Looking out the bus window at the choking traffic as the bus crawls into Phnom Penh I feel a sense of unease. After travelling in Cambodia in smaller towns and villages where I enjoyed the peace and tranquillity for about a month, the hassle and bustle of the capital is overwhelming. Getting off the bus and I am immediately surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers asking me “where are you going?”, but unlike the incessant and persisting nature of Vietnamese tuk-tuk drivers, the Cambodians are much more polite and friendly, and they will leave you in peace if you don’t need their service.
I finally meet up with my friend (the founder of Krauser Thmey – Cambodia first NGO) after 6 years. Benito (as he likes to be called) is French. He was posted to work in Thailand in the 80s where he had to make frequent visits to Cambodia. Upon seeing the poverty and misery in this country, he decided to quit his high-paying job and started the NGO to help street children. I spend a few relaxing days with Benito before he sets off to visit the other offices and branches of the organization throughout the country.
Like most big cities in Asia, Phnom Penh doesn’t really inspire me. I like meeting and chatting with random people on the streets or cafes; one aspect of Cambodians that I admire is their sense of gratitude. They don’t take things for granted and really appreciate life and the little things in life. This is something I want to learn from them. I guess this humility and gratitude has a lot to do with their recent past.
In order to understand better I have to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
It’s a beautiful day, the Sun is shinning and there are cotton clouds in the blue sky. I am in high spirit as I approach the museum and pay the entrance fee (USD 2). From the outside, this former school looks just like any other school buildings, but on closer inspections you’ll see barb wires and remnants of atrocities that transpired here. In 1975, 14,000 people were imprisoned here before being tortured to death here or marched to the killing field and shot to death. In the first building there are gruesome photographs of tortured bodies found in these rooms when the soldiers first arrived to liberate the camp. Suddenly the chirpy morning takes a sombre turn. I step into the tiny room where people were chained in; I look at the photographs of those perished here with their haunting eyes looking back at me; And I see the collection of skulls stacked in cabinet display like merchandise. Each room I enter and each step I take, brings me further down the spiral descend to witness human cruelty. One thought keeps churning in my mind – How could a human treats another human like this? I cannot fathom it, not even seeing all the evident right in front of me.
As I am leaving I see in one of the rest area, a small old man sitting surrounded by books. A banner next to him declares that he is one of the only 8 survivals of the camp. I have the urge to talk to him and ask him about his experience but I don’t speak Khmer. Looking at him, I can see sadness in his eyes but I can also see happiness and there’s a constant smile on his lips. I begin to understand Cambodians through this old man; the horrible past makes them more humble and appreciative of the gift of life, which in turn allow them to be contented with life easier than most of us do.
Needing something to pick me up after the trip to Cambodia’s lamentable past, I walk to the city centre and sit by the Mekong river. As the Sun sets, people start coming out; family pushing their babies in strollers, children screaming as they run up and down the length of the river-front, young lovers sit nestled up to each other chatting discreetly. And the phenomenon you’ll see all across Cambodia, old and young people dancing in groups. The older folks dancing to a kind of line dancing-aerobic mix, and the young will copy the dance move of Korean pop groups. I walk up to one of such group and have a closer look. They usually start around 5pm, you come pay a small fee and stand in line. Then the instructor will go through the moves and steps with you slowly, the moves are repeated a few times slowly before they put on the music to dance to. Then the whole process is repeated about 5 to 6 times with different songs. Young people seem to really like this activity. They invade plazas, squares, gardens, virtually any open public spaces.
From the looks of things around Cambodia, the youth is embracing the future without any baggage from the past. Any residuals of the horrid past are left in the museums and stored in the memories of the older generations who share them openly with a tinge of melancholy but a generous dose of gratefulness for the present.