Upon recommendation by a woman I met in Thailand, I read “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” by Loung Ung prior to arriving in Cambodia, conveniently finishing it on the flight from Bangkok. The first hand account of living through Pol Pot’s violent period of control, and survival, starvation, and abuse under the Khmer Rouge proved to be educational and powerful, and it led to a deeper appreciation for the kindness and smiles of the Cambodian people. One wouldn’t know by taking a look around that these faces had seen some of the most horrible war scenes imaginable only 40 years ago. Those I encountered who would have lived through the Khmer Rouge persecution were eager to please and show me their cities and culture.
The younger generation is so full of life. I was instantly drawn to them that first night as my taxi weaved through the traffic. Young couples laughed as they whizzed by one another on motorbikes, flirting as they slowed at intersections. I watched from behind the cab window like the shy girl watching all the cool kids have fun, desperately wanting to be part of their world. I was enthralled.
Still, it was hard to ignore the history of the Khmer Rouge, especially after visiting either the Killing Fields or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I spent some time walking through the halls and classrooms of the old high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into the infamous torture and interrogation prison known as S-21. My stomach churned as I walked past images of victims who had died during interrogations, and of entire families who had been arrested and held there – including little children. Anyone who might have had affiliation with or been in support of the former government was subject to arrest. Intellectuals (including many foreigners), railway engineers, police officers, and civilians, men, women, and children all passed through S-21. Rooms that were once used to educate and inspire life in young Cambodians were now a source of nightmares.
I touched my fingers to the rusted barbed wire strung across the veranda – meant to prevent prisoners from jumping to their death. Holding to it, I tried for a moment to imagine this as my life. The men I know forced to confess to false collaboration with foreign organizations, or the children made to watch their parents killed, only to inevitably face a similar fate. A moment was all I could take.
Sitting at a café just down the road from S-21, I thought about the different realities experienced simultaneously around the world. It’s easy to sit at home and simply be aware that our lives, with the freedom to laugh and go out with friends, debate politics with neighbors, and compete for jobs, are not like many of those in the world. Safe in middle-class comfort, we are blessed and rich with opportunities and resources. We might read books and articles about tragedies and conflicts worldwide, but when it gets to be too much we can put them down and carry on with our day.
While walking through the tiny wooden boxes at Tuol Sleng that people like you and me sat chained in for months, and at the café afterward, I kept coming back to the concept of reality. Could it be true that while my parents were in high school and college, the Cambodian people were living through this reality? For nearly five years they woke up every day to this? Could you survive? How?
Hollywood et al. has a knack for romanticizing some of history’s most heinous events. Diluted with plots of love and mystery, stories of life in WWII Europe fascinated me as a kid, but it was not until I visited Dachau at 13 that I felt the gravity of it all. It was not just a story. It had really happened. Those were people’s lives.
Without movies and (often fictionalized) books as influence, Tuol Sleng was very raw. And it burned. It hurt. As it should. We are capable of so much love and so much destruction, and we have to be reminded of what wickedness looks like so we know to crush it before it rises. We can’t hate each other.
Chum Mey, one of only a handful of survivors from S-21, was sitting near the exit of the museum with a table of books he’d either written or contributed to. He smiled at me as I stopped to read a poster resting next to him. On it he was quoted as saying he could not hate his captors, for they were only doing what they had to do to survive. Could we be expected to do differently?
*Edited December 26, 2014
Southeast Asia can be a culture shock for a number of reasons, but the one thing that rattled my chains was the squat toilet. It’s one thing to squat over a toilet at a gas station or the strip mall, but it’s an entirely different experience to squat over a hole in the ground. The Banterist summed up the experience in hilariously accurate detail in a 2006 blog post, and knowing I could not have explained the process better myself, you’ll find the post copied below.
Note: I had a few extra hurdles to jump – and my experience was at the train station in Suratthani which I unfortunately had to make use of more than once. It was that, or be guided down a dark alley to an empty spot by the wall by the guy at the food stand.
Rule One: Exhaust all other possibilities.
If you are truly in need and condemned to use the squat toilet, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are several thousand miles from friends and family. No one has to know.
Proceed as follows:
Most stalls do not have toilet paper. This is the best time to realize this. Either take paper from the general dispenser in the bathroom area or preferably bring your own as it will be made of tissue and not plywood carpaccio.
Approach the squat toilet apprehensively and make sure it’s not covered in stool. If it is covered in stool, choose another stall. If another stall is not available, accept the cards that have been dealt you. This is a good time to come up with a title for your experience such as My Great B.M. Adventure or Disgusticon One.
Close the door to the stall, knowing full well the handle has more germs on it than the entire population of Botswana.
