It wasn’t until I was on the road out of Phnom Penh that my experience there really began to dawn on me; and it wouldn’t be until I left Cambodia later that week that the significance of my time in the country would begin to sink in.
When I first arrived in the Cambodian capital, fresh off the back of ten months in Wellington, I went for a walk around the streets, down a couple of alleys and backroads, making for the occasional landmark in the distance. It was on this first casual walk through the city that I began to feel an unnamed and unidentifiable gnawing sense of unease. Though I could not yet put my finger on it, it was as real as the tuktuk-polluted air I was breathing and the hot sun warming my skin. There was something in the corner of my eye, but whenever I turned to look at it – it was gone. It was as if the streets were filled with a piercing howl on mute.
If I hadn’t known any of the history of this country, I feel I would’ve suspected something terrible had happened fairly recently anyway. Though, those suspicions would’ve been woefully short of the imagination, sheer depravity, and total bizarre horror required to be anywhere near the truth of what had happened on these streets just 40 years prior to me walking them.
Knowing the history, or at least thinking I knew it, helped me understand why this looming shadow cooled the otherwise stifling hot urban hustle. Scooters and trucks, street food, the glaring sun, the crowds, the rush of South East Asian sprawling chaos – all the energies were there, and yet; an abject silence echoed in the streets of Phnom Penh.
Maybe I was just imagining it.
I passed gorgeous Buddhist temples and saw monks praying in silence. Candles burnt. Kids played tag as their parents cooked food. A couple of dogs lay dead in the street. Mechanics fixed the endless supply of motorbike engines in an endless supply of soot-covered workshops. People sat on the streets and smoked cigarettes. Fruit hung outside of stores. Some toddlers sat naked on busted concrete sidewalks. Trash was strewn so completely everywhere. Poverty and life mixed in hot sun. Thousands of scooters zoomed down long French avenues. The French were here once, not so long ago.
At some point on this first day, I met my buddy Jack who I had first met in Mexico City a year ago. We looked at each other with those same cool grins, as if to say, “Here we go again.” I was out of practice, I’d forgotten how to cross the road in a city so heaving in motion, so it was good to see a friendly face.
Over the next couple of days, Jack and I explored the city, with its temples and rivers and monuments, its people, food, the streets, bars, cafes, the traffic, the suffocating fumes of a million scooters all needing an oil change. I was finding my feet again; this is how you see the world. After ten months in Wellington, I had finally came back to life.
Then we visited the outskirts of the city. We made the unavoidable trip. I’d heard of the killing fields, I had a basic idea of who Pol Pot was, and I even knew a tiny bit about the Khmer Rouge, or so I thought.
Upon arriving at Choeung Ek, about a half hour tuktuk ride out of the city, I began walking towards a large tower in the distance. I saw other people walking towards it, so I thought nothing of it, it sort of looked like another temple, the kind I’d seen dotting many horizons. However, it wasn’t until I got closer to it that I saw them, when I was in the shade of them; the tower was full of human skulls. Hollow sockets of white bone staring back at me – thousands and thousands of them. I had to crane my neck back to see the top row of dead faces. The silent piercing howl coming into pitch, like a screech.
Walking around the fields themselves; the green fields were broken into ripples, waves, bumps in the grass made by mass graves, pits where countless lives were ended with hammers, axes, iron ox-cart axles, knives, shovels, hoes, and the razor sharp edges of the nearby trees. One tree, ‘the killing tree’, was used to smash babies against until they were dead. The executioners would simply hold them by a limb and bash them against the trunk. I stood underneath this tree and looked up at its leaves, watching the sunlight pass through them, unsure what to think. I walked around some more. The sun was shining, there was a lake nearby. It was a nice place, peaceful with farmlands and wetlands – but it was once the scene of misery and despair. You have to be careful walking in a place like this, even after the horror is over, not just because of the victims’ clothes and bones still on the ground, but because you have to make sure the ill feeling doesn’t snag inside you and linger, that it doesn’t attach itself to you, that you can walk away from it.
A man was begging behind a barbed wire fence by the lake. How did he get there? How did any of these people get to this calm and scenic and otherwise normal piece of countryside? The answer, as I would discover, is one of the most terrifying, absurd, insane, and dramatic human occurrences in history.
Saloth Sar, who had changed his name to Pol Pot, was like a night animal afraid of the light and kept such a low profile that not even his own family knew who this ‘Pol Pot’ was and were themselves subjugated to his communist party’s rule, the Khmer Rouge. He unleashed something so unusual and horrible, a new term had to be invented to describe it: ‘auto-genocide’; the genocide of a people by itself. Of all the events of the 20th century, this one manages to go beyond. Why would an ancient culture, a nation of millions, try to commit suicide? Why would people impose an apocalypse on themselves in such a complete and degrading way?
