Short story: Cambodia Remembers

A while ago I had to write a one-page short story for my Modern English Lit class. It had to be “life writing”, so based on a real-life experience, preferably my own. In class we had to form groups and peer review each other’s stories, and select the best one. All nominated stories would be eligible for publication in a magazine called Anglophile. I’m proud to say that despite a lack of enthusiasm from my peers in class, my professor selected my story, along with five others, to be read by Anglophile! I’ve had no word on publication yet, but I wanted to share it here, as I’m a bit proud of it. I wrote one page on an experience I had while travelling in Cambodia three years ago.

It is a meditation based on the focus on the future that I’ve encountered in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, which of course has a troubled colonial past, I noticed a similar desire to forget the past as I did in Cambodia. There are monuments and airports named after Soekarno and Hatta, the national heroes who freed Indonesia from the Dutch and Japanese yokes, but you won’t find a museum with leftover memorabilia from the colonial period. Meanwhile, at the Rijksmuseum, we have a marvellous collection of paintings of the Dutch Indies and a collection of ceremonial kris daggers. The blood spatters have been wiped out of our history books. To us, these paintings are quaint; examples of the imperial might of the Dutch, not evidence of the greed and brutality that entailed. The lack of evidence for this period has helped people to forget; some people I spoke to in Java said that there were no hard feelings towards the Dutch. In Cambodia, you will find a handful of reminders of the country’s bloody past, the Tuol Sleng museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh being the most famous. Here is a country whose oppressors were not outsiders but its own citizens. Being that it was a relatively short time ago that the Khmer Rouge retracted its claws, the tragedy is still fresh in the memories of Khmer people today. In Europe, we have erected countless memorials for the Holocaust, because it is a tragedy that we feel should never be forgotten. There are no such memorials in Cambodia, other than the former killing sites.

If you are thinking of visiting Cambodia, I have just two words for you: do it. I cannot recommend it enough.

Cambodia Remembers

The soft, spongey mud mutes our footsteps. Our arms, slick with sunblock, DEET and sweat from the heavy, humid air, leave greasy stains on our T-shirts as we tramp through the jungle in our hiking boots. Our guide, who is wearing flip flops and easily outdistances us on the rocky, slippery and muddy paths, leads the way. When we pause for a sip of water and ask him how much further it is to the cave, he waves his hand and says: “One kilometre”. He smiles, we smile. Always keep smiling, never lose your temper. In our defense, Lonely Planet, he said the same thing two hours ago.

To our surprise, he actually halts ten minutes later and gestures to a gaping hole in the ground. “The cave,” he explains. We peer down, seeing nothing. He leads us around a cluster of rocks and down a flight of steps covered in mud-spattered tiles, with a railing in the shape of a blue painted naga. Everything in Cambodia seems to be covered in tiles; not just floors, but walls as well. Seeing bathroom tiles on the outside walls of a house seems strange to us, though undeniably practical; in a land of bare feet and sweltering heat, who wants shag carpets? We descend the steps onto a white tiled floor; a sharp contrast with the craggy, dripping forest of stalactites on the ceiling. Our guide points out a budding stalagmite in the middle of a tile. We’re standing in the open entrance of the cave. Garishly painted statues of Buddha bid us a silent but benevolent welcome. We’re led into the cave through the ceiling of which we just peeked.

Across from the entrance, the golden Buddha who guards the cave has nodded off on a bed festooned with ribbons and candles. Our guide points up to the hole in the roof.  “They dropped them in here,” he says. He turns away and looks at the Buddha. Our first glimpse of Cambodia was the dappled sunlight on the forest floor, the magnificent crumbling temples of Angkor Thom hugged desperately by overgrown fig trees, the child who hoped to sell us a keychain or postcard by counting to ten in Dutch for us. The ruins of the Khmer empire testify to a once thriving culture which for knowledge, hygiene, religion and art may easily have rivalled those of the Greeks and the Romans, the cradle of our civilization. And yet, Cambodia never managed to climb up to become a first world country. The Khmer Rouge made sure of that.

“Harvest rice, not knowledge” was the unofficial creed of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, as justification for the genocide of three million people between 1975 and 1979. Wearing glasses was enough to brand you as an intellectual and a threat to the regime. Cambodia is old, but her face is young. She is populated by hair dressers, food sellers, farmers, fishmongers, shop keepers and remork drivers younger than forty who lack the knowledge and education to build something new and stop other countries from looting their resources from under their nose.

The Holocaust has become part of our European consciousness; propped up by memorials, statues and films, it urges us to remember, to learn from the past, even when the links to the present are fading with time. What does the Holocaust mean to our guide, we wonder, whose country is still ruled by former party members whose resumes have been scrubbed clean like the tiles on the floor? Our guide, who must have lost an uncle or a father, just like the driver who calls out to us from the side of the road, hoping to earn some extra money by driving us to see the mass graves at the Killing Fields, which still divulge new horrors every year during the rainy season, or to the former torture and execution centre Tuol Sleng, now a museum for the Cambodian genocide.

Next to the sleeping Buddha is a large Plexiglass box, decorated in gold, pink and blue with a stained-glass door. A harsh TL light inside the box reveals  two cubic metres of skulls and bones. It doesn’t seem real; a toy crane machine at an arcade comes to mind. Our guide explains that these are the remains of local people who were victims of the Khmer Rouge. Clubbed or shot to death, they were dumped inside this cave, until the authorities decided to clean it up and make it a place of prayer and remembrance. Our Lonely Planet marked it as a must-see. As it does with the deteriorating temples in all their ancient glory, the jungle chews and swallows, a little more every day, until nothing remains. See it while it’s still here. Before we forget.

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