As I spend my last day in Cambodia, I think back to my travels here over the last four weeks. It has been a lesson in luck, loss and life. This was my first time in the country and my first time learning about it's tumultuous history. I travelled with my parents for two weeks and then on my own for another two weeks. I am fortunate that my parents are enjoying their retirement and were able to travel a great distance to share such a memorable experience with me. Together, we saw all the high points of the country including it's crown jewel - Angkor Wat.
Unlike us, many Cambodians will never see these magnificent ruins. Lee, who painted my nails on the beach, will never even dream of leaving Sihanoukville. Like Lawy, the 17 year old bartender, she will never finish school. In stark contrast, I will finish my Masters while I travel the world. As I sit in a café reading a book about Cambodia’s violent past, the old woman serving me actually had to survive this tragic history. While I consider where I would like to live next, many Cambodians have no choice but to live on dirt floors, without electricity or safe drinking water. It is not that my way of life is better but it is hard to deny that I am lucky for I have been afforded opportunities that they will never know.
One of the main reasons why I feel so lucky to have been born in Canada is that I have never and most certainly will never experience the kind of loss that Cambodians did between the years of 1975 and 1979. Communist dictator Pol Pot wanted to follow in the footsteps of Mao Zedong, reverse any modern development in Cambodia, and create an obedient agrarian society. To achieve this, his Khmer Rouge drove people out of the cities and into rural Cambodia. Anyone who had been associated with the previous government, was educated, or even wore glasses, was found and executed. Over the course of four years, Pol Pot would set up work camps to fund his purchasing of arms from China. Children were sent to re-education camps or were taken in the dead of night to service Khmer soldiers. It was rare that they ever returned. Pol Pot’s paranoia would lead his army to eventually kill 25% of the population.
One of the strangest elements of these killings was the orderly manner in which they were done. For example, “confessions” were documented in order to give legitimacy to the execution. Somehow it didn’t matter that these confessions were achieved through unspeakable methods of torture. One might think that death would be a welcome escape from the horror of life but death did not come quickly. Since bullets were too expensive, the Khmer Rouge killed with hammers, farm tools, and knives.
In many cases, they simply left people to starve. The Killing Fields (a mass grave) and Camp 21 (once a secret a genocide camp) bare eerie resemblance to those of the Holocaust. As you walk around these sites, the same question surfaces again and again. How could this have happened so recently? I never found the answer. Finally, in 2007, an international court begin prosecuting those responsible within the Khmer Rouge. To my outrage, Pol Pot lived a long life and died before ever stepping into a courtroom.
In contrast, democracy is guaranteed and governments change peacefully in Canada. My concerns about Trudeau’s spending seem trivial when compared to the fear that my former political colleagues could be executed. Instead, many of us are happily enjoying a break from politics. While our Prime Minister takes selfies, the Cambodian Prime Minister took to Facebook yesterday to highlight Mine Awareness Day. After all, landmines remain a leading cause of death in Cambodia.
While I toured the country, I read “First They Killed My Father” - a true story told from the perspective of Luong who was five years old when the Khmer Rouge drove her family from their home in Phnom Penh. They walked for days to find refuge. In contrast, just a few weeks ago my parents and I paid a paltry $40 for a taxi to drive the three of us four hours. While Luong walked barefoot and covered her nose when she passed dead bodies, we complained about how often the taxi driver honked his horn. As I read Luong’s story, I found myself growing bored of what seemed to be a laundry list of horrible events. How could I feel this way? After all, this wasn’t fiction. This was her life. And Luong’s experience was the experience of so many others. She was fortunate enough to survive and be able to tell it. The least I could do was read it without becoming bored.
Forty years later, you can still see the deep scars on Cambodia. There are many disability centres, orphanages and charities. Beggars are usually missing a limb or several thanks to the landmines or Khmer Rouge. Cambodia’s population is relatively young given so many adults were killed in the late 70’s. For those four years of horror, few women gave birth. If they were able to conceive, it was still unlikely that they were healthy enough to nurse. It doesn't matter where you go - Siem Reap, Battambong, Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville - it is difficult to not see the poverty. The fact that Cambodia has adopted the American currency says a lot about the value of their own. This seems so strange to me as currency is part of a nation’s identity.
For four weeks, I enjoyed learning their history, was impressed by their historic sites, and loved their beautiful beaches. But most of all, I appreciated the lesson in luck, loss and life.