Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of
Emotions take over, in Cambodia

some of the thousands of skulls dug up from the Killing Fields

Sometimes when I watch a movie, when its a good movie, it draws me in and I find myself, like many people, finding it hard to watch a scene because of the high emotion it evokes. I whisper to myself, “It’s just a movie, it’s not even real.” Here I was in Cambodia, and it is real – for better or worst. I kept looking for a pause button but I couldn’t find one.

Losing our Appetites in Phnom Penh
Everywhere we went in PP was sad. There were people with no limbs in the streets. I was once forced to step over a naked baby in the sidewalks, her mother most-likely purposefully positioning him there with this idea in mind. But the worst sight wasn’t of Cambodians it was of white men. They were everywhere.

The first night we went to dinner, we sat in a restaurant near our street and at each of the tables around us sat an old white man by himself. The one nearest me sat, doing a crossword puzzle, humming to himself in a satisfied sort of way. That was when my stomach flipped in a strange way, and I glared. I glared like I have never glared at anyone in my entire life. I stopped and turned to Tim and said, “How can they sit here standing themselves. They know everyone else knows exactly why they’re here, and they just sit there, without a care in the world.” I noticed Tim’s expressions were the same as mine. disgust.

The hotel room we checked into had a list of rules on it as well. Rule #2 was check-out was a noon. Rule #3 was no sex with Children. Rule #4 was no smoking. Just like that, like an “oh, by the way”.

No one wants to talk about it, but in Phnom Penh the main form of tourism is sex tourism. It’s not just one kind, it’s what almost everyone is doing there. It’s not just that it happens, it’s that it’s so common that it is accepted, and that’s what makes me sick.

When a Library Can Be So Much More
At the school that we were volunteering and teaching English, we met another American. She was studying in Hong Kong and had stopped by for a week. Her parents had generously decided to donate the funds to the school so they could build a library. They had never visited Cambodia. Samira, was the first in her family to do so. As we drove up in the tuk tuk, she squeled. She jumped out and looked at the library and seemed to be dancing around with excitement at finally seeing, in person, the materialization of the donation. It had just been a building to Tim and I, but it was much more to her family, and it was much more to the children that use it. Their names were on the library and on a plaque, and she stood in awe, and said “I can’t believe that’s my parents.” And at that moment I thought, there is definitely not one place that family could have spent their money and got any more pleasure from.

Ancient Wonders
From watching many of the other temple goers at Angkor Wat, you would think it was a chore to see these walled cities from over a thousand years ago. I didn’t see it that way. I wondered how they looked when they were first built in the 9th century, when there was most likely bustling markets and villages set up around the temples. Stepping through each doorway was a reminder that people were stepping through the same doorway in ancient times. How often do you get to do that? The most amazing thing is seeing how time effects a man-made structure. How nature takes over.

Genocide Kills More Than Just People
There’s no way of knowing how many people died during the time of the Khmer Rouge, but it was in the millions. We learned that they killed even the babies (in the most brutal ways possible, including smashing them against trees, or throwing them in the air and shooting them with their mothers watching) because they were afraid they would grow up and seek revenge. Several categories of people were considered enemies of the Khmer Rouge, most notably (to us) professionals and intellectuals. Almost every teacher, artist, and doctor/healer was killed in the 1970s. Cambodia is now a country that has forgotten how it learned. Families cannot quite remember how their ancestors used medicine – the knowledge that was passed down for centuries is wiped-out.

Rice for Three
On our last night in Cambodia, we went to Green Star. A restaurant in Siem Reap that is non-profit. Doug, an Australian expat that moved here some years ago, took the time to talk with us, as he seems to do with all his guests. His girlfriend Avee sat with us as well and made me laugh. Like all the Cambodians met met, she was easy to like. As our conversation with Doug grew more serious regarding our observations while in the country, he mentioned that before he had met Avee she had been starving. She had, in fact, been pregnant with twins five years ago, and was living off of a cup of rice a day. “Can you Imagine?” he asks. And the answer, is no, we simply cannot. You hear of poverty all the time, but it is not normally regarding the person sitting at the table with you pouring lemon water into your glass.

Tastes like a chicken wing

Doug claims that Avvy’s story is a good one now though – she has found a better life. Organizations like his and the one we volunteered at are helping. He says the key is that you help a certain section of the population pull themselves up one generation at a time, and it won’t happen overnight, but it will get better.

If you’re in Siem Reap, stop by and say hi to Doug. We highly recommend the frog.

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Grandma Barb
    Mar 30, 2011 @ 05:27:55

    Dear Robin,
    I thought I had buried forever my/our Cambodia experience with Grandpa.
    It is truly a painful place to visit and seeing in print everything you describe mirrors the same images from February, 1995. Bravo to people like Doug who don’t walk or fly away but stay and make a difference, one person at
    a time. Yours and Tim’s adverture will change you … and your life. Only
    time will tell how much.
    You once spoke to me about charity. The Doug’s in the world are supported by people like you and me. They make it possible for us to follow our dreams
    and not be disturbed enough to make it our full-time mission.
    We give to EAPE, a Christian organization in St. Davids, PA and when I read the stories about young people in Philadelphia living with the druggies trying to get them ‘clean’ and those trying to get Camden kids into sports and “off the streets” and a missionary in Haiti who wrote a book about day-to-day life there, it has little to do with religion but much to do with helping people who have unimaginable hardships. Your ole Grandma is Fundraising Chair and the only Christian on the Board of a Jewish organization inSIGHT Through Education (in Palm Beach County). We get grants to fund teachers in our local schools to teach respect, understanding and how to fight prejudice (and bullying) through lessons learned from the Holocaust and other genocides. A Holocaust survivor couple (the Saltons) are our friends. George Salton wrote The 23rd Psalm, his life as a survivor; heartwrenching. (Kathy & Robert also have a copy).
    Everyone has a story and it’s how we react to their stories that makes us who we are. Wonder who you and Tim will be a year or 5 years from now and where ?
    Hope we’re still here and you’re still sharing your stories with us.
    We love you around the world and back !
    Grandma and Grandpa xoxo


  2. Betsy
    Apr 04, 2011 @ 14:16:12

    Beautifully written as always Robin. This was my teen/young adult era. A time when boys from my high school classes and neighborhood were drafted or enlisted for a perceived gallant cause. We were just talking about it at dinner with your parents Saturday. Now we go to Macy’s and pick up garments “Made in Vietnam.”

    As for Cambodia; would only that the male “tourists” were subject to arrest in their native countries and prosecuted upon their return.

    I have so enjoyed travelling with you and Tim.

    Love, Betsy


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