I’m back in Bangkok but my thoughts remain in Cambodia. The Kingdom of Wonder that one minute will take your breath away with its beauty, then take your words with its harshness. In Kampot and Kep the kids were a delight--the sight of a big bearded barang (that’s Khmer for farang) sent them into a tizzy, dozens yelling “Hi!” and waving frenetically.
But some of the younger ones would hide despite my smile. My brother (a similarly big bearded barang) told of a legend that parents tell their kids, that a white bearded demon comes to steal and kill the bad little children. Grown-ups are the worst.
Later in Kampot, I see two girls, four years old maybe, standing toe to toe on the long-ago broken sidewalk. Sisters it looked like. One swings arm high over head, then brings down hammer fists on the other's head. She does it again. Maybe again, I can't tell--slender and fast as the slugger's arm is, and stunned as I am to be seeing it. Finally the other responds in kind.
They're swinging like hockey players--no jabs, no bob, no weave. Just high right after right, each landing with the sound of a fastball meeting catchers mitt.
I see an older male (father assuming) watching from his chair with detached interest.
The first sister's eyes are cold as she winds up and swings. The fights ends just after I pass. I hear crying. Look back and see the father, still looking on, as one of the girls runs inside. He's unmoved--and doesn't move.
No words. And what could I say? Even if we spoke the same language, the culture gap means I couldn’t possibly understand.
I’d joked that Cambodia was Thailand’s older sister--the one who stayed out too long in the sun, partied too hard, and made bad decisions with all the wrong boys. But in Phnom Penh the question ate at me: how is it that this country’s people, who remind me in many ways of Thais, face such a harder, harsher life? What holds them back?
Brief history lesson for those who, like me, didn’t get much Asian history in school. In 1975, after the Vietnam/American War devastated Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge deposed the country’s corrupt government and established a brutal regime, attempting to reform the country into a self-sufficient, agrarian society. This required the murder of all “soft-handed” people--lawyers, monks, intellectuals. They also murdered their family and children, as “to kill the grass, one must dig up even the root”.
The Khmer Rouge were removed from power in 1979. During their three years, eight months, and twenty days in control they killed 2 million of their own people--and did so in cold and cruel ways. These were on visceral display at Choeung Ek, the best known “killing field”.
The description on this tree is true but a bit misleading. I thought it meant children were held against the tree and beaten with whips. This would be bad enough.
What really happened was…worse.
And for any who might deny this Cambodian Holocaust, what's displayed inside the above pagoda is a fine rebuttal:
Next we visited S-21. In true, twisted fashion, the Khmer Rouge converted a school into an interrogation and torture facility. The site is largely unchanged--the tiny brick holding cells, the beds where “enemies of the state” were strapped beaten and electrocuted, the barbed wire to keep those on higher floors from jumping to a less painful death--all remain. As does blood on the floor and walls.
So why was this terrible cruelty visited upon Cambodian while Thailand was a source of stability (never mind the occasional coup) on the sub-continent?
Or, perhaps more to the point, how can a country that enacts a new constitution roughly every decade be considered stable?
Perhaps it’s because, one hundred years before, Thailand’s King Rama V established relationships with western countries and other powers to preserve Siam’s freedom. Perhaps because subsequent Thai leadership generally worked for stability and the good of Thai people.
Were they always right in their decisions? That’s not for me to say. But it’s inarguable that, while Cambodia’s best minds were being obliterated with farming tools, Thailand’s people benefited from relative peace and a government dedicated to progress and education.
So is it as simple as one person? Does the fate of millions really come down to their leader? Roll the dice: Rama equals prosperity for generations, Pot equals death and destitution?
But leaders are also a function of their environment and those who elevate and support them. It took a series of events to elevate Pol Pot--and he didn’t drug or hypnotize millions into joining the Khmer Rouge against their will.
And wounds can be healed. The beauty of the human species--and what separates us from all others--is we have the ability and will to undo what other humans have done. Our best angels come out in the face of evil.
There was something most unexpected for me at Choeung Ek: happiness. Dozens of students, dressed in pale blue shirts and dark blue skirts or slacks, talking and laughing with each other. Several stared and smiled at the big bearded barang. And while I felt conflicted smiling back with all that surrounded me, I realized the beauty and importance of their happiness. For Cambodia to succeed they must heal. Mercifully, none of these kids were alive for the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. In their eyes and smiles I saw hope for their future. They probably won’t get to parity with their Thai peers--but they’ll get closer. Maybe their kids will get there.
It’s their energy and potential and desire that will turn this place from tragedy to success. No one man, no matter how brutal and vile, can stop that.
Kingdom of Wonder what’s next.