A les­son in let­ting go

Yoga Journal - - Live Well - By Jen Mur­phy

IT TOOK ME UN­TIL MY THIRD DAY in Cam­bo­dia to re­al­ize what was dif­fer­ent. I’d trav­eled to South­east Asia be­fore. The first day al­ways feels the same, no mat­ter what the coun­try: I’m over­whelmed by the com­bi­na­tion of jet lag, thick hu­mid air, and the ut­ter chaos of moped traf­fic; dis­tracted by the strange smells; and star­tled by the vivid con­trast of rich and poor. The third day is usu­ally when I de­sen­si­tize enough to start notic­ing the de­tails, like an an­cient statue hid­den by jun­gle vines or the hawk­ers sell­ing sticky rice and sand­wiches.

On my third evening in Ph­nom Penh, I was about to dig into a dish of croaker fish tossed in co­conut broth with wild mush­rooms and can­dle yam when it hit me: no one here is old, and every­one is smil­ing.

When I ar­rived in Cam­bo­dia, my knowl­edge of the coun­try ex­tended to the fa­mous tem­ple of Angkor Wat and the fact that An­gelina Jolie had fallen hard for the place while film­ing Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The coun­try’s mix of Bud­dhist re­li­gion, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal won­ders, and French ar­chi­tec­ture prompted me to read up on its his­tory when I got to my room at Raf­fles Ho­tel Le Royal, an oa­sis of calm in the heart of this bustling cap­i­tal.

I felt a wave of guilt when I learned that dur­ing the Viet­nam War, the U.S. un­der­took a covert, four-year bomb­ing cam­paign in Cam­bo­dia, dev­as­tat­ing the coun­try­side and caus­ing so­ciopo­lit­i­cal up­heaval that led to a Com­mu­nist takeover. In 1975, the Kh­mer Rouge, Cam­bo­dia’s com­mu­nist party, drove any­one per­ceived a class en­emy, or a threat, to the regime out of Ph­nom Penh and into ru­ral ar­eas. Be­tween 1975 and 1979, this dra­matic at­tempt at so­cial en­gi­neer­ing meant nearly two mil­lion peo­ple—a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion—died. As a re­sult, about 70 per­cent of Cam­bo­dia’s pop­u­la­tion is un­der the age of 30 to­day, which ex­plains why I no­ticed so few el­derly Cam­bo­di­ans.

To try to un­der­stand more of this coun­try’s painful past, I hired a driver to take me 20 min­utes out­side of the city to the Killing Fields of Choe­ung Ek—a mass grave where more than 17,000 vic­tims of the Kh­mer Rouge are buried. An enor­mous glass stupa con­tain­ing more than 5,000 hu­man skulls acts as a shrine ac­knowl­edg­ing, rather than hid­ing, the truth of Cam­bo­dia’s grim past. The $6 en­try fee in­cluded an au­dio tour with dev­as­tat­ing sto­ries from sur­vivors. My eyes welled with tears as I lis­tened to un­think­able hor­rors.

That evening, on a flight to Siem Reap, I tried to shake the haunt­ing im­ages from my mind. Af­ter my sober­ing his­tory les­son and new un­der­stand­ing of Amer­ica’s role in the atroc­i­ties, I felt the urge to apol­o­gize to ev­ery lo­cal I met. Yet no one seemed to share my heavy heart. When I vis­ited the float­ing fish­ing vil­lage at Lake Tonlé Sap, a young woman waved to me with a gap-toothed grin. The teenagers sell­ing fish pedi­cures near my ho­tel danced and sang to K-pop tunes.

The next morn­ing, Aki, a gan­gly guide with Hulk-like strength, ped­aled me by tuk-tuk to watch the sun­rise at Angkor Wat, crack­ing jokes the en­tire bumpy ride. With some pry­ing, I learned that he had lost his mother, two sis­ters, and a brother dur­ing the geno­cide; his fa­ther lost both legs to a land mine. As the sky turned a soft golden hue, we sat side by side on a crum­bling stone and I asked Aki if he felt any re­sent­ment to­ward Amer­i­cans for bomb­ing his coun­try, or to­ward those who had killed his fam­ily. He smiled as he looked at me.

“Anger will not bring back my fam­ily,” he said softly. “I am here, watch­ing the sun­rise, in a beau­ti­ful place with a new friend. Life is full of prom­ise.” What a beau­ti­ful les­son on the yo­gic con­cept of duhkha (suf­fer­ing), I thought. While we can’t undo loss or heartache, we can change the way we re­act to the hard times we face. The peo­ple of Cam­bo­dia haven’t for­got­ten their past, but they’re also not let­ting it de­fine them.

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