There is nowhere to hide from the scorching heat. With the temperatures in the high 90s we are melting in the humidity. We are discovering Cambodia’s troubled history in the steamy streets of Siem Reap and the shattered remains of thousand year old temples. The ruins reflect a history of the rise and fall of power, Buddhism versus the Hindu gods, the epic stories carved on the walls and reflected in the ancient history. Our guide, David, shares these stories in at the temple sites. The car rides are filled with his memories of more recent power battles; the politics of Cambodia are complex with shifting alliances and wartime atrocities.
There is no getting around the Khmer Rouge and thirty years of civil war.Most of you know how much I insulate the kids from violence, but spend a morning touring Siem Reap and you are not able to avoid the survivors of this devastating time. Even though we didn’t take the kids to the Landmine Memorial or the Killing Fields, the aftermath of war confronted us at unexpected moments.
Yesterday we visited a Buddhist Monastery and stepped inside the shrine to see the beautiful painted Big Golden Buddha.Walking around the altar we saw big white sacks (I thought they were bags of kindling for a fire). Our guide said, “these are the skulls and bones from the unknown people in this area.” He casually reached to open the bags to show us, but we hustled away.
Everyday we see landmine victims—some begging in the streets, and others organized to make handicrafts, or play concerts at the temples—just everyday Cambodian people.
Still it feels right to witness this country’s massive effort to lurch forward towards prosperity. So, held in the same time and place, as the wartime suffering are the warm-hearted people of Cambodia. Two thirds of the population today was born after the war. It is unusual to see elderly people, but children are everywhere. There are over a million orphans – a country raising itself.
Cambodians are very welcoming to the busloads of tourists—over one hundred western style hotels are now in Siem Reap. This could be like a new invasion, but I feel genuine warmth from people. They want to share their stories and their country with us. And in return, I feel some responsibility to share images of our trip with you as a show of support for them.
We asked David if the current peace is a reflection of Buddhist forgiveness; he said, “We suffered so much, we don’t want to think about the past.” When he told us about the end of the Khmer Rouge and the amnesty granted to former enemies,he said that you have to focus on the future – revenge would have just perpetuated the same old story. So in this time of change, we can see the true justice is the country feeding it’s people and coming to take care of its children – that’s what it means to win.