Everyone in Cambodia is young. Tuk-tuk drivers look like they are in their late teens or early twenties. Hotel and restaurant staff look twenty-something too. Outside the city of Siem Reap, young mothers walk along the roads with small children. Outside a handful of monks and nuns, I hardly saw anyone who looked elderly. People seem young because they are. 75% of the population was born after 1979, when the Khmer Rouge ended. Their brutal reign is the dark truth behind this demographic. When the Communist Khmer Rouge government ran the country from 1976-79, they emptied the cities and took away the middle class and anyone who was educated. Visiting Cambodia brought the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities to life. Their impact is everywhere. It doesn’t feel a thing of the past at all.
I met a man who told me his story. He was born before 1979 and when he was five, the Khmer Rouge took over and took his parents. He never learned what happened to them. He shared this calmly and quietly. I wasn’t expecting to be told this. I thought the trauma of the Khmer Rouge was something many people didn’t talk about but this man was open. He said he was taken out of school to work but that he was fortunate and met a man who raised him.
His face was somber as he told me. He told me about a former killing field turned memorial just outside of town. So one afternoon, instead of going to a temple we went to visit this site. There are thousands of killing fields everywhere, he said. It was located outside of town. He said every year a local politician comes to honor those killed there.
When we pulled up to the killing fields memorial, we got out of the car and walked over to some informational boards. There were photos of people forced to do hard labor, to build roads. A few other tourists around milled around. A donation box sat in the shade.
In the center of the site sat a burial container filled with what looked like bleached bones.
I thought, Those can’t be real, can they? The sides of the burial container were made of clear plastic. I stepped up onto the platform and leaned toward the Plexiglas. Some skulls were bleached white. Others were yellowed. Then I saw that many had molars still intact. Real jaws. Real skulls. It was like a stone dropped inside me. The man who had told us his story and who had driven us here leaned in over my shoulders. “I remember seeing people doing this,” he said. “I was a boy and I looked over a ditch and saw people working like this.”
Before we said goodbye, he showed us photographs of us family.
He told us that the education of his children was the most important thing. His parents were educated and this is probably why they had been taken. He seemed like a quiet man. But also a hopeful one. His children were his hope.
This is what I learned in Cambodia: it is filled with so many kind people. Tuk-tuk drivers gave directions. Nuns invited me into temples to receive a blessing. Our guide took endless photos of us and shared his passion for his country and culture with us. What I really learned is that Cambodia’s people are more beautiful than the ugly past that shapes them. They are more than they know.