10 Gifts from Cambodia

Unfortunately my visit to Cambodia was just short of two weeks.  It was hardly enough time to take in all the sights and appreciate the people as much as I had hoped.  Yet I loved what I saw and know I will return again to enjoy the country with a more leisurely pace.

Here are some of the highlights of my travels in Cambodia:

1 — The temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat at sunrise ~ Children admiring the sculptures at Bayon temple ~ Temple overtaken by the trees ~ Gods in front of the gate of Angkor Thom

I simply cannot put to words the magnificence and marvel of the temples of Angkor.  This sprawling, massive concentration of architectural richness is one of the most extraordinary places on earth.  My days exploring the ancient sites were exceptional and enjoyable.

Spanning three periods of the great Khmer empire which prospered from the 9th to the 15th centuries, the temples that remain are awe inspiring.  I spent three exhausting days trying to take it all in: the early Hindu temples and terraces, lofty imperial palaces, the enormous playgrounds and pools of mighty kings, the later Buddhist temples and stupas.

There were crowds aplenty at the significant sites: iconic Angkor Wat, enormous Angkor Thom and the surreal Bayon, and the root-ravened Ta Prohm.  Yet I found many other temples and structures that were completely off the tourist beat so I enjoyed these sites in complete solitude.  These were my most magical moments.

I visited the sites early (setting out between 5-6 am) by bicycle and pedaled over 30 kilometers per day.  Tired and sweaty by lunchtime, I returned to my hotel and to laze away the afternoon hours, reading by the refreshing pool.  The good restaurants of Siem Reap (the gateway city to the temples) kept me well nourished for the energetic sightseeing.

I did not come close to completing all there is at Angkor, but it was a great introduction.  I look forward to the day I return to this unquestionable Wonder of the World to further explore and admire its splendid beauty.

2 — The superb yet solemn torture and genocide museums

Stark images of the Killing Fields and S-21 Torture Prison in Phenom Penh

Nearly one out of every four Cambodians died in the brutal and bloody civil war and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge that followed.  When the ruthless regime was defeated in 1979, the country was collapsed with no infrastructure, the people were starving, and communities and families were broken apart.  The Academy Award-winning filmThe Killing Fields and numerous acclaimed memoirs such as Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and journalist Jon Swain’s River of Time document the horror, bloodshed and suffering of those dreadful years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Cambodia.  Only one generation has passed since this tragedy so the Cambodian victims’ memories are still raw and injuries healing.  Yet I was impressed by the outstanding museums in Phnom Penh, notably the Killing Fields Genocide Museum of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Torture Museum.

The Killing Fields, on the outskirts of the city, is where victims by the thousands were taken secretly and brutally killed and today a reverential temple presides over the sacred ground.  Tuol Sleng, a former high school, was converted to the notorious S-21 prison where countless genocide victims were processed and tortured before execution.  The extremely detailed records left by the Khmer Rouge document the indiscriminate war of terror waged against its own people.

These were weighty and sorrowful visits but a necessary part of my travels through Cambodia.  I am thankful that this country is keeping the memory alive in appropriate and respectful ways;  an important aim is that the Khmer people and the world can learn and prevent this from happening again.

The memorial sites are presented with dignity and sincerity.  Cambodia rightfully honors the millions of its people who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and those survivors who continue to live with these nightmares today.

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Tin’s Cambodian Nightmare: Battambang, the Khmer Rouge and a Lost Childhood

Tin on our tour of Battambang, Cambodia discussing a Khmer Rouge "example home" used for propagandistic purposes

When I was ten years old, my time was occupied playing with my Star Wars action figures in the yard, setting up jumps for my banana-seat bike and saving my weekly allowance for summer camping trips to the woods of Wisconsin.

Yesterday I met Tin, a Cambodian living in Battambang and a tuk-tuk driver for tourists.  In 1975 he was orphaned and marched into a forced labor camp for children where he toiled for four years.  His memories as a ten-year-old suffering under the Khmer Rouge contrast profoundly with my years in green, growing Iowa buoyed by comfort, care and stability.

Since I met Tin yesterday, I have been haunted by the profound difference of our respective childhoods, living not just on opposite ends of the globe but a universe apart. Here is his story.

Tin is just about my age, born in Phenm Penh in the mid-1960’s.  In 1975 the capital city fell to Khmer Rouge communist forces after an arduous and bloody civil war. The next day the Khmer Rouge began evacuating all residents from Phenm Penh and the other cities to the country to work in forced-labor camps.

For weeks the roads were filled with the mass exodus from the cities: Women walked for days carrying crying infants and running out of food. Hospitals were emptied, the sick and infirm were forced onto the roads, some holding IV’s and being pushed in wheelchairs.  Many elderly struggled and died in the forced march to the countryside.  Year Zero had begun, ushering in a brutal new era of radical restructuring of Cambodian society into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.

The Khmer Rouge rejected the rich cultural past of Cambodia as a suitable model for the new society.  Schools were shuttered, money officially abandoned replaced by a “barter” system, libraries burned, Buddhist temples shelled and ancient monument sites scavenged for works projects.  The borders were sealed, no one was allowed in or out.  International aid assistance was denied.  Anyone with an education, contacts with the former government or links to other countries, who spoke a foreign language, wore glasses, or lived in a city was considered “bourgeois” was taken away and likely killed.

The others were forced into labor camps structured by age and gender; families were torn apart with children and parents in opposite parts of the country.  Conditions everywhere were appalling and treatment was brutal.  Children were often questioned separately by the Khmer Rouge; they knew the young were less likely to cover up important family details.  Anyone accused of insubordination or suspected of moral weakness was simply exterminated; there was no justice or rule of law.

Almost 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign of terror.  In fewer than four years, nearly one out of every four Cambodians died.

Billboard at a mass killing location outside of Battambang, Cambodia documenting the expulsion of people from cities to work on forced-labor camps in the countryside
Billboard at a mass killing location outside of Battambang, Cambodia documenting the expulsion of people from cities to work on forced-labor camps in the countryside

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“American War” Museums in Ho Chi Minh City

Reunification Palace ~ Victims of My Lai Massacre ~ North Vietnam's Side of the Story

A United States citizen in Ho Chi Minh City cannot escape the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as it is known locally.  Saigon was the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam, the city where hordes of US special agents and advisors and GI’s invariably journeyed through during the war years.

Painful ghosts from past abound and confronting these fraught-filled years is unavoidable in Saigon.  There are two Vietnam War must-see’s in the city itself: the Presidential Palace (now known as Reunification or Independence Palace) and the War Remnants Museum, a propagandist and somber North Vietnamese account of the war.

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Sunlight and Shadows on a Vietnam Beach

My first dip in the South China Sea in Nha Trang, Vietnam

So, we’ve been in Vietnam for just over a week and what an incredible journey this has been so far.  But before I start posting the typical here’s what I did in this-or-that city, I’ll begin with a simple picture of Vietnam from yesterday evening:

Booming waves crash against the golden sand as I run barefoot and slowly along Nha Trang beach on the South China Sea.  I am getting some exercise to try and put my cough and congestion to bed after a long cold that has dogged me almost since I arrived in Asia.  What begins as a simple mission to stretch my lungs soon turns into a contemplative encounter with the lovely Vietnamese people on a 20-minute stretch of sand…

I pass a young father with his daughter at the end of a wooden pier, holding hands.  She is wearing her primary school uniform and smiling towards the sea, her communist red bandana and silken black hair blowing in the strong ocean breeze.

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