Arriving in the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, it was not the sight of rickshaws racing nonchalantly through the flooded streets or the schoolchildren frolicking through the current these vehicles left behind that most excited us. It was the idea of once again seeing our mother after three months. At the time she lived in Afghanistan and she only came to visit every three months. Finally we reached the Angkorland Hotel and were reunited with her. Times can be stressful with separation involved and we were all overjoyed to have an escape to share together as a family.
â–º QUARTER FINALIST 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
Our experiences in both Siem Reap and the capital, Phnom Penh, were whirlwinds of activity enlightening us of Cambodian history, particularly the genocide of 1975. The Communist party, the Khmer Rouge, overtook the government with the aim of increasing rice production. They returned to a rudimentary approach to life, city folk and those who opposed the Khmer Rouge’s philosophy were persecuted and murdered.
We visited over nine temples in Siem Reap, including Bayon and the acclaimed Angkor Watt. While these temples themselves housed ancient history of Cambodia it was the people there who truly gave me a taste of Cambodia. The child vendors were thrilled to see young, foreign tourists and content to babble happily to us as we entered the temple, trying to convince us to purchase something as well. Musicians there were directly impacted by the genocide, losing limbs as a result of the numerous land mines established by the Khmer Rouge. Some of these land mines still exist today, deadly remainders of the tragedy that occurred in 1975. I feel as if it is this interaction with locals that allows you to experience a culture to its greatest extent—I’m still wearing the bracelet I bought from those children right now.
In Phnom Penh we went to the S-21 prison campand The Killing Fields. The Killing Fields houses an enormous collection of skulls, physical remnants of the death that pervades the area. Throughout the tour we listened to a headset providing us with not only information about the death camp but also with personal accounts of men, women and children who suffered through the genocide. Their stories of loss, despair and strength tore away at me. A mother watched as an official threw her baby in the air and cracked his skull open with a wooden bat. The Khmer Rouge couldn’t afford new guns so they converted farming tools into weapons of death. A young boy was imprisoned for stealing grain and protected in prison by another man who was killed for protecting him: the boy is forever guilty.
The prison was similarly appalling. Once a school, it was converted into a prison for those who opposed the revolution. Inside people had written beautiful phrases of inspiration, commenting on the atrocities committed in this period in Cambodia’s history. Incredibly, after touring the prison we were able to meet a survivor who, although spoke little English, showed us an article that had been published about his experiences, his missing finger and attempted to describe electrocution through hand gestures and few words.
We travelled to Cambodia to have a family vacation after being separated for so long. Though it was incredible to see my mother once again the highlight of the vacation was the insight I gained into Cambodian culture and history. It was a window into a tragic part of history that has both destroyed and strengthened people. An integral part of Cambodia, the genocide was yet another trial of the human ability to overcome.
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