Experiencing the Awe and Awfulness of History in Cambodia

The colors danced in the sky as the morning clouds passed through, constantly changing the reflection of light from the rising sun. At the forefront of the golden, pink, and orange show were the five unmistakable lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat. After nearly a week of grappling with the history of death and destruction that overtook the same land just forty some years before, the beauty of the temple and the sunrise was a welcome sight.

In many ways this anecdote above properly defines our nearly three weeks in Cambodia. We found ourselves wrestling with the tragic past, celebrating the ancient wonders, and hoping for a positive future. Our time in the small nation flew by, and though we were tired from a lengthy stretch of long days as we boarded our plane in Phnom Penh, we were grateful to have seen and learned so much.

The sunrise over Angkor Wat

Arriving in Cambodia

International boarder crossings by land are always an exciting gamble. Sometimes you find yourself waiting in line for hours with a massive caravan of people attempting to cross, other times it’s as simple as a quick show of the passport and you’re on your way. Luckily, our experience on our long bus journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was very straightforward. In fact, we didn’t even show our faces to the immigration officers, our passports were collected by our boarder crossing bus attendant, sent through the system, and stamped and collected for us. We didn’t even realize that we had crossed the boarder until we flipped through our passports and saw the Cambodia stamp.

Though the boarder itself was easy, we still spent over 9 hours on the bus, so when we finally reached our end station in Phnom Penh, we were thrilled to disembark even if it meant walking into the pouring rain. Luckily, waiting for us was another bus with two friendly faces who would be joining us for the remainder of our time in Cambodia. Vey, our local partner and project manager, and Mr. Sara, our bus driver, warmly welcomed us and got our things out of the rain.

Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide

The next morning we jumped straight into the dark history of the Cambodian genocide. We began a three day exploration of the sights of this horrendous period, first visiting the S21 Tuol Sleng Prison Museum. This elementary school was converted into a prison when the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975, and roughly 20,000 people passed through before the Vietnamese backed liberation forces gained control in 1979. Of the 20,000, only 12 survived, with the rest being either tortured to death in the prison, starved or succumbed to disease in forced labor, or murdered in the various killing fields around the nation. This particular prison was mainly used for intellectuals — teachers, lawyers, doctors, as well as political figures from the preceding Lon Noi regime — as well as their families and any other names they could get out of there victims through torture filled interrogations.

Walking through the prison was a sobering experience. We often experience genocide and horrific historical events through written recounts and statistics to drive home the scale and horror. But to be standing on the same tile in the tiny makeshift cells, looking at images of the same room and seeing the bloodstains from those who were tortured on the very same floor beneath our feet was an experience that is hard to put into words. The pictures of the victims that were scattered across the walls were particularly hard to see, the sad eyes of those awaiting death, the unknowing looks of the children who could not possibly understand what awaited them.

Before we left the museum we had the incredible opportunity to speak with two survivors from the prison. The two men were able to survive as they were used for their former trades in the prison, working for the Khmer Rouge as a mechanic and an artist respectively. They described their suffering, pain, and loss of families, the years spent watching countless others be whisked away, not knowing until their freedom of the tragic fates of nearly all those who passed through. And yet, here they were, in the very place of their trauma, devoting the late years of their lives to share their story and teach those who come to visit. To see them smile was a testament to the outlasting of good against evil.

Another incredibly impactful visit was to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh. While it was just one of over 300 killing fields spread throughout the country, Choeung Ek is notable for its size (containing over 129 mass graves) and its proximity to Phnom Penh. It was at this site that many of those who passed through the S21 Prison were murdered by the Khmer Rouge soldiers.

