Living with the Shadow of the Past

Please be aware: This post talks about the dark history of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge genocide. It mentions acts of violence and brutality (with some photos taken during my visit) that some readers might find disturbing. If you are sensitive to such content, you may want to proceed with caution.

Cambodia is a country of stunning beauty, vibrant culture, and unfortunately, a troubled past. As a woman who’s called Cambodia home for many years now, I grapple with this duality constantly.

Take Choeung Ek, for instance. This seemingly peaceful commune, amidst rice paddies and palm trees, just about 15kilometers outside Phnom Penh, holds a horrifying secret. It’s the location of one of Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields, the final stop for countless victims from the notorious S21 prison. (This is also another place I am not going to visit again.)

While I’ve been here for years, I’ve only visited Choeung Ek once, back in 2014. It wasn’t a place I sought out. Friends visiting from abroad expressed interest, and as a host, I felt obligated to take them despite my personal aversion to visiting sad places. Even as a resident, the prospect of visiting felt daunting. Even then, the experience stayed with me. The weight of cruelty and history hangs heavily in that place. A suffocating silence blankets the grounds, broken only by the rustle of leaves and occasional insects.

The towering stupa greets you as you enter; it is filled with the skulls of victims, a stark memorial to the estimated 17,000 people who were murdered and buried there. Every year, a Buddhist ceremony is held here, with monks offering prayers to honour these lost souls who met their end on these grounds.

The signs scattered throughout the grounds served as constant, jarring reminders of the horrors that unfolded here. Mass graves filled with women and children, execution trees used to bludgeon babies – these reminders are impossible to ignore. As I walked the paths, a heavy feeling of despair washed over me. It’s hard not to imagine the fear and suffering that unfolded here, on the very ground I was walking on.

Visiting Choeung Ek was a deeply emotional experience. While I understand the importance of remembering the past and honouring the victims, it’s a place that leaves a mark. As a woman, the brutality inflicted on women and children resonates deeply. The screams and cries maybe long gone, but the memory of their suffering lingers. Honestly, I can’t imagine ever returning.

This is just one facet of life in Cambodia, a country forever marked by its turbulent history. It’s a place of contrasts, where breathtaking beauty coexists with the ghosts of the past. This part of Cambodian history is a constant presence in our daily life. Living in Cambodia has been a profound experience for me with all the reminders of the past we carry everyday, but, it also opened my eyes to the warmth, resilience, and spirit of a people determined to heal and move forward.

See other posts on My Corner of the World.

Sunday Stamps: Fatherly

For this week’s Sunday Stamps, the theme is “fatherly”. And who better to embody this theme than Cambodia’s revered father figure, the late King Norodom Sihanouk? Widely known as Samdech Euv (King Father) after his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, ascended to the throne in 2004, Sihanouk’s legacy continues to shape Cambodia.

Issued in 2001 by the Cambodia Post, the 200-riel stamp commemorates King Sihanouk’s 80th birthday, and depicts the revered monarch – not in a royal pose, but in a surprisingly down-to-earth act: planting a tree.

King Sihanouk was a complex and controversial figure, but his role as a father figure to Cambodia is undeniable. He led the country to independence from France in 1953 and played a significant role through Cambodia’s turbulent modern history. The act of planting a tree on the stamp embodies a paternal quality, nurturing something new for the benefit of future generations. Here, King Sihanouk is not just a king, but a symbol of care and foresight – planting seeds that will grow long after his reign.

The Cambodian Post’s choice of imagery beautifully portrays the King Father’s dual role – his leadership, while celebrating a simple act that benefits the nation’s future. The stamp in itself becomes a window into Cambodia’s respect and appreciation for the King Father. You’ll find his likeness on some denominations of Cambodia’s official currency, the Khmer riel.

Skywatch Friday: Phnom Penh Downpour

Last Wednesday, Phnom Penh put on quite the show (or, should I say, downpour?)!

As you can see from the photo, the sky has gone full-monsoon mode. Those dark clouds definitely lived up to the rainy season reputation. To give you a better sense of the atmosphere, I’ve also included a short video clip below. Take a peek and you’ll see streets drenched in rain, and vehicles zipping by.

More sky photos at Skywatch Friday blog.