Cambodia's modern history is like hearing about a horror movie. Due to some bad decisions by the Cambodian king in the 60's the country was bombed by Americans and Viet Cong took up residence in some of the boarder villages. This lead to many deaths and a lot of landmines and destruction by the Vietnamese boarder. The action of their king lead to outrage within the Cambodian people. (one amazing thing about Buddhist countries is that when bad things happen blame is not placed on others but instead is examined in terms of how did our actions lead to this- I have to admit that it is quite a change from "the blame others for your misfortune" attitude that I often encounter in the US). The outrage lead to an military coup which led to the leader Pol Pot taking over. During this time the Khmer Rouge under the direction of Pol Pot evacuated all the cities of Cambodia determined to create an ignorant society that would never be able to rise up against them. Everyone in the country was forced to work In the fields. All those that were educated where executed and often tortured. If you had glasses, were light skinned or had smooth hands you were often killed because they viewed you as intelligent. Families were forced to separate to survive and children were forced to work with little to no food to survive. If you did not die by the Khmer Rouge people died from disease or exhaustion. Those forced to perform execution or killing were often young villagers who were recruited and joined as a way to survive. After they worked as soldiers they were often killed because they knew to much. Not only did the Khmer Rouge kill and torture people they were ordered not to use bullets because they were told that the bullets were worth more than the people. As a result when the killed they often beat people with heavy objects and then buried them in mass graves alive. The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and took over control for a few years. During that time civil war erupted and the country did not gain stability until recently. The government decided that the members of the Khmer Rouge should be included into the government to prevent them from trying to overthrow once again and as a result no one here trusts the government. As a result of the horror of this history 50% of the population is under 18 years old, majority of the adults have vivid memories of the awful period of the Khmer Rouge, and the country had to completely start over so the economy is only just developing.
As horrific as that story is the people of Cambodia are a strong and persistent people. They know that they have to work hard to get what they want, they don't expect the government to do anything for them, and they take advantage of every opportunity given to them. What does this mean in real life- well the biggest business right now is tourism so everywhere you go you hear ladies asking you if you want a massage, men asking if you want a tuktuk or motorbike ride, children trying to sell you postcards, and restaurants pushing menus at you as you walk down the street. Many markets have stall owners offering you special prices if you buy more than one thing and many hotels offer things like free wifi and beg you to come stay. If people are not involved in tourism they are often farmers or fisherman trying to sell their goods in local markets. Once you leave the tourist part of the cities you often find woman selling eels, fish, crayfish, meet, chicken legs and vegetables and fruits. The most common thing you see on the streets is the motorbikes full of people. Entire families fit on one motorbike and often huge amounts of goods are transported on the motorbikes. To navigate a basic street crossing among the thousands of motorbikes that drive any way the want is often like playing a giant game of frogger. It might seem a bit overwhelming at times but after knowing the awful history it is nice to feel the life in the country pumping through every encounter.
The people of Cambodia know their awful history well and every adult has their horror stories. From our guide PK who said , "it is so awful I cannot tell you- during that time people ate people" to one of the survivors of the s-21 prison who painted pictures of the Khmer leaders to survive while watching his friends get tortured in front of him it was all awful. But through these people you also see huge smiles, a pride in their ancient history and a sense of excitement on what Cambodia will look like in 10 years from now. It is an amazing place to see the way humans can overcome Hell and find ways to bounce back.
And what did I do here- well I spent one night on a remote village with an amazingly sweet family that shared their stories with us late into the night. I explored the capital city of Phnom Pehn seeing the genocide museum and killing fields as well as learning about many of the nonprofits working in the area. I went to see the amazing ruins of the Angkor empire and the amazing temples of Angkor Wat. I saw the floating villages that exist on SouthEast Asias largest freshwater lake and watched how people live In floating structures and participate everyday common life routines but above water. I watched my friend PK purchase food from the market bargaining with the woman and then spent an amazing night at his house BBQing in a small pot with his beautiful family. I navigated large Asian markets, watched monks trying to practice their English, had a lesson on how to cross the crazy streets of motorbikes and mastered that skill independently. I had a great time.
So as I write this I am waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport where I am going to fly from Cambodia to Thailand to Ethiopia to Tanzania. This is the end of my wandering and the start of my year of EdPowerment work in Tanzania. I am excited to see my friends and am so happy to have been able to go on this journey. Someone asked me, "well what have you learned from this journey?" my answer....
Throughout this last 11 weeks I have met people from all walks of life. People who suffered major trama in a devastating earthquake, some amazing families so full of love, really wise little children, people who suffer extreme poverty, people who love adventure and the thrill of riding the scary waves of the ocean and those that have suffered from landline explosions. I have met children selling postcards to survive and those who have been "trying to find themselves" by traveling the world. I made friends with a 90lb amazing female surfer, a man who completed an ironman with no training, a teacher who wanted a challenge and was trying to walk and bike his way around Laos, a veterinarian who photographed every animal we saw to study later and Cambodian who taught me that when you cry you cry alone but when you laugh the world laughs with you. All in all it has been great and I have learned that what makes us who we are is not the things we have or the goals we set. What makes us who we are is the challenges we have encountered and how we have fought and struggled to overcome those things that we thought were to difficult to deal with.
All in all a great time. Next post will be from Tanzania. I hope all is well at home. Please send me some emails, comments, or messages to keep me up to date on what is going on. Thinking of you all! :)
Pictures will be coming soon! (: