A lesson in letting go
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.