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Below My Feet

CAMBODIA | Sunday, 2 July 2017 | Views [272]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The word on Phnom Penh was that spending a few days there was enough since the city offers only two major attractions and some good nightlife. Upon arriving, I immediately felt some fear given the conditions of the city. The air was extremely dirty and above the store fronts on the streets were project-like housing that climbed 6 flights high. Trash was everywhere, probably the worst I had seen yet. Furthermore, the tuk tuk driver that shuttled myself and another girl to the hostel told us to put our cell phones away and backpacks between our legs as locals have been known to whiz by on motor bikes and steal items right out of your hands. Fortunately, the hostel was away from the main roads and much less intimidating. I try not be too critical when entering a larger Asian city because initially they can appear busy, dirty, and overwhelming but after settling in that anxiety tends to fade. The hostel was very clean, had a pool and a restaurant, and they offered to make arrangements for attractions and bus trips. I booked the tour for the one day visit to the S-21 museum and the killing fields and a bus ride to Siem Reap the day after.

The first stop on the tour was Toul Sleng (S-21) Genocide Museum, a former high school turned into a prison camp under the Khmer Rouge regime form 1975-1979. The five run down school buildings on the grounds showed the areas where all members of society from the rich and poor, educated and skilled, religious and ethnic, women and children and elderly, and anyone opposed to the regime were tortured, starved, and killed. The introduction to the history of the mass genocide of an estimated 2 million people (most likely more) that occurred in Cambodia baffled me. How was this not thoroughly discussed in addition to the Holocaust? My feelings quickly transformed from appalling shock to a deep sadness. Given all that I saw in the museum, the commentary and pictures describing the torture and killings in the very rooms I stood, nothing was more chilling the faces of the victims displayed on the walls. I studied their eyes for signs of life as they stood for the identification photos once they were imprisoned and prior to being killed, all I saw was defeat and lost hope. They were physically alive but their spirit had departed. As I left the museum, the visitors had an opportunity to meet one of the survivors that was on site, a small Cambodian man approaching 90 years old. The tourists individually lined up to sit next to him for a photo shot. When my turn came, I approached him and he began to gesture me to sit. I opted out of the photo shot and instead I held out my hand to shake his. Upon realizing I wasn't sitting for the photo, our eyes met and I warmly gave my sympathies by saying "thank you." I'm not sure if thank you was the right thing to say, but I like to think he knew I was saying much more. I suppose my words attempted to convey, "I'm sorry this happened to you", "I'm sorry no one was there to help", and "thank you for sharing your horrific story that will hopefully teach many of us that this should never happen again."

Following the museum, the tour stopped by Choeung Ek, one of the 20,000 mass graves known as the Killing fields. The mass graves were not merely large pits where bodies were dumped but rather pits where live prisoners were taken to be killed. In order to conserve bullets, the prisoners were clubbed in the head and neck by any number of objects that could serve as a killing weapon or had their heads, mainly children, bashed into a tree. The blunt force wounds are visible on the thousands of skulls displayed in the commemorative Buddhist stupa on site. The graves were then covered with a chemical substance to hide the smell of the decomposition and kill any remaining victims buried alive. The sharp horror and sadness I had felt turned into a mourning and quiet observance for those that lay beneath my feet. The walking and audio tour guided me through a winding tree covered park with very few visual attractions. The tour discussed the regime, identified the uneven terrain that were graves, and emphasized that many graves will never be exhumed to identified the victims, notify remaining family, and give them a proper burial. While many bodies have been recovered they are typically not whole as bones slowly continue to rise to the surface of the fields. Some of the other mass graves discovered in the country are surrounded by land mines and aren't accessible. I listened to stories of survivors as I walked on a levee around what appeared to be two square flooded rice paddies. The audio tour described the flooded areas and it became clear they weren't rice paddies but sunken water filled graves. Although religious practice has been absent from my life for awhile now, I couldn't help wonder if their souls were trapped under the water or if a Holy Spirit gave mercy and brought them to rest.

A visit to the war museum was another attraction that could be done without a tour group but I chose to skip it. After the tours in Vietnam and the tour today, I didn't feel like hating mankind anymore, I needed to see evidence of the good in all of us. That evening I visited a charming little area of the city where a maze of small alleys were filled with cozy restaurants and bars. I had dinner and walked around a bit. I bumped into many tourists but also had a few encounters with some locals as I headed back to the hostel. The Vietnamese people seemed a bit standoffish to me and looking back they were slightly less than friendly. I can only really make this observation after speaking and interacting with the Cambodians. They always smiled when your eyes met in the streets and asking them for information brought out their kindness and willingness to help. I somehow expected them to be jaded people or have broken down spirits given the tragedy experienced and the aftermath which is still visible today. I was very wrong and their spirits were very much alive and full of love.

The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap illustrated the aftermath of a country decimated by hate. I hoped all passengers that took this ride looked out the windows and saw what they didn't see in a museum, life happening amidst massive poverty as a result of the genocide. Colored one room houses or shacks stood on stilts with steps leading up to the front door, sometimes the steps were just wooden rung ladders to a doorless entrance. The glimpses I got inside houses showed no evidence of wash areas and had minimal furniture. Under the houses hung hammocks where residents could be seen napping and avoiding the hot weather. The yards consisted of dirt with an occasional lotus pond and cows were often seen grazing the grass between adjacent properties. Tremendous amounts of trash was scattered about and being burned in piles, no cars and few motorbikes could be seen, and minimally dressed ganges of children were seen playing stick games. The landscape surrounding and separating clusters of houses was mostly flooded plains and abandoned failed rice paddies. There was no evidence of sustainable land for grazing livestock or raising crops. The bus passed by abandoned schools and the only stores were little shacks selling minimal goods. No one appeared to be working and local transportation was minimal. I had to wonder if they worked and made a wage to support their basic needs. What did they eat? Where did they get their food? What do they do if they're sick or critically ill? Efforts to lower food prices, build schools to educated the children and repopulate the skilled workforce, provide healthcare aid, and somehow try to instill confidence in the government despite ongoing corruptions are all areas that continue to need support.
A few tears rolled from my eyes as I watched and wished I could help. I turned my attention to the clouds in the distance. As I had seen in Vietnam, the billowing, snowy white clouds sat high in the sky presenting a god-like presence that watches over the land below. At this point I became curious if these grand clouds I noticed were unique to this region and climate of the country or world or if I had begun to open my lens, see beyond the horizon, and accept there is more to the view than what's right in front of me.

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