I went into Cambodia with no expectations. All I knew for sure is that it remains one of the world’s poorest countries, that is was still recovering from a cultural genocide and it was home to the world’s largest religious complex.
What I witnessed was a culture of people who greet you with smiles and grace. Who are resilient and beautiful. People who despite the inequality and poverty that still exists, find faith in their culture and religions. People who have lost entire generations to genocide, remain strong and compassionate. That in their sorrow they have found the capacity to forgive. An environment that shines brilliantly green with fields of rice and other crops. Of fruit trees that are ripe with the taste of sweetness. Temples and ancient trees coexisting, each the skeleton of the other. I witnessed thousands of individuals from every race and religion, gathering in peace and solidarity at a place of worship that has existed for 900 years. I always heard the laughter of children wherever I went. A country where monks of every age tread lightly on earth with grace. Shrines can be found everywhere, as a sacred place to focus the mind and to promote gratitude. Others honoured the ancestors that have passed with offerings of flowers, water, food and incense. A country of citizens who believe in truth. A country of healing hearts that hold forgiveness and compassion tenderly.
Everywhere in the country I would meet men and women selling their wares. Be it a remarque driver wanting to tour you around his city or another selling pineapple. Persistent but always with a great sense of humour. Truth is, many needed those sales to supplement their income so they could perhaps send their children to school.
Then there were the children. Always trying to sell postcards or bamboo flutes. They really pulled on my heart strings. They should be in school. Purchasing their wares would only encourage them to stay out of school. Sadly though, the public education system is said to be corrupt and poorly funded leaving the future generation with little in the way of education. All intellectuals in Cambodia were killed during the genocide, which would play a large role into the poor education system of today. There are many NGOs working hard to educate Cambodia’s youth. Some are succeeding, such as Phare Ponleu Selpak. An NGO that is making a difference in the lives of many youth and their families. If the circus is any indication of their successes, this organization is made of passion and love. Check them out here .
Siem Riep was bustling with tourists from everywhere. All drawn here by the Angkor Wat, a Wonder of the World. This temple complex was breathtaking in its scale. At one time home to a million people while London had a population of only 50,000. To walk among these ruins and those of many other temples was a privilege.
This area truly is the world’s largest hands on museum. I was just as thrilled as my boys to wander all the dark passageways and pretend I was a character in the “Temple of Doom.” So much history collided here and it leaves you with a grand imagination.
Photos from Ta Prohm, Bayon and Phrea Khan
I woke early one morning to join the other thousand of tourists to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. As I sat and gazed at the brilliance of the stars and listened to the quiet hum of early morning chatter in many different dialects, I felt a spiritual sense of peace. So many people from so many backgrounds coming together in awe and wonder. If anything, travel and tourism promotes diversity and peace.
Cambodia has been occupied and ravaged with unrest for centuries. The Cambodian Genocide of 1975 to 1979 was the peak of brutality. Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge Army killed 1.7 million fellow Cambodians. This remains more of a reality than a distant memory. Pol Pot’s twisted mind wanted to create an agrarian communist society. A culture based on farming. He mentally manipulated the minds of young peasant teenagers into believing that anyone who is not of an agriculture background was not worthy. Wearing glasses or having soft hands “proved” you were an intellect and you were murdered. There was an evacuation of all cities to the countryside throughout Cambodia. Even the peasants that survived his reign were put into forced labour under horrendous conditions. Many died of starvation and disease. If any army official disobeyed they were put to death. A choice of killing or be killed. Cambodians are people who are still reflecting and trying to understand what occurred only 40 years ago. Generations were nearly wiped out.
We visited museums and shrines that so harrowingly remind us of the massacre that occurred here. The Killing Fields, 300 total in Cambodia, are now places of remembrance. A place for locals and travellers alike to learn of the atrocities. So those who perished are not forgotten. So we can strive for peace by honouring the past.
The cure for pain is in the pain.
Just outside of Battambang Rowen and I visited Phnom Sampeau. A hillside standing tall and independent around fields of rice. We stood at the entrance of the Killing Caves where so many men, woman, and children were beaten then thrown to their deaths. Inside the cave, amoungst the shrines of skulls and at Buddha statues, incense cleanses the senses and many children play while the monks walk with quiet dignity. The past horrors rattles one spirit, yet the children and the monks balance this with compassion and acceptance. A sense of harmony pervades now.
“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier.
Love everything, you will be happiest.”
In Phom Phen’s Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, tears of sadness fall from my very soul. As I stood beside the killing tree, a place of unimaginable horrors, my thoughts were only of the immense fear and grief only a parent could understand. The remains of the 20,000 killed here are still being recovered. There is the Memorial Stupa that holds the skulls of 14,000. A somber site to behold. Yet, as I walk these grounds I again hear children laughing and playing from the adjacent streets. I see Cambodians themselves remembering and honouring. A sense of forgiveness and hope is heard in the children’s chatter and the beauty of the songbirds as their chorus echoes across the pond.
When I stood with my children in the Tuol Sleng Museum, a school turned into a prison and place of torture for 12,000 men, women and children, I let my tears fall. I find it hard to even begin to understand what happened here. Photo after photo of so many haunted faces, babies in Mothers’ arms, and children years away from embracing any sense of responsibility. These memories were captured by the Khmer Rouge to identify everyone they would kill. To ensure that the “roots of all generations” were eliminated to creat a pure agrarian society.
