“Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.” – Joseph Mussomeli, former US Ambassador to Cambodia
My relationship with Cambodia bears a striking resemblance to a passionate but wildly insecure romance. One where I find myself falling for someone with such an uncertain future that I become consumed with seeing, touching, tasting every facet of them out of fear that they might disappear in an instant. Like a lovesick fool, as much as I predict the impending destruction, I allow myself to fall deeper and deeper.
I am one of the millions of people who has fallen in love with Cambodia. Yet every day that I spend here, it breaks my heart.
This is how.
During the Buddhist calendar’s full moon, people throughout Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar escape the cities and head to their hometowns to celebrate the beginning of a new year and the possibilities it brings.
Fortuitously I found myself spending it in Cambodia between Koh Rong and Otres with spectacularly kind locals, dancing in circles to foreign music, having talcum powder thrown in my face, and escaping the water balloon attacks of children. The wholesome joy that they emanate in each of these acts is positively contagious and the sentiment, letting go of past pains and remaining open to new light, is inspiring.
The morning following the end of the New Year celebrations a Khmer woman staying at my guesthouse brought some traditional sweets made of ground sticky rice, coconut, and palm sugar steamed inside of a banana leaf for us as a gift. Smiling, she handed me one and told me that eating these treats reminds her of surviving on palm sugar while in the work camps instated by the Khmer Rouge.
“No food, no food, nothing, so I eat palm sugar. Good for the eyes. You see I don’t wear glasses!”
She talks about searching for palm sugar during Pol Pot’s horrific dictatorship with the casual tone one might use to describe hunting for eggs on Easter. I simply listen.
Over the next hour she describes losing her husband, her two-year-old daughter, and her newborn baby to starvation under the Khmer Rouge when she was just 20 years old.
She tells me she was captured once for stealing some rice to feed her baby but managed to escape; everyone else that evening was killed. Her only motivation to survive was knowing her baby was waiting for her at home.
She recants returning to Phnom Penh once Vietnam invaded, full of hope that she might reunite with her relatives. Then quickly discovering that her parents and all of her siblings had already been killed.
She says she felt so depressed and so alone.
I can tell she has told this story many times. It flows with distance and detachment. I try to achieve the impossible feat of understanding what she endured. Instead I continue with my leisurely day of swimming and sunbathing.
At sunset she finds me on my beach lounger and insists I indulge in some sticky rice candies rolled in sesame seeds she has brought me.
She begins to tell me the same stories again. And again. It reminds me of how each time I visit my Grandmother she tells the same stories about my Grandfather as if by retelling them he might somehow come back to life.
But each time this woman retells her stories, she reveals more details. She begins to attach to them. She begins to feel them. She talks about her daughter begging her for food. “Mommy I’m hungry,” she would say.
She recalls waking up next to her husband and realizing that he would not be waking up that day then floating his body in a boat down the river. She describes digging a grave for her four-month-old baby and burying him in the woods.
As strong as I want to be for her, eventually we both cry.
She admits that in her quiet moments in bed at night she remains haunted by these memories as much as she wants to see the beauty in her present life. She tells me that every time she sees a woman or a man of a certain age she sees her children in their eyes.
I hold her hand and we watch a dazzling sunset, witnessing the incredible capacity of life to bring such beauty and such pain.
I wish I could tell you that her story was a shock. The unfortunate reality is that almost every person who lived during the years 1975 to 1979 perished in a similar way. Even more unfortunate are the lasting effects of this unbearable trauma.
I read recently in Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley that studies in California with Khmer refugees following the genocide suggest that two thirds of subjects suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Considering the atrocities that took place, I’m inclined to assume that number is closer to one hundred percent of victims, former Khmer Rouge soldiers included. Most disturbingly of all this study deduced that children born after their parents had fled Cambodia, in first world countries, had actually inherited PTSD.
Generally I find Khmers to be the kindest, most generous, and most welcoming people I’ve ever known. They appear to savor the moment, not sweat the small stuff, and find joy in the little things. But there are moments when I see dark pain behind the friendly exterior; even moments when I see their eyes glass over with hardened distance.
This striking contrast between lightness and weight has been the prevailing theme throughout my travels in Cambodia.
Swimming in the crystalline waters of one of Cambodia’s many beautiful undeveloped islands I’m constantly reminded of the impending development plans by foreign bazillionaires. Airports, casinos, and resorts will all make their way to these paradise islands, snuffing out the magic and replacing it with so called comfort.
The government gets a hefty payout and the people of Cambodia seem to get nothing. Basic necessities like healthcare, education, and proper waste management don’t seem to be high on the agenda. It’s not uncommon for even five star resorts to lose electricity daily or occasionally smell of sewage. Frankly, there’s no infrastructure to support this kind of development, just a greedy government looking to make a buck no matter the long-term cost.
I saw how a distasteful pocketbook can destroy a once natural paradise on Bokor Mountain, a stunning national park, which happens to have a casino at its top. We managed to find our own lookout above a mist-covered canopy where we could still hear the sounds of the birds and feel the energy of the jungle. I wonder how much longer that will last.
This corrupt government, still run by former Khmer Rogue, seems to disrespect its natural surroundings as much as it does its cultural monuments.
I hear that the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, one of the most incredible, spiritual places I have ever visited remains dangerously at risk of being destroyed by under regulated tourism. In fact the awesomely eerie smiling faces at Bayon are actually sinking into the ground because of the many hotels in Siem Reap that use groundwater for their facilities.
UNESCO representatives have warned Cambodia for years that the magnitude of tourism to Angkor Wat each year presents considerable risk of irreparably damaging the structures. I wonder whose pocket my $40 admission ticket made its way into.
Nearly every tourist in Phnom Penh makes sure to visit The Killing Fields, a memorial site for those who perished under the Khmer Rouge, which was a mass murder site of tens of thousands of Khmers. The memorial is upsetting, moving, and honorable of the culture and its past. Visiting an expensive shooting range nearby is suggested by tuk tuks and tour companies as a follow up activity. Yes please, after hearing about the unjust murders of an entire generation of people I’d like to go and shoot a gun.
But some tourists actually do. Others go and visit orphanages, which consequently have become tourist attractions, encouraging poor families to send their children to live there.
To my surprise many of the expats I met during my travels, and nearly all of the backpackers, were existing on some type of substance from dawn until well…dawn the next day. Did they consider Cambodia to simply be a cheap and easy place to get wasted?
And somehow, something impossible for me to comprehend is that there are Westerners who come to this beautiful country for no other reason than to pay for sex from desperate people. Often they choose children who were sold by their own parents.
By stark contrast there are hundreds of NGOs throughout the country, feeding, housing, educating, and empowering the people whose government seems to have forgotten them.
Clearly Cambodia is a country that some people love and others selfishly rape.
I see an elite few become richer as tourism in Cambodia grows and every inch of land is sold to an eager investor. Meanwhile I have met some of the most privileged Khmers, those with youth, education and good health, who still must work more than three jobs to support themselves and their parents.
With this new awareness that Cambodia has offered me, I find myself heartbroken perhaps most of all, over my constant questioning of so many of my personal affirmations.
If we actually live in a world of absolute abundance, how can so many people starve? How can I preach that everything happens for a reason when people have suffered genocide and unspeakable loss? If all humans are capable of manifesting their dreams, how can so many people live in poverty, as victims to their own government, despite a rise in education empowering them to do more?
I wonder if my beliefs about the magic of the universe only apply to those with enough privilege to not wonder or worry how tomorrow they will eat.
These are questions that I wish I had the answers to. For now I leave Cambodia equally touched as I am torn. Knowing that our intense relationship has most definitely not yet reached its end.