Looking back at our itinerary for Cambodia, I have to laugh. It seems that we were fighting for the record of world’s-most-crazy-whirlwind-trip-of-Cambodia-EVER.
We arrived early Saturday morning, having caught a taxi for the airport at 3:30 a.m. Immediately upon arrival, we rented motorbikes and drove the 350 kilometers from Siem Reap to Phnom Pehn. It ended up taking us 12 hours. Sunday, we spent the entire day at Angkor Wat and the other temples in the same, enormous complex. They were absolutely beautiful – you can check out the photos here.
The night was spent at the night market, and we went to bed on the early side to drive all the way back to Phnom Pehn on Monday. Motorbike troubles galore riddled our trips both ways. Though frustrating, they provided us with a neat opportunity to meet the wonderful people in the villages along the way and to see the honest culture away from tourist attractions.
Tuesday morning, we woke up early to visit two of the lasting reminders of the genocide in Cambodia: the school-turned-prison where hundreds of people were retained and tortured, and the killing fields where they were taken to be murdered. Both were raw, real, moving. Cambodia has done an incredible job of making their history accessible without making it seem like a ploy to draw in tourists.
I was absolutely heart-broken by what I learned. Once again, though, the hope of this country amazed me.
I could tell you story after story about different incredible people that I met, but I will finish with just one here.
Mr. Chum Mey was a sweet, friendly old man at the prison grounds who was eager to answer questions and talk cheerfully with visitors.
Through our conversation, I found out that he was one of only seven people that survived his time in this awful place. As a former mechanic, his skills had been useful to the oppressors. After 12 days of torture, he was approached and asked if he would be able to help fix the typewriter.
The goal in Cambodia was to create a self-sufficient, equal, government-following society. In order to establish this, they attempted to kill off everyone educated and all those that had been “influenced by foreigners.
Several slogans from the leaders at the time are as follows:
“You must rip the grass out by it’s roots.”
(Following this philosophy, all babies and children were killed as well.)
“Better to kill an innocent than to miss one who is guilty.”
In order to justify their actions, they tortured people into forced confessions of things that they had never even heard of. They needed the typewriter to document these confessions.
And so, Mr. Chum Mey was spared.
Now, he is one of the two still-living survivors of Toul Sleng Prison.
I asked him if it was hard to be back. He told me that it sometimes was, but that he had forgiven the people who held him captive there. As I listened in amazement, he explained to me that they were really victims, as well. They had been forced into the things that they had done, and who was he to say that he might not have done the same?
What an absolutely incredible picture of selflessness and forgiveness this man is.
This is the heart of Cambodia that I saw over and over again. It is so clear that they are focused not on revenge and the wrongs that had been done, but instead on creating a brighter future for their country.