My children walked through both these places of immense sorrow with me. They viewed the mass graves, the clothes and bones of so many victims that continue to expose themselves with every heavy rain. We previously discussed the genocide openly with our boys before we visited these two museums. What we might see, read and hear. It was a difficult decision as our youngest did not want to go. The thought of seeing human bones scared him. We spoke of how this story is just as important as the Holocaust. That all the sad stories of war need to be heard so we remember. He did not have to see the human remains if he did not want to.
We listened to the audio guide and/or viewed the next exhibit prior to our children to determine which were appropriate for their ears and young minds. I could not bring myself to listen to all as well. Some stories and photos were too horrific for even myself to absorb. I understood my child’s hesitation. I also struggle with the raw visual exposure of war museums. However, our past is made from beauty and from madness. Both deserve recognition to try and create a brighter future. Shea did view the many skulls stacked a top one another. There were no nightmares, only questions.
Forgiveness sees wisely. It willingly acknowledges what is unjust, harmful and wrong. It bravely recognizes sufferings of the past, and understands the conditions that brought them about. Forgiveness honours the heart’s greatest dignity. Whenever we are lost, it brings us back to the ground of love. Without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release. Jack Kornfield
We hired a guide at Tuol Sleng Museum who was passionate to share his country’s story of truth. It was just last week that he interviewed one of the female Vietnamese Army Officials who first arrived to Tuol Sleng when Pol Pot was defeated. Her story must be told as it is critical to remind the world of all of the horrors of war. The unimaginable evil that can permeate minds, causing corruption, hate and death. It is only with honouring the truth and remembering the many who perished, that we can find hope and forgiveness. To read more click here.
I held my youngest’s hand as he stood and witnessed the sorrow and pain. He tells me after he has walked through most of both the museums, that he has seen enough.
He asks, “Why? How can people be so mean?”
We all ask why?
How could such hatred happen? How can we let such tragedies continue? Have we not learnt anything from our past haunts? The Holocaust, Ukraine, Rwanda, the North American Aboriginals, and most recently, the Royhinga in Mynamar. How can we as individuals promote peace? How can we help those who are the target of such hate?
Socio-economic inequality, poverty and lack of education can all too easily feed a governments campaign of hate. It is our duty to vote for governments that encourage equality, diversity, education, and adequate health care. We must invest only in corporations that protect human rights in developing countries. It is the corporations and governments that do not care about human rights that also may be funding, directly and indirectly, the very regimes that promote hate. Education is critical to promote peace. We must listen and honor the truths that have been and yet to be told. We must find room in our hearts for forgiveness. We also must assist those who are in less fortunate circumstances. At home and abroad.
As I watch the Cambodian students, in their crisp blue and white uniforms, walk through the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where their ancestors once walked as students themselves; I feel a sense of hope. There are some support groups that are making a difference. See here. I believe that their Buddhist faith brings them comfort as well. These horrors are very much a part of who they are; they lost entire generations yet they still embrace life with smiles and laughter. They continue to remember and heal.
There are still Khmer Rouge Officials who are incarcerated, being convicted as recently as 2012. The courts still have yet to determine the fate of others who have been charged with acts against humanity. Pol Pot died in 1998 and was never held accountable for his spread of hatred and murder.
Our guide is not troubled by these facts. He stated with a sense of resolve, “the outcomes of these courts don’t matter, what matters is that these memories are not lost, we have to uncover and share the truth. To remember. So it will never happen again.” The people of Cambodia hold the pain and suffering with gracious hearts to find forgiveness and release.
The future of Cambodia is uncertain as there is still an unsettling energy with the present government. Human rights still remain a concern. Cambodia is still recovering and in transition. Hope for peace and equality can be found in the dreams and aspirations of the youth. As well as in their faith. Yet, no developing country can do it alone. They need assistance from outside forces that believe in human rights. Even small ventures are making a difference. Such as Sister Srey in Seim Riep or the Lonely Tree Cafe in Battambang. There are the larger enterprises as well such as the Asia Foundation. Foreign investment within the larger businesses has risen by 800% in the last ten years. Read more here. Lets hope these companies and individuals are considering sustainable investing and protecting the rights of Cambodians and their environment??
Chum Mey is one of the only handful of survivors of Tuol Sleng Prison. He lost four children and his wife, all murdered by the Khmer Rouge. He shows such incredible courage as he sits a stones throw from the very cell where he was kept and tortured for three years. He sits here most days that the Tuol Sleng Museum is open, to share his story and promote peace. A place where they tried, but never broke his spirit. It is in his smile and the laughter and smiles of the many Cambodian children, that I feel an essense of hope. Hope for individuals and for a country that is still remembering and healing. Hope for peace and equality.
The rest of the world could gain much by honouring Cambodia and their story. Of how they are finding forgiveness in their immense sorrow, and hope in their truths.
We are all citizens of earth. We need to cherish ourselves, one another and all that inhabit this world. Promote peace in all that you do. It’s ripple effect will create change. Encouraging a brighter future for all.
A society cannot know itself if it does not have
an accurate memory of its own history.
Youk Chhang Survivor of the Cambodian Genocide