The fields themselves used to be an orchard of longan trees, used to grow the delicious lychee like fruit that we had been enjoying throughout our trip. During the genocide however, the orchard was replaced by mass graves and sites of murder. We walked around the site, learning the details of the horrific deaths, hearing about how the Khmer Rouge did not want to “waste bullets” on killing and instead beat the victims with gardening equipment and mechanical tools. Often these individuals were buried alive as they did not die from the beating, instead slowly suffocating in a pile of corpses. We stood next to a tree where babies were killed with brute force, and saw the large speakers which played music to mask the screams of the victims so farmers in the area didn’t know what was happening. At the end of our visit we paid respects at the large shrine which was built to properly honor the victims who were buried without proper ceremony. The elegant Buddhist style structure was stacked full with hundreds of skulls and other bones.

To say this site was disturbing would be an understatement. Confronted with the evidence of atrocities at our feet, it’s hard to even think about what it would have been like to have been there under different circumstances. Yet, one of the things that most stood out to me was something I noticed watching a video about the transformation of the killing fields into the museum. When it was discovered in 1980, the fields were a barren wasteland, the pale green grass the only life next to the remnants of the dead. When we were there, the fields were a luscious garden, shaded by large trees and signs of growing life in all directions. I was struck by ability of life to grow from such dark depths, and to rise into the light like the trees that stood around us.

Following these days focused on the history of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide, we spent a couple days exploring the city of Phnom Penh. Like the trees growing from the killing fields, it was impossible not to notice the vertical growth of the city. From the roof of our hostel, we could count more than 25 skyscrapers being built, and the amount of development throughout the city was astonishing. Though Vey informed us that much of this economic growth was in fact Chinese business people making joint ventures with local Cambodian business people, it seemed the city too was growing from the ashes.

Highlights from Phnom Penh included roaming the walking path along the Mekong River, visiting a local monastery, and shopping in the beautifully designed Central Market as well as the dense Russian Market. After five nights in the city we piled back in our trusty yellow bus and made our way north to Siem Reap.

Angkor Wat and Temple Exploration

After a long stretch in Vietnam where we slept in the same place for no more than two nights in a row, the five nights in Phnom Penh seemed like a long time. In Siem Reap, we would be staying in the same accommodation for 14 nights, our longest by far of the program. When living out of a backpack, we definitely savored the chance to settle in.

Though it’s home to only 1 million less people than Phnom Penh, Siem Reap has a a completely different feel than Phnom Penh. Due to the ordinance that no building can be taller than the tallest tower of Angkor Wat, and the agricultural network surrounding the city, Siem Reap was far from the metropolitan vertical expanse of Phnom Penh.

The first few days in the city were almost entirely dedicated to exploring the various temples of the ancient city of Angkor. We visited six different temples within a couple hours of Siem Reap, but I’ll focus on my favorites.

As I described at the beginning of this post, watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat was an incredible experience. Before the colors began to appear, we got out of the van and walked through the forest until we happened upon the temple in the dim pre-dawn light. We marveled at the giant structure, feeling as though we had discovered an abandoned masterpiece. After the light show, we walked throughout the massive temple and appreciated the beauty of the largest religious monument in the world. We followed Vey as he lead us around the perimeter, pointing out his favorite parts of the hundreds of feet of intricately carved bass reliefs which lined the walls. Given free time to explore on our own, I wandered the halls, sometimes finding myself completely alone in the ancient stone walkways. It seemed wrong to have so much freedom exploring such an important historical place.

While no others can stand up to the scale of Angkor Wat, the intricate carving in the pink sandstone of Banteay Srei certainly makes it an astonishing sight. The temple, built before Angkor Wat and funded privately by wealthy religious men, was designed and built by the most talented artists at the time, explaining the exceptional carvings. The unique and bright pink sandstone makes the work stand out when lit by the sun, furthering their beauty. The detailed restoration work left the temple nearly perfectly in place, taking away some of the imagination required to think about what it would have been like to walk the stone paths 1000 years ago.

Where Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei excel in their human created art, the spectacle of Ta Prohm is not so much in the architecture as in how nature has reclaimed the temple. Famous for its use in the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movie, this temple featured dozens of massive trees literally growing on top of the structure. The moss coated roofs, root entangled towers, and forest hidden exterior walls gave Ta Prohm a kind of forbidden feeling. The huge grounds were wide open to be explored, and I spent over an hour slipping through narrow passageways to appreciate the nooks and crannies of the gorgeous temple.

