After already being in Vietnam I felt as though landing in Cambodia was going to be ‘easier’. Meaning, less of a culture shock and easier to adjust.
Boy was I wrong. Maybe it’s the fact that I just came from beautiful, clean land of ‘no worries’ aka Australia where avocado on toast is $18 and everyone walking on the streets of Sydney are decked out in designer handbags and high heels.… but after being in Cambodia for only a few hours I feel as though my world has been flipped upside down.
When you hear of the year 1975.. What do you think of? For me, I think that it really wasn’t that long ago. I mean, my parents were just beginning their teenage years. However, for people living here in Cambodia, that year is one they will never forget as tragedy shook their country.
Today I spent my day walking around S21 (Tuol Sleng) and the killing fields in Phnom Penh. To say I am completely mind blown is an understatement. I spent most of my day with tears strolling down my face as I looked at horrific images and listened to stories from survivors as they led me through this horrific place which I had never heard of before. Why was I not taught about this in school?
20,000 people were tortured and killed at s21 with only 12 confirmed survivors. Tortured in brutal ways for 6 months to 1.5 years before finally we able to rest in peace. Men, women, and children were all a part of this terrible time. Which leads us to today.. 80% of Cambodia’s population are under the age of 25.
I am honestly not sure what bothers me more. The fact that this was less than 30 years ago or the fact that I had never heard about this horrific tragedy. How could people be living in this world with so much pain, hurt and sorrow while other parts of the world are laughing away at brunch with champagne and smoked salmon. If I didn’t come to Cambodia would I have ever heard about these terrible events that took place in 1975?
If something like this happened only a few short decades ago, what’s to stop it from happening again? Who’s to say it’s not happening somewhere else right now!?
As we left s21 with a heavy heart and mixed emotions our tuktuk driver went on to tell us his mother and sister were a part of this tragic event. He said that everyone in Cambodia has family who were lost and some were never found.
When I was younger, sitting in history class, I remember feeling as though the wars and everything we were learning about were ‘so long ago’. I guess that comes with being naive and a bit sheltered in Canada. I am so incredibly grateful to be living in a country where war is not something we are dealing with thus far in my lifetime. To be somewhere like s21 truly opened my eyes to a lot more than I was really ready to see. So much pain and sorrow. I guess that’s why they say ignorance is bliss.
As if today wasn’t heavy enough.. We decided to head out for some authentic food at a local restaurant which my friends ate at the previous night while I was still in Australia. They raved about this restaurant all day and how incredible the owner was. He is a kindhearted soul who has devoted his life to helping a Cambodian family open up and run a restaurant and each night he packs up all the leftovers and takes the food out to feed the homeless.
One of my travel partners is also an incredibly kindhearted soul and this restaurant is right up her alley. Being the type of person she is, after an evening of listening to his stories, she asked this man if we could come and help him pack up all the food the following night and asked if there was any other way we could help. He was delighted by her eagerness to help.
When we arrived at the restaurant for dinner, one of the staff members came up to our table right away after recognizing our group. The look on his face was very unsettling. He went on to tell us that the owner of the restaurant was jumped last night while on his usual mission to feed the homeless. He was robbed of everything he had including his motorbike after being beaten to the point that he was found unconscious with no memory of how it happened.
Days like today I truly struggle to hold on to my faith. How can there be such terrible people in this world that can hurt another human being. Why do bad things happen to great people? Is it karma? Is it from a past life?
How are we still fighting? How does racism still exist? How is there still war torn countries all over the world.
So many questions, that may never be answered for me. All I can do is strive to be a better person each day. As the clouds opened up and the sun was began shining through on this gloomy day a beautiful peace bracelet caught my eye in the trees.
As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Today, I give thanks to Cambodia for opening my eyes and teaching me an incredible lesson. A lesson you can’t learn in a history classroom.