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Cambodia’s Ruins

Cambodia’s Ruins

It’s strange how you can drive for five hours and be in a completely different place. A little under a week ago, we trekked through Vietnam and into Cambodia on a chartered bus. Luckily, the program reserved two seats for each of us since we are generally larger than the Vietnamese. I found the bus to be comfortable, although sleeping was not an option (and really isn’t an option on any road trips in East Asia) because the roads are incredibly bumpy. Yahoo for developing country roads! When we got to Cambodia, we checked into the hotel and almost immediately went to our first historical site, a school-turned into a prison during the Khmer rouge rule. Cambodian people were tortured in order to get information of the whereabouts of their friends/relatives (simply for the sake of killing them, too). The Khmer rouge completely ruined the country, killing millions of people in order to create a ‘perfect race.’ They also destroyed a lot of the infrastructure of the country. Anyone with education was killed, maybe they would kill you if they didn’t like how you looked that day. Education was a threat to the rouge, as you were thought to be more likely to attempt to try and stop the revolution. To say the least, it was terrible. There I was, in the midst of a country destroyed by genocide. In the 70′s … not that long ago ..  innocent cambodians were slaughtered in the room where I stood; you could still see the blood stains on the tile floors. Yet, no matter how long I looked at a picture of a now dead victim or the clothes they once wore, I could not comprehend the horror.  I couldn’t imagine the situation or hardly believe something like that had ever happened. … and is still happening now somewhere in the world. The most haunting part were all the pictures of the victims tortured in the prison. We didn’t know when these pictures were taken,  most likely as they entered the prison for the first time, or in the moments right before they were killed. Their eyes stared right into yours as you looked into their almost expressionless faces. Did they know they were about to die? Some of the faces were smiling .. some in a suppressed state of confusion or horror. Each was different.

Although a somber afternoon, it was thought provoking. The realization of what our role as a generation became incredibly obvious; that everything should be done in order to stop acts of genocide. I was so frustrated, wondering how we let this happen, how the U.S. was ignorant enough to not understand the situation and instead fund the Khmer rouge with weapons and money, too afraid of supporting the Communist government that was being overthrown by the rouge. America’s No1 enemy were the communists; it was all about image. The U.S. also had just lost the Vietnam/American war and, since the anti-war sentiment was so strong in the states, the U.S. government didn’t want to get involved in another conflict, let alone the neighbors of Vietnam.

In the morning, we traveled to ‘The Killing Fields’ — which is exactly what it sounds like. The area that was once an execution site for the Khmer rouge was turned into a memorial, luckily we had audio guides so were able to go through at our own pace. It was the most well done audio guide I’d ever listened to, so I think we all learned a lot. Of course it was upsetting, but compared to the day before, it seemed more like a time to be reverent and reflect on all we had seen and learned. Afterwards, we went to a delicious restaurant called “Friends.” It’s an organization that helps poor, disadvantaged youth learn how to run a business, starting them at the restaurant. After seeing all the horror that had been inflicted on the Cambodian people, I was thrilled to see an organization that worked to better the future. My favorite part of the first two days was visiting ‘The Center of the Dove.’ It was about a 45 minute ride outside of Phnom Penh — again over the bumpy roads — as we traveled to the center. I honestly had no idea what to expect on arrival, I only knew the center was a sort of special skills school for the physically disabled with a concentration on victims of land mines that are still being discovered all around Cambodia (due to the Khmer rouge). There is an absolutely awful sentiment placed on those with disabilities, as some religions believe the loss of a limb/having a physical disability means you were an awful person in a past life, thus life is very difficult for the disabled in both Vietnam and Cambodia. The Center of the Dove goes around the villages, encouraging those with disabilities to attend their program in order to learn a skill (carpentry, machinery, sewing, etc.) they can use in the real world; they don’t have to pay a thing! It was genuinely one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, and after the emotion of the two Khmer rouge sites, I was completely overcome by emotion while watching the students carve beautiful statues out of wood, designing and building their own specially designed (and cheap!) wheelchairs. Although we couldn’t speak to each other, we smiled at each other as a way to show a sort of mutual respect and understanding. After that experience, I realized how much I take advantage of things like my ability to walk onto a bus, take a walk, ride a bike …


The next day we headed for Siam Riep, the part of the trip I was most anxious for. After a short evening of exploration and a quick swim in the pool (I will not divulge certain information concerning things purchased at the amazing night market …), I was out. We didn’t do much that night because we planned to get up at 4AM to go watch the sunrise on Ankor Wat. Waking up was difficult but it was stunning (although we kinda got jipped on the quality of the sunrise). We were out all day seeing the different temples around Ankor and I don’t say this often, but I felt like I was in a movie. All the ruins seemed to be unnaturally beautiful… it was hard to believe I was even there.  Until I started throwing up from dehydration, it was a wonderful day. I especially enjoyed seeing monkeys running around a small temple we saw .. Jungle book anyone?


Cambodians are incredibly nice people. They don’t try to rip you off like the Vietnamese do, they give you a good price and are willing to bargain. They, for the most part, don’t shove things in your face, although we had a bad experience at a road-side bathroom break (Note: people in the states, I hope you all appreciate toilet paper and hand soap) when we were haggled by a large mass of children trying to sell us fruit. I wish we were able to spend more time in Siam Riep, the trip was short and I could have stayed for another week. I definitely wanted to see more temples around Ankor park!
Cambodia has such a heartbreaking, beautiful story. A country ruined by genocide, it’s amazing how much those people smile. Our guide told us that people smile/generally seem happy because their lives are exponentially better than when they were under the Khmer rouge. They smile because they are literally are happy that they don’t have to fight for their life; they are thrilled to be alive every day. It’s such a neat experience to be around people who treat each day with reverence and happiness.


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