WARNING: This is a long post that includes some disturbing descriptions of historic events in Cambodia. It also includes images of smiling Buddhist monks and children at play…to remind us that life, while painful, is also beautiful.
Sitting cozy in the back of an open air tuk-tuk, gazing at a fat smiling golden Buddha figurine perched between the handlebars of the motorbike that controlled our shared fates for a few hours, relishing the cold beverages in our hands, our driver wove us like a fine garment, in and around speeding cars, busses and a torrent of death wish scooter drivers, hell-bent on getting as close as possible to our moving vehicle to test their apparently excellent karma.
This tuk-tuk ride was our ticket to the Phnom Penh lottery of smells. Every half block we sped along greeted us with new and mostly pleasant smells; savory garlic, rotisserie chicken, barbecue pork, fresh bread and an occasional whiff of open festering garbage and raw sewage to remind us that we were still of this world.
This was our first visit to Phnom Penh, the capital city of the Kingdom of Cambodia. When searching for tours in the city, it became evident that Phnom Penh may need to work on its tourism pitch. The overwhelming majority of tours offered to visitors include visits to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, both reminders of the terrifying atrocities committed by their despotic leader Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
For four years (between 1975 and 1979) between 1.5 and 3 million people were killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a communist political group. The Khmer Rouge had taken power in Cambodia following the Cambodian Civil War. During their brutal four-year rule, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of nearly a quarter of all Cambodians, who they believed had become corrupted by the West.
With somber respect, we walked the Killing Fields, the name for the mass graves where hundreds of thousands of Cambodians had been executed and buried. As we walked in silence along pitted, sunken fields, a car engine backfires in the distance. I know that it’s not a gun. I am disquieted nonetheless.
We stood with broken hearts in front of the Killing Tree; Khmer soldiers smashed babies heads against the side of this tree before throwing their lifeless bodies into a mass grave alongside. The tree is adorned with tokens of love, beautifying this magnificent tree, made an instrument of torture by human hands.
There are genocides in almost every place and time. Most of us know of only one or two. Why are we ignorant of the others? How is it possible that the deaths of millions in one country go unrecognized? I don’t have the answer; only more questions.
When one group believes that they alone are in possession of a god-given truth, horrible crimes are committed in the name of this truth. So it has always been. It continues in unseen corners of this world even as I write.
As we leave the Killing Fields, I watch two children playing with carefree abandon in the shade of trees that had likely witnessed mankind’s greatest horrors. Perhaps sensing my need for a reminder of life’s beauty, they stopped and smiled for me. I don’t think they saw my tears as I walked away.
As our tuk-tuk ride continued, I noticed two Buddhist monks with yellow umbrellas at the entrance to a temple. I smiled, remembering my experience earlier that day visiting a Buddhist monastery in the tropical countryside and rice fields, far from the city. We felt so welcome as they showed us around their temple and modest home. Before leaving, they blessed me with holy water and prayed for our safe journey. There is so much good in this world.
Things are cheap in Cambodia. So cheap that the highest price at the dollar store is only sixty cents. Nearby, a sign for KRUD beer advertises the unfortunately named national Cambodian brand just feet from the dollar store entrance. I laugh at the semantic play and wish I could bring one can back for my Dad to sample. He loves Old Style beer. I’m sure he’d love KRUD!
As the sun set and the stars took their places in the sky above, we toured temples and monuments and enjoyed an incredible Cambodian meal at the river’s edge. We toasted our day. How rare and wonderful are these days, that when strung together make such a beautiful life.