By Jose Gabriel M. Macion
The Cambodian Genocide is remembered as one of the most brutal events in human history. In just 3 years, Pol Pot’s regime claimed countless lives and scarred the beautiful country known as Cambodia. The genocide left a lasting scar of pain on the beautiful country. This month we traveled to Cambodia for our Week Without Walls trip. The country is extremely beautiful, however the genocide was a truly sensitive and awkward topic to bring up. Whenever it was mentioned, the atmosphere always changed. Our guides always told us that we should never joke about the event or take it lightly. This week we learned that apart of the Cambodian culture is rising up to whatever problems we encounter in life. “Rise up, whenever you fall” is the phrase I remember our tour guide using. From this phrase and from what I saw throughout the week, I think that Cambodia has risen up quite a bit from the tragedy, however they are smart and know that they must never forget what happened.
The museum and the killing fields had a very solemn atmosphere to them. The stories and the pictures. It makes you wonder how something as horrible as this could happen. It was also difficult to feel anger at anyone since the members of the Khmer Rouge were children. While listening to each story and while looking at each picture, I felt empty. What should a person feel in those moments? I may not be Cambodian, but I made my best effort to sympathize with the dead while I reflected quietly. However, even after offering my respects, as I looked towards the tower full of skulls, I couldn’t help but wonder, Why?
The trip opened my eyes to the rich history and diversity of the Cambodian people. The history of Cambodia, especially events surrounding Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge made me realized how truly brutal and saddening the genocide was. However, soon after I gained a newfound level of respect for the Cambodian people, despite going through one of the most brutal events in human history, they are able to move forward, with smiles on their faces nonetheless. It’s easy to notice because while riding throughout the country side, it is easy to spot the smiling faces of the people, old and young, walking by the road. Despite all the pain they have experienced, they still manage to pull off a bright smile and wave at the strange foreigners who are staying in their homeland. The Cambodians haven’t changed their view of the harsh event. However, they choose to approach it with a smile and move toward a better future. Another historical location we visited, was the temple. Temples to be exact. They were stopovers on our way to Beng Pae, but they were very enlightening. The temples reflected the religion and the different principles that Cambodians believed in such as reincarnation. It was really interesting. I even remember the guide saying that the Cambodians of the past believed that extraterrestrials had built the temples since they were so tall. The short tour around the temples made me admire the culture of the Cambodian people. It changed my perspective from what I usually see and it was definitely a good change.
Other than Cambodia’s history, I was also exposed to the unique aspects of other areas of Cambodia’s culture. During dinner, I watched a traditional Cambodian dance. In several bus stops, we had the wonderful opportunity to taste different Cambodian delicacies like tarantulas and cockroaches. I am South East asian, so eating these delicacies was actually extremely pleasing to me. In all honesty the bugs tasted delicious. The Russian market was also another wonderful place to explore, the atmosphere and the different souvenirs that we got certainly entertained everyone. During the bus rides, we also listened to the words of our tour guide, she always explained Cambodian culture and practices, such as being conservative and the necessity to wear clothes that cover everything below the knees. She also taught us a bit of the language, which was useful since we used it a lot during the trip. It was mind opening to be shown these different unique cultural practices and beliefs.
Additionally other than learning about Cambodia’s history and culture, I along with a small group of students, decided to go to Sok Sabay, an orphanage for Cambodian children. Sok Sabay was a surprisingly clean orphanage. However, I found it evident that they were overcrowded due to the large mass of children who lived there. The children that live at Sok Sabay are living there because their parents are having difficulties providing for them due to poverty. When we visited, however, they didn’t seem gloomy at all. They had even dressed themselves in ISS T-shirts to welcome us. It was an extremely touching gesture. Despite going through so much difficulty in their lives, these kids felt overjoyed by our presence and support. The smiles on their faces as we played with each other is an experience I won’t forget anytime soon. It made me realize how much they truly believed in their culture. The principle they have of standing up despite the difficulties is truly a great one.
During the last days of the trip, we moved to camp Beng Pae. Camp Beng Pae was a camp where there were several huts for everyone to sleep in. At Camp Beng Pae, we were assigned with different projects that we had to accomplish. These projects included reforestation, where we had to separate weeds and dig holes. We also had to dig toilets, help a local school and create cement. These tasks were all challenging and physically taxing for most of us. Some of us had even suffered mild heat strokes. Our living conditions in the camp were also difficult for some of us. For sleeping there was one hut for the boys, one for the girls and the last one for the teachers. There was no internet, air conditioning, limited water and limited electricity. It was a different kind of experience because we weren’t used to having less than what we already have. All we did have at Beng Pae was hard labour and each other. The change of the way of living in Camp Beng Pae. However,One thing that impressed me where the people who worked at the camp. Each day, they woke up at 3:50 am to start working. They always showed patience and dedication to their job. They could have taken us as a bother or a nuisance since we didn’t know anything about our tasks or about their culture, but they didn’t take it that way at all. In fact they built bonds with us. On the last day we were offered to play soccer with the kids in a nearby school, the people in the camp also joined. The game was extremely fun and I would be lying if I said we all didn’t have fun at there or at our time at the village. The experience changed our view on our lives. It made us gain a large amount of admiration and respect for the Cambodians who live this life everyday. These people choose to work for a living to provide for their families. That’s true sacrifice. The hard labour in the village may not have been everyone’s favourite experience. However, it was one that opened our eyes to the lives of a smiling people who choose to work hard for the sake of others.
After I arrived from Cambodia, I instantly became thankful for everything that I did not have over the past week. However, I also felt sad. I enjoyed every moment in Cambodia, even life in the village was enjoyable despite all the difficulty that I experienced. I’ve never been to Cambodia before, so I didn’t know what to expect. After spending a week with everything there, I felt a little bit at home at Cambodia, since it’s principle and culture is a little similar to my own. The experience may have been a difficult one, but it definitely was enjoyable. The fresh air, sitting on the back of a pickup truck and smiling and waving at kids. Cambodia is a beautiful country that I won’t forget anytime soon.