Cambodia only lasted three days. Days that were long and busy, yet so short in retrospect. Three days that made me appreciate life, made me grow as a person, and increased my thirst for knowledge. It’s amazing how much a person can change in three days.
We traveled in a big group, nine people, which made things a little more difficult at times. However, we eventually made it, taking the route Chiang Mai – Bangkok – Aranyaprathet – Poipet. Crossing the border, we encountered our first run in with corruption – although the sign for a Visa on Arrival clearly stated $25, the officials charged an extra 100 THB, without explanation. A few more hours of crazy driving, consistent honking, and nodding in and out of sleep, we arrived in Siem Reap.
The following morning we got in our pre-arranged van to conquer two days at Angkor Wat. I can’t believe I spent two full days there and still feel as though I could have seen much more. The splendor of the ruins was captured through the bright blue sky, reflecting majestic shapes into the ponds on site. Stepping on ancient stones, wandering through uncharted paths, discovering where light crept in through the walls was all part of the peaceful and mysterious wonder of Angkor Wat.
After Siem Reap was Phnom Penh. Starting our day at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was definitely hard. Walking in, I didn’t know if I could handle what I was about to witness, but I had to open up and allow myself to be vulnerable. Standing in the rooms that the last victims were found gave me the chills. I couldn’t help thinking that in the US, these rooms would be chained up and you could only observe from the outside, peering in (that is, if the site wasn’t destroyed). But walking through the buildings really made the emotion real. It scared me, it made me angry and sad, but there was nothing I could change, nothing I could do to set this right. The cells that prisoners were kept in were tiny and still standing, open for you to walk inside. I couldn’t help but feel a presence, a weight, as I walked through these halls.
After deep breathes and wiping teary eyes, we continued to what would be the hardest part of the trip, the Killing Fields. I didn’t expect this site to be as beautiful or as maintained as it was. I was more than impressed with the audio tour, which made the trip a very personal experience. There were mass graves marked by a thatched covering, such as the women’s grave, at which I left one of my bracelets as a sign of respect. As I approached a tree covered in bracelets, I had no idea what to expect, but was utterly shocked to discover it was used to bash babies against, to kill them and toss them in the grave behind. I stood at this tree in disbelief for a long time, disgusted and hurt. I also left a bracelet here, and said a little prayer for those affected.
I thought I had seen it all. But, as I walked on, I started noticing pieces of cloth in the ground, that had began to become uncovered through time. The next stop on the audio tour was a tree that speakers were attached to, by which music was played in order to drown out the screams of those being massacred. The added effect of the generator made me feel a little sick to my stomach and I honestly couldn’t listen to the whole song. The last few stops had been so overwhelming. But the tour was complete, and there was time to walk and reflect. As I did, I paid attention to the ground, spotting what I couldn’t help but speculate was a bone.
What is more disrespectful? Leaving the bones to be walked on and washed up, but resting in peace, or to excavate immediately and disturb their rest? I honestly can’t say. But I do know that the way this site has been maintained is breathtaking, and definitely not up to “safety standards” we would have in the US. There wasn’t one step I took on that site that I will not remember. Not one moment that went unappreciated.
The memorial for the victims of this awful massacre was absolutely stunning. The pure white tower, reaching into the clouds was beautiful. Sadly, it was stacked full of cases of the skulls of these victims, young and old. It was shocking to see the sheer number of people, human lives, innocent lives, that had been taken.
I will never be the same after this trip. Cambodia is a special place. It is on my list to return, and I couldn’t imagine my life fulfilled without having been there.
(If you haven’t heard of Tuol Sleng or The Killing Fields, please research “Khmer Rouge” or “Pol Pot Regime” and educate yourself & others.)