One month ago, our little Green Gang reunited in the Los Angeles airport to embark on the larger portion of our nine-month travel program. Next stop: Cambodia. 3 plane rides, 30 hours of travel, and the loss of January 21st (rest in peace). It was a draining day, but most of us were just happy to see each other again. There were so many questions to ask about our time spent apart; the air was buzzing with intrigue and excitement. For a lot of us it was our first time in Cambodia, or Southeast Asia itself, and no knew quite what to expect.
The first thing that hit me when we got off the plane was the familiar smell that is unique to the environment of Southeast Asia. I relaxed immediately as a combination of dust, fried foods, tropical plants, warmth, and faint hints of the sheer cloth of pollution that envelops the region filled my lungs. Contrary to what you might think, it’s inviting, and as someone who’s grown up travelling back and forth from India, it felt like home.
The air was thick with humidity and heat; sweat beaded on everyone’s temples as we clamoured to get on the large (air conditioned) charter bus sent to take us to our hostel. Finally, in a sleep-deprived stupor, we lugged our backpacks, duffle bags, daypacks, and spare miscellaneous objects into our respective rooms and, save for some 3am wake-up calls courtesy of jet-lag, we slept for the next twelve hours before diving into our second trimester.
To say I’m unaffected by most things would be an overstatement, however I can say that travelling for four months and constantly experiencing new things has created a me that is far less anxious or attached to trivial matters. I’m by no means enlightened, but I am far better at seeing the big picture, and I breathe easier knowing that this too, whatever it is, shall pass. All that being said, I was struck by the intensity and grief that presented itself to me at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre in Phnom Penh. We’d been in Cambodia all of three days and I already was seeing things I never expected, let alone was aware of.
I’m not necessarily well versed in world history, it’s a small stain on my otherwise acceptable school record, but it was astonishing to find that only a small handful of us knew about the Cambodian genocide that occurred from 1975-1978. Communism was on the rise, and with some of the US bombings of Vietnam spilling into Cambodia, there was a perfect opportunity for one Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge to quickly rise to power. With the intent of returning Cambodia to an agrarian society, Pol Pot persecuted the educated intellectuals and those who rejected his ideals, along with the sick, old, young, and weak. Those persecuted were sent first to prisons, and then to killing fields, where a third of the Cambodian population perished.
We witnessed one of these mass graves. I still don’t have all the words to describe it. I will forever struggle to fathom the scale on which so many people were not just murdered, but tortured and maimed. Though I’ve seen memorials like this, in Israel and India, they never fail to stop me in my tracks. The tyranny and sadistic acts of Pol Pot the Khmer Rouge rivaled those of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime, and yet rarely anyone in westernized nations knows what happened.
Victims of Choeung Ek were men, women, children, and infants; they were mostly from Sector 21, a Khmer Rouge operated prison. Kept in the dark, both literally and figuratively, these tortured and starved individuals were shuttled to the repurposed orchard in the middle of the night under the guise of being brought to another prison. Upon arrival, they were immediately sent to a violent death. Because bullets and gunpowder were deemed too expensive, officers of the Khmer Rouge made use of the farming tools that previous inhabitants had left behind. Everyday items such as backhoes and shovels became weapons of mass murder, and chemicals were sprayed upon the dying to seal their fate. Pop music blared on loudspeakers that hung from a large tree in the centre of the camp to drown out the screaming. It was this and the ominous hum of a large diesel generator that serenaded these souls to their death. Corpses were packed tightly into pits not much larger than king sized beds, with bones upon bones upon bones, their graves just as ghastly as their living conditions. Despite being excavated a few decades ago, heavy rains still drag bones up through the soil, and scrapes of clothing protrude from the dusty earth.
It was difficult to start out our trip with such a harrowing experience, but ultimately it made me look at each Cambodian person with an elevated sense of respect. After all, you could look around and it was apparent that an entire generation was missing from the streets. Every face you saw knew someone who either perished or was still lost to them, yet somehow the Cambodian people still found a way to smile and live life to its fullest.
Following our history lesson, we spent the next two weeks learning how to draw, use animation software, sharpen our bargaining skills, mix the perfect drink, explore and navigate different communication styles, and live purposefully. Though I wish I could write a little about everything, that many words would keep even me struggling to stay attentive. So here is where I leave you, at the end of Phnom Penh and the beginning a five hour bus ride to the Siem Reap. I’ve made new friends, strengthened relationships with old ones, gained more insight and respect for different cultures, and finally begun to settle into the routine of once again living my life from seventy litres of canvas. At the end of it all this much is certain: even being 8000 miles away from everything I know, I feel more at home than I ever have, and I can’t wait to see what antics we get up to next.
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