For over 12 years, I dreamed about visiting Cambodia; more specifically, the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom.
But after spending close to three weeks in Cambodia, I learned that the country is so much more than its temples.
My entry into the country was unusual. I arrived on foot from Vietnam, walking through No Man’s Land for 15 minutes in 40+ degree heat; and, once arriving in Cambodia, bribing a customs official to avoid getting a medical exam. The experience left me wary and slightly paranoid.
I’m not sure if it was the heat or dehydration, but I arrived in the country feeling exhausted, confused and hopeless. Despite the sun and blue skies, I felt a blanket of immense sadness, within myself and around me. These feelings lasted for almost 1 week.
If Cambodia could speak to me, it would scream poverty, rage, genocide, rape, torture, land mines and terror.
UNESCO has listed Cambodia as the third most land mined country in the world. More than 4 million are still strewn across the country. One does not take a walk in the countryside in Cambodia.
On my first day in Phnom Penh, I visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, both of which moved me to the core. The last time I felt such sadness was when I visited Auschwitz in 2000.
The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, took control of the country in the 1970s. In order to speed up communism throughout the country, he had anyone who he thought was a threat eliminated: the educated and wealthy, religious leaders, landowners, teachers, inventors and anyone who could help build the country. Schools were shut down. People were gathered in masses, tortured and executed. Even children and babies were killed, for fear they would seek revenge when they became adults.
The Genocide occured 50 years ago, and all Cambodians today have been affected by it. I met people whose aunts, uncles, grandparents and siblings were taken away in the night, never to return.
And yet, every single Cambodian I met greeted me with a smile. They showed me kindness and generosity and reminded me that the light always comes out after darkness. After tragedy, there is hope. There is always hope.
I met a 12 year old girl who sold fridge magnets near one of the temples. She was a bright girl with a ready smile and superb negotiating skills. We laughed and talked for several minutes and yes, I bought 3 fridge magnets. This girl will continue her studies and I am confident she will be a success story in this broken country.
I feel truly blessed to have been able to participate in the celebrations of the Khmer New Year, one of the most important festivals in Cambodia. It’s a 3 day festival which started on Friday, April 14. Everyone, from the very young to the very old, was out on the streets with massive water guns, spraying everyone – including me – in sight. Cambodians working in the cities return to the villages to celebrate with their families. Many businesses are closed for two or three weeks.
One of the highlights of my time in Cambodia was attending Phare, the Cambodian Circus, where performers use theatre, music, dance and acrobatics to tell Cambodian stories, both past and present.
Phare artists are graduates of PPSA, an NGO school and professional training centre in Cambodia. It was founded in 1994 by 9 young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the camp, they took drawing classes, which helped them with the healing process. Once they returned home, they offered free art classes to street children. A school was eventually started, offering education and professional arts training: visual arts, theatre, music, dance and acrobatics. All programs are free.
If Cambodia could speak to me, it would say there is hope, look ahead, we will rebuild, we are fearless, we are brave.
Thank you, Cambodia.