Lessons from the Past

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Phnom Penh is an exploding, vibrant, chaotic, city. Like its predecessors on the way to development, Hanoi and Bangkok, it is a crush of cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks, bicycles, new high rises agaInst crumbling ruins, high end-foodie restaurants and local food carts. It is one of those cities that requires you to steel your nerves before you walk out into the crush of humanity and traffic. I almost always prefer to walk, rather than take a tuk tuk (although given the heat -102 degrees, I did think twice).

I headed towards the Mekong Riverfront in the center of town to visit the National Palace, residence of the ruling King; the Silver Pagoda (the entire floor is made of silver tiles with several famous Buddha statues inside); the National Museum, a beautiful archive of Khmer and Angor history, and restored temples. The ubiquitous question “Tuk tuk, Madam?” followed me everywhere, but I resisted. 

I stopped at the Wat Ounalom, the center of Cambodian Buddhism, a complex of over 40 buildings. Behind them main temple is a small shrine, with an ancient inscription over the door, and a toothless old Cambodian man guarding the entrance. I climbed the stairs and he unlocked the shrine and led me inside. He grunted and urged me to kneel. I placed a few Riel in the offering dish and he proceeded to grab my hands, turn them palms up, splash them with water and then told me to rub my face. He recited some words in Cambodian, blessing or curse I couldn’t be sure. When he finished he squeezed my hands and gave me giant toothless grin. I’ll take that as a sign it was a blessing.

It was hard to remember, as I moved through this city of half a million people, that only 40 years ago, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the population was only 50,000. Most historic and religious sites had been looted and destroyed and all of the intellectuals, civil servants and religious leaders moved to the villages or killed. 

While I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it, on the morning of my last day in Phnom Penh, I decided to visit Tuoi Sieng, the genocide museum. The museum is at the site of Security Prison 21, formerly a high school, where thousands of Camodians were tortured and killed, upwards of 100 a day during the final years of the Khmer Rouge. When the prison was liberated, only seven prisoners remained. They had saved themselves because they were painters or photographers and were used to document the prison by the Khmer Rouge. The museum includes room after room of gripping black and white photographs of men, women and children, almost all killed. The space is bleak and the contrast of the old school yard and the instruments of torture sill hanging from the walls is so incongruous as to seem unreal. It is a stark reminder of the cruelty we humans are capable of, and a place I will never forget.

As I walked out of the museum, back into the throws of the city, I was reminded that despite all that this country has seen and suffered, they are once again growing and thriving. Maybe this is the greatest answer to those atrocities - resilience.

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