Cambodia: Land of a thousand stories

When I started thinking about my visit to Cambodia, two things came to mind: Angkor Wat and genocide. I wanted to see one of the greatest man-made spectacles of the world and learn more about the circumstances that led to one the worst government-led crimes of the 20th Century and around a quarter of Cambodia’s population dying between 1975-79.

I did both (see my blog on Angkor), but my biggest learning was that there is, of course, so much more to this country than those two things. From drinking in hipster bars being run by young locals, to learning about Buddhism or gaining an insight in to how different life is outside the cities and much more. Cambodia has so much to offer and lots of people passionate to tell the stories; if you’re prepared to listen.

I will start with the genocide though. I visited two sites in Phnom Penh, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (often called S-21) and Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (often referred to as the killing fields). It’s difficult to explain how I felt in both of these places, it took me back to when I’ve been to the slave forts in Ghana and the horrors that I learnt about there. From the moment I walked in there was a knot in my stomach and that feeling didn’t pass for some time. Both museums offer guided audio tours and they are superb with stories from survivors, guards and executioners giving a vivid insight in to both what happened and the build up to the events. Seeing exactly where these atrocities took place, plus hearing the stories, makes the experience much more ‘real’ and brings it home more than any book or article ever could. Both museums offer a chance for reflection with Choeung Ek placing many benches throughout the fields to take a seat and think and Toul Sleng museum’s ‘Lotus Room’ offering an air-conditioned sanctuary where people can sit quietly and gather their thoughts.

My first reactions were, “how could anyone do these things to a fellow human?”, followed by, “this could never happen now.” To be honest both of these thoughts, although understandable, are naive. Throughout history it’s been shown that humans can be manipulated to carry out awful deeds and we all have a responsibility to ‘keep a watch’ on circumstances within society to ensure that these things can’t happen again. My biggest take, and I’ll readily admit I’m not an expert, was that in pretty much every case of genocide the lives of the oppressed group are devalued. A common tactic is to normalise language that compares those people to animals, a danger or an enemy. Even in 2018 it isn’t hard to see those with power in society using such language in the public sphere.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about ‘dark tourism’ and whether I should visit such places, it can feel voyeuristic at times, but I guess I justify it from an educational standpoint. I contributed a small amount of money to a charity that was fundraising in the Tuol Sleng Museum to bring more Cambodian schoolchildren to visit these sites and learn; something I think is important.

With the impressive beauty of Angkor Wat and what I describe above it would be easy to imagine that they would be the dominant memories of my time in Cambodia. In fact, it’s far from it. And this is mainly because of the people I met.

Just below I flew home from Siem Reap for my hand operation I got a chance to meet with Amy, from Ayana Journeys (more on them in a later blog), who gave me a fantastic insight in to the work they do and the values that pin down their ethical tourism business. In Phnom Penh I had a delicious Cambodian dinner with Claire (of Learning Service fame), Yut and Seavyi who lead tours for Ayana Journeys. Yut and Seavyi were particularly keen for people visiting Cambodia to escape the classic tourist trials and explore ‘real’ Cambodia and learn about Buddhism and it’s role in Cambodian society. Listening to them talk with so much passion was hugely inspiring and they challenged assumptions I had about Cambodia, especially life outside the main cities and tourist hubs. Their premise was that although young Cambodians cannot change the history of the country, they can take control of the narrative for the future and how the world views Cambodia.

Yut, Seavyi and Claire

I also met with Chloe (who’s documentary, “The Voluntourist”, I’ve written about before), her boyfriend Damo and a whole host of their friends. We a couple of great nights out both consisting of a decent sized bar crawl and putting the world to rights on all sorts of subjects. Winning at boules in a back street bar, against a team of French nationals, was a particular highlight (I seem to get my eye in after a four beers I learnt).

Nights out in Phnom Penh

Finally I met with James from Friends International (again, a blog coming on their work) who explained to me how they are helping build futures for young people across Southeast Asia and in particular how they educate people on how to be responsible travellers and not fund human trafficking through orphanage volunteering. They have thousands of local people volunteering for them in their movement; all of whom want to improve their communities.

So from looking at Cambodia in a rather two-dimensional way when I arrived, I left the country with a much greater understanding of it’s history and people. Of course, I only scratched the surface but the trip whet my appetite to visit again and taught me important lessons about making assumptions about a place before visiting.

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