The Khmer Rouge referred to themselves as ‘Angkar’ (‘The Organization’). To simplify the history of how the Organization took control of Cambodia is to do a great disservice to the truth, but in essence: colonialism, communism, the Cold War, a proxy war, a civil war, and the deception of Pol Pot came together in 1975 to create a strange manifestation of absolute human misery. The Organization wanted a purely agrarian Cambodia where communes would be self-sufficient. Anything that threatened this was to be eradicated.
Anyone with a high school education was massacred, hacked, beaten, butchered; all the students, all the doctors, all the artists, all the engineers, all the nurses, all the teachers, all the scientists, all the monks, all the historians, all the accountants, all the politicians, anyone, anyone, who showed an interest in living in a more complex society, anyone with soft hands, anyone with glasses – auto-genocide, the suicide of a nation, the erasing of a people by themselves.
Thinking too much was outlawed. Family life was outlawed. The new family was the Organization. The citizens of Phnom Penh and the other urban centres had been driven into the countryside and were forced to farm. Farming was the only acceptable occupation now and because modern technology was considered evil, all the farming had to be done with basic equipment. The city dwellers didn’t know how to farm, least of all like degraded beasts, dragging ploughs across fields all day, everyday.
Thousands were worked to death. Thousands starved. Disease was rampant, but doctors were killed and medicine was not consistent with the ‘self-sufficiency’ manifesto of the Organization. Millions, between 25% and 30% of Cambodia, would not survive this insane incarnation of hell. Children who were young enough not to recollect too strongly how things had once been, in other words they were immune to so-called ‘memory sickness’, were ripped from their parents and turned into the brainwashed guards, torturers, and murderers of the Organization.
To quote the film The Killing Fields, “God is dead.”
One of the few buildings in Phnom Penh that still had people inside it was an old high school. It wasn’t a high school anymore, however, it was S-21; a torture and execution centre. It’s where Jack and I visited after the killing fields. It’s a museum now. It’s the darkest place on earth I’ve ever stood.
I read accounts of this place as I walked its rooms. I stood in a tiny cell and felt an awful pressure on my chest. I had to step out of the cell. Then I saw blood on the floor. There were rooms full of thousands of faces, photographs of the victims. I was familiar with only one, I had seen it before. I remembered his eyes.
The torture was extreme in this place. People lost names and became only numbers. Their number was decided upon based on their position shackled to an iron bar. The bar held four people, so you were one, two, three, or four. Wearing only a loin cloth and shackled to this bar with three other people, you had to lie down in silence on the floor in a room full of other four sets of people on the floor until it was your turn to be tortured. If you spoke or moved or your shackle made a noise while you waited, you would be beaten. The torture was to force an admission of your crimes against the Organization. It was sadistic. If you passed out from the pain, your face was submerged in human shit until you woke up, then you would be tortured some more. Once you made your confession, you would be sent to the killing fields. You were not allowed to cry or speak or scream.
But of course they cried. Of course they screamed. Leaving this place, I could finally hear the howls of agony of this city’s streets in full volume. Memory sickness. I finally understood why it had felt like so many people were in a state of PTSD. I understood why it felt like a place where people had gathered after an apocalypse – because it is. Everyone over 40 years old was there. Most are victims. Some are guilty. The Khmer Rouge regime only ended when it provoked Vietnam into invading it in 1979. However, Pol Pot escaped to the jungle and never faced justice. Before he died in 1998, he claimed that he was one of the most misunderstood people in history.
Siem Reap was the exact opposite experience to Phnom Penh. After making the six hour drive from the capital through the flat green countryside to Siem Reap, I was immediately struck by how much brighter life felt here. It’s a smaller place, yet no less hectic. However, the light just seemed brighter, the air just seemed warmer, the pace felt a little slower, the trees looked a little greener, the people a little happier.
The contrast was so clear that I came to appreciate my time in Phnom Penh for what it had been. My time in Siem Reap would soon come to make me speechless, as the depth of what my Cambodian journey meant for me on a personal level became apparent. I was halfway to Vietnam when it hit me.
Walking through Siem Reap, I felt at home along the long avenues lined with tall trees. The French influence made me reminisce of New Orleans; that muggy, swampy fauna and those long streets of trees and romantic architecture. The ruins of Angkor, the ancient capital of the great Khmer Empire, were nearby and their presence attracted tourists like me in droves. Money, opportunity, and energy were pouring into Siem Reap. The long deceased ancestors of this devastated country were doing their best to help it come back to life. It’s a good place.
Jack and I checked out the markets (and ate scorpions and tarantulas!) and visited the local bars and nightlife. Bustling and frantic – yet the ease of life returning.
