Even the weather was perfect-cloudy skies, a cool breeze and little rain. As the plane flew over the rice fields of Cambodia, dipping through clouds and finally emerging over the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle rivers over Phnom Penh, I gazed at the flying countryside and city below, not just a little amazed at the fact that I was actually here.
No one really thinks of Phnom Penh as a tourist destination in itself-a city with essentially no landmark sights and a reportedly high crime rate. The city, however, had come alive for me just a few days into reading its history and its place in the Khmer Rouge Revolution of 1975-1979. Riveting accounts of the events of April 1975 had geographical references to the city that still exist. And of course, there was the torture prison known as S21 and the related “Killing Fields” of Choeung Ek, both symbols of the Khmer Rouge and now museums in the city. As I read more about the Cambodian Holocaust, it became obvious to me that practically every living Cambodian is either a direct or indirect victim of the Khmer Rouge era.
I came with simple plans of seeing S21 and Choeung Ek but I ended up with a glimpse of the soul of a country and a people I had read much about. I went to relive history but I also ended up falling in love with a city and the warmth, genuiness and smiles of practically everyone I met. As the Sun dipped below the horizon, I sat on a waterfront bench and gazed out at the banks of the mighty Mekong where many a battle had been fought and just saw a normal city, a people going about their lives-children playing by the waterfront, bars and pubs open for business, a beggar sitting by the roadside, monks emerging from a Wat.
Thun-an unfailingly polite, always punctual, gentle man, was my tuk tuk driver on all my little trips in Phnom Penh. On many occassions, as we passed the sights, back roads and boulevards of a city once called “Paris of the East”, I could not escape the feeling that the two of us were in a cocoon, looking at a city and a culture from the outside in. I felt myself changing into a privileged observer, interacting with the people and the institutions that define them and then respectfully withdrawing, and Thun was my unwitting partner, waiting patiently by his tuk tuk, while I took my time and indulged my fantasies.
Over the course of my three day trip, I discovered a warmth that once was-before war and politics tore Cambodia apart and I saw that in Thun, in the staff of my hotel who made me feel like family and in the many ordinary Cambodians I was previlged to interact with- living normal lives, trying to forget a past that may be impossible to move away from. I felt the sorrow of those years still alive in an old roadside bookseller whose handshake and smile are indelible memories, in my guide at S21 who shared her tragic life story and in the S21 survivors whose lips part in an obligatory smile for a photo but whose eyes cannot hide their pain.
When you get stuck in traffic in Phnom Penh, imagine the city completely abandoned, empty and quiet. Pass by the Gate of the French Embassy and while you swerve to avoid incoming traffic, try to imagine the desperation and chaos of April 1975. Ask yourself why you hardly see anyone who looks older than 50. And when you do, don’t think too much about what they were doing for the worst four years anywhere in recent history.
On my last evening in the city, I walked across to a nearby roadside cafe, right across the road from Wat Lanka. Sitting there, my mind empty of thoughts, I heard the chime of bells from the temple. The evening was cool and subdued rock played on the stereo. Some mild traffic passed by, mainly tuk tuks looking for a ride. I sat alone next to a group of “barangs” (expats) and watched as a small girl skipped in with a bunch of flowers. And I watched transfixed as the girl and the barangs bonded and chatted in pure Khmer like old friends. They did not buy the flowers but the girl’s smile never left her face.
These are the memories I carry and the images that play on my mind.
I went as a tourist and returned with sheer respect and gratitude for a country that must be visited to be truly appreciated.
Cambodia will not be a one time visit but it was a once in a lifetime experience.
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.