Cambodia: Rice, Ruins, and the Khmer Rouge

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I went to the Killing Fields, which was one of many places the regime used for mass executions.

By Maria Anderson, EDN 

Editor’s note: Maria recently traveled from Eugene to Cambodia. We asked her to write a travel essay on her experience. The following is her story. Tomorrow EDN will feature a photo essay from Maria’s travels.

Siem Reap

King by king the place changed and grew into the largest complex of Hindu temples in the world.

It’s strange to think of entering countries on wheels, but this was how I arrived in Cambodia, bussing in from Bangkok after a grueling transpacific flight. My first sampling of Cambodian cuisine was grasshoppers roasted roadside. Despite legs and wings, which seemed to promise a foreign texture, they tasted like anything would cooked in oil: good. Something else more familiar than I expected was the weather. Monsoon season in Cambodia feels a lot like a Eugene winter.

After the grasshoppers, my first stop was Siem Reap. The city is a sort of base camp from which visitors depart by tuk-tuk to explore the Angkor temples and return at nightfall to drink fifty-cent beers. Centuries ago, the region housed the powerful Khmer Empire. The empire controlled parts of what is now Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malasia, and Burma from the 9th to the 13th century. Land was passed back and forth through bloody wars, and king by king the place changed and grew into the largest complex of Hindu temples in the world. The empire’s immense wealth is quickly apparent. You’ve probably heard of Angkor Wat, which is the massive three-tiered pyramid topped by five towers and surrounded by a large moat. Angkor Wat is also said to be the world’s largest religious monument. The empire’s official religions were Hinduism and Mayahana Buddhism until Theravada Buddhism was introduced from Sri Lanka.

In Siem Reap the hostel hooked me up with a tuk-tuk driver named Mr. Pheak (pronounced Feck). There were Batman themed tuk-tuks, Macintosh tuk-tuks, and tuk-tuks lit up like a terrible club’s VIP room. My tuk-tuk was none of these things. Over the next four days, I learned a lot from Mr. Pheak in the drives between temples. When he was in university, he wanted to be either a journalist or a tour guide. His mom died, and there was no longer money for school, so he became a tuk-tuk driver and fell in love. In Cambodia, it is illegal to live with your girlfriend, and one day the police came to his house and brought him to the station for questioning. They asked if he was raping her, and he said no. They also questioned his girlfriend.

After that, he needed to marry her if they wanted to continue living together. This was a problem because the dowry he had to pay her parents was $1,500. His wife at the time was making $50 per month as a receptionist. I don’t know how much Mr. Pheak makes tuk-tuking. He ended up borrowing the money from a loan shark, plus money for a wedding. “There were 600 people at my wedding party, my family, her family came from the villages, everyone comes,” he said. He did not seem too upset by this. “It is two years later and I am still paying off my wedding.”

Picture the state of Oklahoma. Then imagine packing into those cotton fields over 1,000 temples, shrines, and pagodas.

The temples themselves are quite lavish, and made it easy to picture Mr. Pheak having 600 people over to ring in his nuptials. It is hard to appreciate the scale of these structures until you’re wandering lost through an ancient university, or sitting at the edge of the monstrous pool in front of Angkor Wat. Picture the state of Oklahoma. Then imagine packing into those cotton fields over 1,000 temples, shrines, and pagodas. This is what Cambodia is like.

It is strange to think that rulers so many centuries ago created these, which are now one of Cambodia’s main tourist attractions and bring in a significant amount of money to the country. There is Ta Prohm, which was left the way it was found, with strangler figs and silk-cotton trees growing from the walls and the jungle creeping in on all sides. This temple was also used as a location for Tomb Raider, and houses a strange carving that looks like a stegosaurus. Another temple contains an unusual carving of Ganesh riding his own trunk, which curls below him and turns into a horse.

Monks in orange robes and children selling things wander through. When I told one girl I did not have any money, she said, “Yes you do, you have three or four thousand dollars.”

