Dispatch, Cambodia: A moment of silence

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Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran is traveling on the Cambodia-Vietnam itinerary for Ama Waterways' new ship, the AmaLotus. Her third dispatch follows. Click to read her first and second dispatches.

Part of the beauty of the Mekong River is the chaos along its banks.

From the honking mopeds flooding Phnom Penh’s streets to the bustling village markets to the non-stop “hellos” being shouted from children in their stilted riverside huts, the Mekong is the central highway of Southeast Asian culture and commerce.

But on the afternoon that we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the notorious security prison 21 (S-21) and killing fields in Phnom Penh, you could have heard a pin drop as Ama Waterways passengers reflected on the atrocities and mass killings carried out by Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

These are definitely not easy places to visit. And the visits are not for everyone. But it also somehow seemed necessary to acknowledge and attempt to understand the scope of the relatively recent horrors Cambodians have been through. Seeing the sites where the atrocities occurred is an experience few will forget and even fewer knew how to or wanted to talk about that afternoon.

In a welcome breakup of the heavy silence on the bus ride back to the AmaLotus, our tour guide told of life growing up in a Cambodian countryside post-Khymer Rouge. He told stories of finding explosive devices and playing with the gunpowder inside to create mini-explosions or blow up a fish in a stream.

He giggled remembering the silly games, even as he realized the dangers of playing with explosives.

Stories like this abounded — casually dropped anecdotes of parents lost to the Khmer Rouge or family members who had disappeared.

Similarly, when we weaved between the bunkers and hideouts at Xeo Quyt, a former Viet Cong stronghold in Vietnam, reactions were mixed to a war that many in the group had experienced, whether they were involved or knew someone who was.

Again, our guide nonchalantly noted that his father was a member of the Viet Cong.

The ability for people from nations so entangled in a messy situation to sit together and exchange stories with a desire to learn and understand one another, rather than be agitated or debate about what happened and why, is a testament to how much things have changed since then.

Relaxing these experiences are not. But they are somehow healing in a much deeper way than those of us on this trip probably even realize yet.

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