Heaven and Hell in a Day in Cambodia


cambodiaAs kids – Vietnamese refugees in Connecticut – our parents warned us not to get too tan: “You’ll be dark like a Cambodian,” they’d sigh after we had baked outside all day. So when, decades later, I swerved into Cambodia from my Vietnam-to-Thailand path, I didn’t expect much. I wasn’t a backpacker who considered himself a world traveler but in reality just treated third-world countries as dive bars with interesting scenery, spending my hours drinking, smoking, clubbing, flirting. Still, I wanted fun. I bought and ate a deep-fried tarantula on the bus ride to Phnom Penh, just so I could brag about it later. I traveled on the cheap – squatting over beat-up suitcases along with a group of Malaysian pilgrims, the smell of gasoline coming through the cracks of the bus windows – just because the image was funny to me.

I got off in Phnom Penh, paid a dusty man on a motorbike to take me to the killing fields, just so I could check them off my list. We have one hour, I said, pointing at my watch. He laughed and nodded. He had no front teeth. He waited outside while I walked into the killing fields and into the past.

In the year I was born, the communist Khmer Rouge regime had hacked hundreds of thousands of “revolutionaries” into pieces and shoved them into the ground. Thousands of human skulls had been dug up and stacked neatly on shelves. Now, it was totally quiet, and butterflies were looking for nectar from the flowering bushes. How could a place so gruesome be so beautiful at the same time? I sat on the ground to rest, and noticed human teeth in the dirt next to me.

I went to the school Pol Pot had turned into a butcher shop for revolutionaries. Metal bed frames with shackles had replaced desks. Posted security rules read: “Don’t be fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution” and “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” As I stepped up to the photo galleries of genocide victims, with their Cambodian features looking back at me, I thought for a second they recognized me, and I recognized myself in them. I broke off eye contact. Back outside, the dusty man pointed at my watch and laughed (he didn’t have one). Five, he gestured with his outstretched fingers. I had stayed five hours.

If Phnom Penh showed me how ugly humans could be, Angkor Wat, only a few hours away, showed me how beautiful they could be, too. It is a city of temples, the biggest in the world. For two full days – I made sure to watch the sun rise and set each day – I walked through the temples, got lost inside of them, and admired the enormous stone reliefs of women and men praying with elaborate head gear, peaceful faces carved into stone stacks, and carvings of elephants, leaves, and story scenes. In one temple, the large roots of trees had woven itself into the stone structure altogether, uniting live wood with dead stone in a contradiction.

On my final night in Cambodia, I realized I had stayed a week and not a day, as I had originally planned. That is what Cambodia did to me: It took away my sense of time to remind me how beautiful and how ugly we could be at the same time, how good and how evil, and how we have been alike whether a generation or a thousand years ago. I walked to a night market to buy skewers of food – meat balls, shrimp, and tofu. In the middle of the square, people had placed straw mats, and lanterns softly lit up the eating area. I sat with a group of local teens, and we ate and smiled, and shared our lives in broken English while I looked up Khmer phrases in my travel guide to patch together sentences. Under the big diamond-studded night sky, couples were laughing, babies were crying, men were telling stories, merchants were selling beads. If I could save time in a bottle, as the Jim Croce song goes, I’d spend it all in Cambodia. After a week of silence in hell and in heaven, with devils and with angels, it was good to hear human noise again.

About the Author:  Alexander Nguyen is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. His next trip is to Yongan, Myanmar.

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One response to “Heaven and Hell in a Day in Cambodia

  1. I have a soft spot for Cambodia, too. You’ve captured some great images and feelings in this piece. Nice one.

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