Place your feet on the appropriate foot grids, assuming they are not covered in stool. If they are covered in stool, place your feet on the least fouled space you can find, being careful to maintain balance.
Unfasten and drop your trousers and underpants, making sure that they do not make contact with the urine and stool covered surface area.
Grimace and ask yourself if a country with such a toilet can or should ever be a superpower.
Assume a squatting position like a competitive ski jumper. Stick your ass out like a whore in a 50 Cent video. This is a good time to pretend you’re not a miserable tourist with your pants around your ankles, squatting over a barbaric poo hole.
Use your right hand to prevent the soiling of your trousers and underpants by holding them off the ground and pushing them forward, away from any Danger Zone. This is perhaps the best time ever to be a kilt-wearing Scotsman.
In your left hand should be the assortment of paper/wipes/anti-bacterial sheets you intend to use after you are finished with your production.
You would think you would want your left hand to brace your squatting self against the stall wall. However, the stall wall is covered in nose nuggets and as such is not touchable. At any rate, if you have a penis you will need your left hand for guidance anyway.
For the penised: Use your left hand to aim it away from your trousers and underpants. Point it backwards between your legs – as if it were a rocket engine designed to propel you far away from this alien hellhole. At the same time be sure not to drop any of the objects in your left hand as they will be rendered horribly irretrievable should you do so.
If you do not have a penis, use the left arm to balance yourself – waving it around wildly rather than touching the snot covered stall wall or filthy support bars (if any).
If you are able to maintain balance for several seconds, you are ready to begin bowel evacuation. At this point the bulk of your focus should be towards the quick evacuation of your bowels without soiling your clothing, missing your mark or – God forbid – losing your balance and falling.
For aiming purposes keep your head tucked between your legs – like a bombardier on a very unpleasant mission assigned by General Squalor.
If your aim is true you will have the pleasure of watching poo (yours) drop down a deep, dark hole to a resounding ploot. If it’s not true, you will have the pleasure of watching poo (yours) come to rest on the floor between your legs.
After you have completed your bowel evacuation, DO NOT STAND UP. Remain squatting and miserable.
Continue using your right hand to prevent contact of your trousers/underpants with urine/stool. Place your tissues and wipes in your left hand on top of your underwear/trousers and select the items you need for wiping.
Wipe and curse culture simultaneously, all the while maintaining the squatting position.
Do not drop soiled tissues. That would be too easy. Sadly, the 16th century plumbing can only handle poo. Soiled tissues are to be placed in the bin behind you. Without leaving the squat position, twist your body in order to see the bin and make a good throw. Don’t worry if you miss, as it’s obvious from the poo-sheet pile on the floor that even the squat-tastic natives are no Michael Jordans.
Once sufficiently wiped, humiliated and traumatized, you may stand and re-underpant and re-trouser yourself. This is a good time to reflect on your life and also a good time to try blacking out these last ten minutes – like a freshly-sodomized felon might do.
The filth-covered flush button is behind you and may or may not work.
Open the door to the stall, again knowing the handle has more germs on it than a decade of scrapings from Paris Hilton’s tongue.
Exit the stall and never, ever, ever get yourself into a situation where you have to do that again. But first, wash your hands until they bleed.
Now, I know it’s a “no-no” to travel within a country seeking cuisine that is not their own i.e. Chinese in Italy or French in Thailand, but hey, food is food. And so long as you’re not jumping for joy outside of every KFC, Subway, or (insert dinky pizza chain here), then I say go for it. Maybe once a week during travels I’ll take a break from the local gastronomy. After all, you wouldn’t eat fried noodles every day at home, right?
On Yao Noi a few of us took a break from Thai for a night at La Luna Pizzeria. Ironically on the boat there from Krabi I’d met an Italian couple whose friends owned the restaurant. I had a prosciutto pizza that was better than any pizza I’ve had outside Italy. Yum.
And now, after walking around Phnom Penh for much of the day, I stumble across Nature by AsiaBio. “Organic food and grocery” it says on the sign out front, and without skipping a beat I’m there. It’s totally chic, and while the prices are above average for Phnom Penh, it’s still a fraction of the price I’d pay for lunch in the States, especially at an organic café.
I’ll admit my eyes were a bit larger than my stomach, but I regret nothing. While my fried snapper and veggie entrée sadly had a bit too much going on, my mango-coconut smoothie was spot on, as was my “Fresh and Light” salad with watercress, feta cheese, and watermelon.
Once I was full from that, I ordered a passion fruit panna cotta and a fresh limejuice for dessert. Biting into the panna cotta I let out an audible “holy crap”. A nice change from the “holy hell fire” I’d been silently cursing to myself all morning in the city heat.