Battambang

After Siem Reap I bussed to Battambang, a calmer city. Here I had a few great meals, which cost about $2.50: coconut curried fish, peppered beef Lok Lak, and green mango salad with breaded prawns. Rice accompanies nearly every meal, even breakfast. Baguettes are a strange thing to see in Asia and are a common starch in Cambodia, a remnant of French colonization in 1860. Here I tasted some questionable wine and a nostril-cleansing ginger drink at a winery, sipped from coconuts hacked apart by grandmothers with machetes, and visited the Bat Cave, where millions of bats wake up and stream out from the cave every night to hunt down mosquitos in the rice paddies.

Many kids from poor families attend school, he said, but eventually drop out because they don’t have money to buy food or purified water.

In Battambang the hostel owner, also a law professor at the university, spoke to us about his father’s death during the Khmer Rouge Regime. His father had been a professor as well, and was soon killed. Their family had been very wealthy, but lost everything when Phnom Penh was emptied. As a kid he sold cake in the street after school for food money.

Many kids from poor families attend school, he said, but eventually drop out because they don’t have money to buy food or purified water. He was also jailed three times for learning English when this was still illegal, but continued going anyway. His mother always stressed that education was something no one could take away from you.

Phnom Penh

Those visiting Cambodia bear witness to two aspects of the country’s history: the temples, and the aftereffects of the Khmer Rouge. As a tourist, I made sure to eat my fill of fruits, the spikiest, the pinkest, the strangest. I ate a lot of amok, the traditional fish curry, doubled up on baguettes at breakfast, sampled eggs the size of a pinky finger from mysterious birds. I went slowly through the temples, trying to take in the carvings while surrounded by snap-happy tourists with cameras twice the size of their Lonely Planets.

What I was really interested to see, though, was how people were healing from the Khmer Rouge era, and what exactly had gone so wrong in such a joyful and beautiful place.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire city of Phnom Penh, and began killing anyone with an education.

The Khmer Rouge started as a guerilla group with the goal of converting the country into a Communist, agrarian society. They killed roughly 2 million Cambodians in the process. Many thousands more died from starvation and disease when Khmer Rouge traded rice they grew for weapons. Children and babies were not spared, because regime leaders believed they might grow up and take revenge. This was from 1975 to 1979, which means many of the people I saw over age 40 had experienced the terror firsthand. They explained it as this: they were creating a classless society, with no personal property, no rich people or poor people.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire city of Phnom Penh, and began killing anyone with an education. Artists, lawyers, doctors, musicians, or even those wearing glasses were tracked down and killed. The rest of the city was sent to various small villages across the country to begin the manual labor required to create this new agrarian society the regime believed Cambodia needed.

The movement’s leader was a man named Pol Pot, and he was ruthless in eliminating anyone he perceived as a threat to his power. His soldiers were kids he found in the country, many of whom felt wronged by people living more comfortable, privileged lives in the capital. They defaced temples and destroyed universities, hospitals, shops, and government buildings. Imagine one in four people in your home country being killed. This is what happened here.

I went to the Killing Fields, which was one of many places the regime used for mass executions.

I went to the Killing Fields, which was one of many places the regime used for mass executions. Many people were killed with pickaxes or other tools to save bullets. Most unsettling was the victims’ clothing, which could be seen here and there decaying in the ground. In monsoon season, the clothes continually rise to the surface and are collected every few months.

Tuol Sleng, known as S-21, is another place I visited. This was a high school the Khmer Rouge converted into one of many secret torture facilities. It is strange to think that some methods of torture used here, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, are similar to those the U.S. practices in Guantanamo Prison and elsewhere. Currently trials are underway for leaders of the Khmer Rouge who are still alive, though many wonder how these trials will benefit the people of Cambodia.

Of course, there is much more to Cambodia than the temples and the Khmer Rouge. There is food, there is family, there are the ways people go about learning to be satisfied with what life has dealt them so far. In his book A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut writes, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”

This is where Cambodians have Americans beat, hands down. I’m not saying everyone is content with where they are at in life. But if you look around, you’ll notice more murmuring, exclaiming, and enjoying of things as small as breakfast than you’d see on a typical walk around a city in the states.

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