The fourth and final installment of December Travels is about my trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore. As a heads up, this post gets heavy and I talk about war and genocide in Cambodia. If you’d rather skip it (though I recommend you don’t), feel free to do so.
I joined fellow ETA Sam in Bangkok, Thailand on the 23rd. Stayed there for one night (in which I did the only thing any sensible theatre lover would do and listened to Chess’s “One Night in Bangkok”) and explored the next day. Our first stop was the Thai Grand Palace. It’s an explosion of rhinestones, glass, glitter, and gold that would make any bedazzler happy, but unlike most bedazzled jeans, it looks remarkable and very classy.
We also visited Wat Pho, which houses the Reclining Buddha. While this Buddha may be lazy, the artisans who built him certainly were not—it’s covered in gold leaf and measures a whopping 46 meters (150 feet) long.
Afterwards we scoured the city for the perfect pairs of green and red elephant pants (the unspoken uniform of tourists across Thailand) in order to create a spectacular Christmas outfit. We stumbled upon some Christmas sweater-esque scarves as well, so threw those into the fray.
I also drank three large cups of Thai iced tea. Which is delicious. And one contains enough sugar to last me 3 years.
We spent six days in Cambodia, 4 in Siem Reap and 2 in Phnom Penh. This leg of the journey was filled with an awe-inspiring and soul-crushing mix of Khmer history. Over three days we visited the many gorgeous and ancient Angkor temples as well as the Cambodia Landmine Museum. In Phnom Penh we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and Choeung Ek Killing Field. I’ll speak to the temples first, then on the other sites.
TEMPLE RUN (or, rather, sprint)
The Angkor era lasted from 802-1431 and began when a king declared a parcel of land (about the size of Cambodia) his. He was crowned chakravartin (universal monarch) and renamed Jayavaran II. The Angkor Archaeological Park consists of the ruins of many Angkor capital cities and temple complexes. Angkor Wat, featured on the Cambodian flag, is the largest and most famous ruin, but far from the only one. I will now attempt a sprint through all of the ruins that Sam and I visited (note that we still did not see all of them).
The darker side of Cambodia’s past
When one of your soldier dies, you bury them. When one of your soldiers is maimed, you must care for them—fix them, feed them. Caring for the wounded costs more money, more time, more people, more resources. Landmines that maim rather than kill are a more effective war strategy. So rival factions within Cambodia covered the country in landmines. Landmines do not click when you step on them. They explode immediately. Landmines do not target soldiers alone, they target everyone. Cambodia is the most heavily mined area in the world and there are an estimated 4-6 million landmines still in the ground. Large cities have already been cleared of mines, but many rural areas are still riddled with explosives. Which means that the land is rendered useless. You cannot farm in it you cannot play in it and if you do you quite literally risk life and limb.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Center seeks to educate anyone willing to stop about landmines and their place in Cambodian past and present. The museum was founded by ex-child soldier Aki Ra, who was forced to lay landmines as a child and has since dedicated his life to removing as many as he can—around 50,000 to date. Though he no longer demines, his NGO, Cambodian Self-Help Demining, continues removing mines from Cambodia every day. Around 63,000 people have been in accidents involving land mines and other explosive weapons, and 1 in 290 Cambodians is an amputee. I suggest you now take six minutes to watch this video about Aki Ra (also below).
Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to realize a deranged, utopian fantasy, to destroy art, religion, and culture and begin a new, Communist agrarian society at Year Zero. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge evicted everyone from the cities and forced them to live in rural areas and begin new lives as farmers. They demanded an absurdly high output from these new communities, many of which were composed of people who had never farmed in their lives. The Khmer Rouge leaders also began an assault on “New People,” on anyone deemed an intellectual with Western influence. Doctors, lawyers, professors, monks, artists, politicians, city-dwellers, foreigners. All were labeled “New People,” and deemed dangerous. As were many who had glasses, for they were seen as a symbol of intelligence. These people were rounded up and sent to detention centers throughout the country. Because their families could potentially seek revenge, they were rounded up too.
In Phnom Penh, one such detention center, S-21 or Tuol Sleng, has been converted into a museum. This high school-turned prison has been kept in a state similar to how it was found after the war. Today it is peaceful and green, but the exhibits depict the atrocities that occurred. The walls are covered in headshots that were taken to document each prisoner. Everyone in the photos—from young children to old men and women—died. S-21 processed over 17,000 people; only seven men, who possessed skills deemed valuable by the Khmer Rouge for the upkeep of the prison, survived. Prisoners were kept in horrible conditions. They were tortured. They were innocent. But the Khmer Rouge insisted they were spies for the CIA or KGB (organizations most of the prisoners had never heard of). They were forced to give false confessions and name others in their spy network (family, friends, neighbors). After they confessed, they were taken to the killing field.
The Choeung Ek Killing Field, one of around 300 across the country, is outside the city of Phnom Penh. Prisoners were brought here in the middle of the night to be murdered. Loud revolutionary music blared and generators roared, powering fluorescent lights and muffling screams for help. This gave any nearby citizens the illusion that the Khmer Rouge were holding meetings. Prisoners were not shot because a gunshot would be too loud. Instead, the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned every individual to death, or slit their throats. Weapons were expensive, so they used whatever they could find. Death was neither fast nor ensured. The bodies were thrown in mass graves and covered in DDT to mask the smell. Those who weren’t already dead were poisoned and buried alive. Though the graves have since been excavated, skeletons classified, and the bones placed into an enormous memorial stupa, bits of bone and clothing still wash up when it rains.
Between 1975 and 1979, approximately 2,000,000-3,000,000 people, a quarter of the entire Cambodian population, died. The population today is young. Anyone over the age of 40 lived through horrors I cannot imagine.
After a very sobering trip to Cambodia, we went to Singapore and joined a group of other ETAs to celebrate the New Year. We went to a large beach party and there were hordes of people and fireworks and lots of dancing and a foam pit and I lost my shoes at one point and freaked out a bit but it’s okay because I found them. This was the closest to Times Square I will ever get (which in some ways is funny because it was also the furthest from Times Square I’ll ever be). It was fun and I learned to twerk for it. I did miss a quieter evening with a small group of close friends and family. I missed saying resolutions. Or struggling to come up with some sort of resolution. And reflecting on the year. But it was a nice cap to a beautiful and enlightening trip. I was grateful that I could be on a beach surrounded by people, dancing and watching fireworks explode in the sky, carefree. That’s a luxury. The world at times seems more peaceful than ever today. Yet at others it does not.
So to end, I urge you to be unafraid to explore. Explore new places. Explore new people. Explore new ideas. It’s okay if you don’t like or agree with what you find, but opening your eyes to something new, being willing to see that which is outside yourself and your world, is important. Distrust and dislike are never the answer. Neither is destroying—whether physically or verbally—that which scares or upsets you. If you have to hurt others to alleviate something you see as a problem, then you need to ask yourself to find a better solution. Because anything borne from pain will lead only to ruin.
Until next time,