New Hope School and Water Filters: Our First Projects

After three days exploring the Angkor relics, our focus shifted from learning to teaching as we headed to the New Hope School for our very first project of the program. The school is a supplementary education center for kids from underprivileged families on the outskirts of the city, where english and math are emphasized to help with vocational opportunities later on in life. We had been told that our role when working with the school would be mostly helping out with manual labor and doing anything they needed help with around the grounds, with a chance to spend a little time in the classroom if the opportunity arose. And yet, after we arrived on day one and introduced ourselves to the director Mr. Prosh, he directed us to split up into four groups and walk into the classrooms where we quickly realized we would be the teachers for the day.

Coming up with lesson plans on the spot is not easy, especially for a group of 13 Americans who had never taught English in a foreign setting. We did our best to assess their level, drawing pictures on the board, testing their spelling, and asking them simple questions about themselves. We also had a great deal of fun with the New Hope students, breaking up our lessons with duck duck goose, tag, sharks and minnows, red light green light, and more. Though I can’t confidently say we taught them a whole lot during our three days at the school, watching both our ARCC students and the New Hope students laugh and smile as they ran around the school’s courtyard warmed my heart.

With sadness we said goodbye to our new friends at New Hope and switched gears to a very different kind of project. For the following five days, we worked to construct and install concrete water filters in nearby villages without clean water access. The greatest part of this project was getting to see the process from start to finish. We cleaned and built the molds, mixed and poured the concrete, removed and cleaned the finished filters, delivered them to the families, and finally installed them with the sediment and biosand that turns dirty water into clean. At the end of our project, we had built 20 brand new water filters and installed 12 that had previously been made. It was a nice change of pace to work with our hands and see the fruits of our labor, and even more of a treat to interact with the families in the village and take breaks from installing to play with the local children. We even got to meet the mayor of the village where our filters were being installed and appreciated his generosity in welcoming us.

With projects like these it’s hard to walk the line between feeling good about a tangible impact made and being self-congratulatory over a “life changing contribution.” We did not fool ourselves that this project could not have happened without us, and the evidence of former internationally donated plastic filters at some of the homes in the village was a good reminder that this “help” only goes so far for so long. That being said, seeing the 20 new filters at the end of our five days and watching the families learn how to use the filter, it is good to know that our efforts were not for nothing.

When the Job Gets in the Way of the Journey

I would be remiss if I did not include some of my internal thoughts during these three weeks in Cambodia. As I have alluded to in pervious entries, being an instructor on a program like this comes with its own difficulties, and in Cambodia we experiences just about every difficulty you could imagine.

In just three short weeks, Taya and I were thrown into countless situations that require management. We dealt with several bouts of student interpersonal conflict, some of them requiring mediated conversations, plans of action, and even a signed contract. We had three separate hospital visits, and though none were especially serious, all required between 3-6 hours in foreign hospitals, some of which were open air emergency rooms filled to the brim with ailing patients sharing beds. We had students break ARCC policies, requiring investigative interviews, bag searches, and parent contact. We had dozens of mental health episodes, from panic attacks to withdrawn behavior, with one student ultimately going home due to an escalation of her illness. There was a week and a half period where we were calling the ARCC office 1-2 times each day.

In short, it was relentless, and every time we thought we were building some positive momentum with the group something else came up that required our attention and time. Despite the amazing experiences we were having every day, I was unable to fully be present in Cambodia due to my mind racing through the never ending issues we were encountering. To be traveling and living in a part of the world I had been wanting to explore for quite some time, and not be able to fully experience let alone enjoy it was a frustrating experience. However, I am aware that it is my job to manage these circumstances, and I am proud of how Taya and I handled the rough hand we were dealt. Though it may not have been the semester I envisioned, I have learned so much from it already and will no doubt continue to do so.

For now, as we transition to Thailand, I am hopeful that our third country can serve as a fresh start and be a positive experience for us all. I look forward to updating again soon!

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