Cambodia has been on my mind for the last six months, pretty much all the time, but it’s hard to say why. This interest-turned-passion developed within a few hours and has stayed on since. It started with a book called “Survival in the Killing Fields”, written by a Khmer Rouge Survivor, Dr Haing Ngor. Dr Ngor went on to star in the movie “The Killing Fields” which is why you may have heard of him. I had not, and I was not aware of the movie or its story. This book changed all of that.
But then I thought about why I, of all people, should be so affected by a book to the extent that for a few months, it was all I was talking about to anyone who cared to read or listen. I thought about the authors I’ve been reading and how they are related to Cambodia, I thought about what I’ve read and I thought about Cambodia as a country and its people and culture. Most authors or film makers who have produced anything related to Cambodia bear some relation to the country or its culture in some way. Random people like me exist, but are rare and no one takes them seriously anyway.
“What is my reason?”, I am asked. I am Indian. I live in Malaysia and work as a Doctor. Till just five months ago I had no plans of even visiting Cambodia apart from a “bucket list” desire to see AngkorWat. I had never heard of anyone related to Cambodia. I am 38 years old and I knew nothing about a country that was the victim of a genocide that must surely rank alongside The Holocaust in many ways and in many others, stand apart in its brutality and near-destruction of an entire country and its identifying tenets of civilization-family, religion and way of life. It was a sledgehammer discovery, to put it mildly.
Cambodia took a hold on me. It led me to visiting Phnom Penh, an experience that comes once in a lifetime. I met people whose memories will always linger and and I felt peace and a sense of utter spiritual calm where in fact, I had gone to see places known for brutality and murder of historic proportions.
Cambodia, I realize now, is personal. The story stays with me, the images and memories-of old Cambodia, of the photographs of the S21 victims hanging there, of the evacuation of Phnom Penh, of the “Killing Tree of Choeung Ek”, of the rare footage from the Khmer Rouge labour camps-they haunt me. I am awe-struck at how a people subject to such complete and utter subjugation, terror and destruction can be so welcoming, so warm, so genuine. I despair at the problems that currently face Cambodia but I am grateful that there is a Cambodia at all.
Sadly, for a country that has a rich heritage and a glorious past, it is The Khmer Rouge genocide of 1975-1979 that defines Cambodia’s history now-everything since is judged in its context- but although Haing Ngor introduced me to the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, he also weaved in aspects of Cambodia’s culture and customs that impacted his life-respect for elders, the value of family, traditional Asian values-a culture that unsurprisingly is very close to my own Indian upbringing. These values were shattered by the Khmer Rouge, the country’s very fabric was torn to shreds and the threads that bind the cloth now are tenuous but they are there. I read about the country’s geography and people-the vast green rice fields, the poor but happy farming community working for themselves, the old world charm of Phnom Penh, the arts and dance heritage of Cambodia, the beautifully peaceful countryside dotted with sugar palms and ringed with hills and mountain ranges. The scenes I describe above are familiar to me-they could have been from anywhere in India or indeed, in South East Asia. Cambodia feels like home and in my recent visit there, I felt I was at home too.
Modern life has undoubtedly changed much of the scenery and that is to be expected but the Cambodia of today has risen from the Stone Age, quite literally. How can that not be inspiring?.
By all rights, Cambodia should be extinct. But of course, it’s not. Go and see for yourself what a miracle means.
I am of course, no expert in this field and maybe that is a good thing. I cannot look at Cambodia with academic detachment and I am grateful for that. Now, if I am still asked “Why Cambodia”, I tell them that in a previous life I was Cambodian.
Karmic connection. That is what it is.
That is why I love this little piece of heaven.
About the Author: Nishikanta Verma: I am an Indian doctor currently residing in Malaysia. I am passionate about all things related to Cambodia and also have current interests in World History, Buddhism and Quantum Physics. I am married with one daughter and another on the way. Twitter: @jipmerdays.