Karel and I elected not to visit the infamous killing fields or prisons of Cambodia, but the aftermath of this horrible period was all around us. Many of the adults we saw working in the shops, hotels, and restaurants were orphans. They grew up, not only without parents, but without teachers. They were deprived of beauty and food for the soul, having no religious leaders, no musicians, no artists. When the cities were repopulated after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there were no experienced administrators, engineers, or technicians left to run them. After years of malnutrition and starvation, the survivors then had to cope with an economy that had been deliberately and thoroughly destroyed.
It’s no wonder that, a decade or so after this nightmare, everyone still seems traumatized. It shows up in the strangest ways: a waitress becomes terribly distressed when our tour director tries to correct a mistake with the food that was ordered; from my hotel balcony, I hear the cries of a developmentally disabled man in an apartment across the street; the relatively recent attempts at public art and beautification are already defaced or falling apart; the way everyone prefaces each sentence with an apology: I’m sorry, here is the drink you ordered. So sorry, your change. Please, sorry, we have arrived at your destination.
We chose to visit the National Museum, which proved to be worthwhile. There were many fine examples of statuary and other art from some of the ancient temples, some informative displays about the history of Angkor Wat, and a UNESCO-funded “virtual museum” comprised of photographs and text, that answered many of my questions about the natural history and geography of the area. My favorite, though, was an old, black and white film of the cremation and funeral procession of the King of Cambodia in 1928, along the very boulevard (newly constructed, along with the palace, in 1924) that we could see beyond the gates of the museum. It was fascinating to see the differences.
Karel and I went to a small restaurant on our own that evening. The Green Star was one of many in Phnom Penh that are nonprofit training centers for at-risk youth. Children who have been living on the street are given a safe place to sleep, and training in the restaurant business. There were four or five people manning the small place, all very young. They were the first cheerful people I’d seen in Cambodia. They laughed and joked with each other, and one girl sang along in a beautiful voice to the pop music that was playing. Towards us, they were friendly and polite. Our waiter seemed to be a bit of a daydreamer, but he’d always snap into action if we called him, or when one of the girls prodded him to go check on us.
After a while, the waiter made a “Happy Buddha” comment to Karel. We were used to this by now, but then the young man asked Karel, could he sleep on his belly without rolling off the bed? We realized that his question reflected the childish innocence of a person who never had someone who could answer those questions when he was four years old. I don’t know if I can explain this very well, but the naiveté of it really showed me: his generation is bereft.
Imagine an entire nation that has been deprived of all of its accumulated wisdom.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013