The few days before I arrived in Cambodia I took a trip up to Harbin, a city close to the border with Russia which was -38 degrees fahrenheit. I met some great people and we walked along the streets in our 3 layers of socks looking at old Russian churches while trying to laugh at how our eyebrows started to freeze.
And then it was down to Cambodia, to a balmy 93 degrees where my body sent signals up to my brain wondering just what the fuck was it thinking? The meditation left me in a sort of mental shock, but while I was saying goodbye to the monks I felt a pull to go see Angkor Wat while I was still in the country.
There are things people say you should normally hit while you’re in a certain place – Times Square, The Great Wall, Versailles. I didn’t know much about Angkor Wat before I visited, just that from pictures it looked like the set of Legends of the Hidden Temple from my Nickelodeon saturated childhood. I woke up at 4:30 again (no big deal after ten days of it!) to see it at sunrise and hopped in a van with eight other people from the hostel. We arrived about a half hour before the sun started rising, and the scenery was unbelievable.
It is the largest religious monument in the world, and was the first stop in our five temple day. It was originally built as a Hindu temple but then changed to Buddhist in the 12th century. Walking around gave me a great intro into the Khmer people’s history. The rest of the temples were beautiful, and I saw my favorite tree in the world growing out of a building that was used for the set of Tomb Raider.
I took a night bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. I decided to treat myself and get the best bus where I could lay down. I didn’t read the fine print where I would be sleeping next to someone else, and I spent the night in the same bed with a Cambodian man who was clearly hoping that my late arrival had meant he had it all to himself. The ride was so bumpy that my ear was actually sore and bruised the next day.
Because I had arrived so early I booked a tour to the Killing Fields and S21. I had heard of The Killing Fields, mostly because I became fascinated with Sam Waterston and his eyebrows during Law and Order marathons and had heard he was in a movie about it. I had also heard of Pol Pot, because he had a funny name and he did some bad things. Pol Pot is a funny name, I still stick to that, and if I was going to be a murderous dictator, I’d consider changing it. What I didn’t know is that during the time of The Khmer Rouge, Cambodia lost one quarter of it’s population. Most Cambodians I met who were alive during that time didn’t just know someone who was affected, they lost many if not most of their family members. The democratic debate at home was appropriately timed, as the subject of Henry Kissinger came up and Hilary called him a mentor and Bernie happily declared his lack of friendship. Whichever side you’re on, and hindsight is 20/20, Kissinger designed the strategy and the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War than they did in all of WWII killing over 100,000 farmers and driving them into the cities very pissed off. The country was desperate for a change and the Communist Khmer Rouge was welcomed in as liberators. I walked through the Killing Fields with my audio tour on, seeing bones on the ground still being uncovered from the mass graves. I stopped at a tree which the Khmer Rouge used as something to kill babies with. They would pick them up by their feet and swing them against the tree, crushing their heads. Their quote was “better to kill an innocent than miss an enemy”. All the ragged clothes left over were preserved and they had created a memorial which you could walk through. The memorial was a tower of skulls, and as you walked by each level was organized by the age of the deceased, and how they died. There were plaques explaining each dent in the skull and whichever instrument was used for it. After two hours of the audio tour, we could watch a movie about it, but everyone was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of what happened that most of us actually fell asleep or cried.
Then I felt like that wasn’t depressing enough so I hopped in a tuk tuk and went to S21, the prison which The Khmer Rouge used to torture people. It was an old primary school building which had been transformed and now the classrooms still had the metal beds and shackles where prisoners were locked down and either died of starvation or torture. The Khmer Rouge openly accepted torture as part of their strategy to rid the country of defectors, and lots of the equipment was still there. Want to know how many ways you can torture someone using water? Too many. Every time I needed a break I walked outside and sat under a tree and listened to personal stories with the audio tour. There were love stories about prisoners and guards and funny stories about foreigners who were captured and tortured, who used names like “Colonel Sanders” as the names of their superiors when they were pressed to give over information about their spy superiors that never existed.
Walking through Cambodia and talking to it’s people, I got a sense of willingness to rebuild but having no ground to stand on. For ten years after The Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 million of it’s own people (21% of it’s population), and despite being thrown out of power, most western nations still recognized it as the governing body of Cambodia. There was a quote from a survivor that I read. “Look at our past as you walk towards your future”. And I walked back into the hostel, opened up my laptop and saw that Donald Trump had declared that water boarding isn’t just a good method for torture, it doesn’t go far enough.