Hell and Heaven in Cambodia

I couldn’t visit Cambodia without visiting the hell that has been part of the people’s recent past.  By now most people have heard of The Killing Fields, referring to the genocide by the Pol Pot regime of its’ own people. Pol Pot wanted to transform the country, remaned the Democratic Kampuchea, into a peasant dominated farming cooperative.  Within days the entire population of its cities and towns were evacuation, some killed  and the rest turned into slaves.  As many as 2.5 million people died between the years of 1975 to 1979, many murdered by the Khmer Rouge.  Intellectuals were the first targets and anyone who spoke another language, who could read and write, or even who wore glasses were singled out and killed or imprisoned, tortured and then killed.  Those that survived, the elderly, disabled, women, and even children were sent to the countryside where they were used as slave labour, surviving on what little rice they were given.  It’s an absolute atrocity, and to think that it happened within my lifetime is unbelievable.  Religion was abolished and the regime went into the temples and beheaded all the statues of Buddha or smashed the very structures that have become iconic in this nation. When you speak to Cambodians today, they appear willing to talk about it, although you can see the light go out of their eyes. My Tuk Tuk driver on this day was in his early teens during this time, he and his mother survived, but his father was murdered. The main commemorative site is just outside Phnom Penh, not on my itinerary,  but there is also a site in Siem Reap that marks some of the victims of this tragedy.  It is Wat Thmei, a former school that was turned into a prison. When the Khmer Rouge was overthrown,  by the Vietnamese,  the mass graves of some of  the prisoners who died there were found.  In the 1990’s the site became a Buddhist temple and a stupa was created and filled with the bones and skulls of some of those victims.  Few tourists visit the site, when I visited there were only a half dozen others there.  As you approach the stupa, you are drawn to the glass windows on all 4 sides and as you get closer you see they are filled with skulls and bones.  It is a very difficult thing to see, especially when you consider how these people died, and the families they left behind.  There are also photos of some of the victims and a letter saying, “Dear Tourists, The collection of bones that you see in the stupa where bones have been collected from nearby the field.  These were from the innocent people who died at the hands of the savage Pol Pot Regime in 1975-79.” (sic)  This is only a fraction of all those killed.  You can also visit the Buddhist temples, light an incense and say a prayer (if you are so inclined) for the victims you have just seen.  It doesn’t take long to visit, but it is something that will stay with you forever. 

Also when visiting any of the tourist sites, from Angkor Wat to Pub Street, there are small groups of musicians set up playing traditional music.  They are all victims of landmines.  Some are missing limbs or are blind.  They say they don’t want to beg, and play for their dignity and to make a living to send their children to school.  How can you refuse? Just a warning too, do NOT stray from the paths set out, especially around the smaller temples, there are still landmines out there, and there are still accidents and people are maimed and killed. The effort continues to try to clear the unexploded ordnance, buy until that happens, it is still hazardous.

I felt like I needed something positive and life affirming after that experience, so I decided on lunch at the Butterflies Garden Restaurant.  It was a great choice.  It was a little difficult to find but when I got there, I walked through a mesh door into the beautiful garden setting.  I was seated near the front with a garden swing, set next to a water fountain.  I was initially a little disappointed by the number of butterflies I saw, but a few minutes later the children arrived with their traps full of the ‘catch of the day’ and when they were released the garden came alive.  Local children are paid to catch the butterflies so you feel like you are doing something positive as well as enjoying the experience.  It’s a great place to bring kids. I saw one little girl running around with a butterfly on her finger, screaming ‘mama une papillon, une papillon!’ (papillon=butterfly in french). Oh and lunch was good too, I had fresh Bruscetta and a side order of sweet potato chips with a sweet curry mayonaise.  I must say my dark mood quickly changed, I just hated to leave.

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