aftermath. Everyone in this country lost a family member. Tribunals for war crimes are on going today.
Our guide lost his father and five brothers. He was separated from his mother, worked hard labor and had to eat insects to survive. He took us out to the Killing Fields where we walked on the bones of the dead and saw the memorial to the babies killed in front of their mother’s eyes. Buddhist believe the spirits of these children will stay for eternity in this horrible place.
He introduced us to an internment camp survivor. At nine, he witnessed his mother being tortured. She was killed a long with almost everyone else at the re-education camp. His younger brother and him were two of four children and five adults that were saved from this camp. He re-lives the nightmare everyday, sharing his story in the very place where it happened. Today there are tourists snapping photos of the gallows and children playing on the grass where he stood staring at the window of his mom’s cell.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, with newly built skyscrapers and fancy Royal Palace, at first glance stands in sharp contrast to the garbage strewn huts we saw lower down the Mekong. But it is just a veil. Even here, men sleep in the streets, ice cream parlors are meeting spots for escorts and their foreign johns, children tug at your sleeve trying to sell gum.
Once the center of the Khmer Empire and later French Colonists, this city, established in 1434, is emblematic of the Cambodian people: steeped in history, a survivor, looking to the future, but remembering the past.
We asked someone who had lost his grandmother to the Killing Fields if he wanted revenge. He said revenge is never ending, but that he believed in karma, those who do bad will get bad, those who do good will get good. Cambodians believe in the goodness of their country and that those who committed evil will eventually come to justice.
Stepping off our safe boat filled with retirees and led by experienced guides, walking through the crowded streets with our heavy back packs on, we’ve set off to find the night bus. The night bus reminds me of Harry Potter. I hope our ride isn’t as eventful as Harry’s, but a little bit of magic would be nice.
We’ll travel through the darkness with a new set of strangers to experience a different side of Cambodia. Just like the multi-faced god on the roof of the Royal Palace, Cambodia has many faces: one looking towards the past, one watching over the present, and one eyeing the future.