Over the next few days, we visited Angkor. Temples so majestic and intricate, wonderful and awesome, grand monuments to enlightenment and peace, surrounded by the thick green jungle humming with life and birdsong. The sun aged the stone as the jungle tried to reclaim it, but the figures of wisdom stood tall. Walls and corridors engraved in minute detail of patterns and story. The famous Angkor Wat, the reclusive and exquisite Ta Prohm, and the still beating heart of Cambodia – Bayon. At Bayon, enormous faces with calm smiles tower over the jungle canopy and point in the four directions of the earth, radiating peace and gentleness outwards. The faces seem so quietly certain that all can be overcome and everything, in the long end of time, will be alright.
I was speechless.
To see places of such sweeping and peaceful grandeur so soon after seeing the darkness I had seen in Phnom Penh was one of the most moving experiences of my entire life. The two halves of mankind; one presented in its tedious banality, only to be obliterated by the other, in all its endless love, light, truth, and goodness.
I was humbled by this experience of the Cambodian nation, traveling as I had down the road between these two opposite halves of human nature. I was honoured to have this experience. I felt privileged and eternally grateful.
I try not to be self-centered as I travel from place to place, but I couldn’t help it on this occasion. This experience forced me to reflect inwards and consider what had just been shown to me. You see, I tried to kill myself once. July 7th, 2009. I was 21 years old. I don’t talk about it often, but I think about it daily. Sometimes I write about it. Anyway, thankfully, I’m still here. Thankful is how I feel most of the time, but every now and then that nagging voice inside me makes itself known. I think this is why Cambodia shook me so deeply and why it’s taken me some weeks to write about. It was like visiting my own mind, my mind on a countrywide scale, with the pointless darkness in one place and the overwhelming light in another. It helped me reach the place of permanent light. Standing in Bayon, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt free of the darkness, at last.
As I say, I usually try to shy away from this level of self-centeredness, but my short week in Cambodia was the single most significant spiritual journey I’ve ever been on.
By comparison to Cambodia, my time in Vietnam was a lot simpler. This is not to say it wasn’t interesting and exciting and wonderful, it was all of those things, but what happened to me in Cambodia is not something that could be repeated. Vietnam was a lot more relaxed. I had been through the emotional and spiritual gauntlet, so I spent a lot of time in my first Vietnamese stop, the coastal city of Nha Trang, simply enjoying life.
Jack and I had met a Vietnamese girl in Cambodia. She let us stay with her at her grandmother’s house in Cam Ranh. The three of us then booked a room in the tallest building in Nha Trang, overlooking the beach and distant curl of the blue horizon. I swam a lot in the ocean. I ran to the great white Buddha that watches over the city. I ate good food. I even met another cool Vietnamese girl, she showed me a good time. Rooftop bars, early morning sunrises, swimming in the South China Sea – Nha Trang was like a wonderful dream, the kind you try desperately to return to after you’ve woken up slightly and can feel it slipping away.
Nha Trang’s dreamlike quality is made so by a couple of really cool and rather unique features. Firstly, being a communist country, there’s the red flags of the defunct Soviet Union lining the streets, that crimson banner with the golden hammer and sickle. To add to this, there are flights direct from Moscow, so the entire city is full of Russian tourists. I never saw any Americans. It all combines to create an illusion that you’ve stepped into an alternate timeline where the Soviets won the Cold War. It’s totally fucking badass.
The other thing that makes Nha Trang not seem real is Vinpearl in the distance. Built on one of the islands in the distance, Vinpearl is a resort/tourist extravaganza. With a massive sign in the hills reading ‘VINPEARL’, an amazing ocean-crossing gondola connecting it to the mainland, several towering castle buildings, and a ferris wheel off to one side – it simply looks like a fantasy out at sea. Then at nighttime the lighting of it just renders the whole place unimaginably magic, like no place that can exist in the real world. All the while, you’re eating dinner on the warm sands of the mainland, looking out at a dream tethered to a fantasy.
HO CHI MINH CITY.
My last stop. Jack and I had parted ways in Nha Trang. Our paths will cross again. When and where? Who knows, but it’ll happen. I now understand his role in my life; he’s how I know I’ve been caught up again in that space where one truly comes to life – where real life becomes the dream, the mask, the thing that isn’t real, and the dream becomes what you’re living.
I wasn’t long in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon. Three nights. I ran a lot, looping around this noisy place, along the rivers, over bridges, around parks, ducking and weaving between the traffic which flows like a river of scooters. Caught up with an old friend from Wellington too. I visited the war museum but what comment on the war can I possibly make that you haven’t already heard?
I liked this city. I liked this country. I need to come back someday and see more of it. It has a lot of charm. So does Saigon. It’s like a dirty Tokyo. Tokyo with a bit of edge. And a shit load of scooters.