Threading the Path into the Past – Siem Reap, Cambodia

As one of the most culturally rich countries in South East Asia, Cambodia is famous for its ancient temples and religious beliefs. Many know about the world famous Angkor Wat, and the "tomb-raided" Ta Phrom, but few know about the somber history of Cambodia which has left painful marks on many of its people.

Cambodia’s history through the eyes of Noy

My interest in this country was aroused by a trip to the desolated War Museum – where I found myself delving deep into the intriguing yet sobering past of
Cambodia. Lost in the shrouded mysteries that surround this country, I embarked unknowingly on a journey into the world of war-torn Cambodia.

As our tuk-tuk driver led the way, we ventured from the tar road to a muddy rocky path into an isolated part of town, where there was not a single traveler in sight. The War Museum was dusty, covered with spider webs and tainted with an unbearable silence. Here was where we first met Noy. In his eyes, I could see a troubled past. With a big scar by his right eye and a melancholic look, he did not appear welcoming. Shrouded with unknown darkness, he seemed wary of us, even scared.

He said "Hi" with a tinge of shyness, introduced himself as a volunteer guide, and asked, "Where are you from? Do you have wars in your countries?" Taken aback by the question, I hadn’t expected the emotions I would be feeling through this journey into the past.

"Yes, in Singapore, we were involved in World War II when the Japanese attacked us." I explained.

Noy went on, "In my country, we had a civil war from 1975 to 1999. It only ended 9 years ago. Two million people died." His face was expressionless. We were shocked by his brutal honesty. As we were behaving like naive spoilt travelers, I felt somewhat ashamed of the comfortable life I had, while listening to the startling lives the Cambodians had to go through.

Noy with the machine gun
Noy with the machine gun

It was the start of our journey into the tragic past of the young Cambodian. Noy was born during the civil war, in 1979. As he spoke, he was choking, fighting back tears. It hurt to see him being haunted by the past, and yet, I was unknowingly sucked into his world. Noy showed us rows of machine guns, AK 47, and grenades that the Chinese and Russian Governments had supported the war with.

After the Vietnamese liberated Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge, 10 million landmines were left in the ground, all over Cambodia, with the highest concentration along the Cambodia-Thai border. Holding on to a Russian landmine shell, Noy recalled, "When I was very young, I went out to the fields to play with my friends. I found this metallic box in the grass, didn’t know what it was, and pulled the trigger. It exploded, and I hurt my eye, I can only see 80% now. I also lost 3 fingers."

I was shattered. Looking at his hand with only 2 fingers left, I knew I could understand the pain he had gone through. It was traumatizing and painful to hear a first-hand account from a young man, who had been permanently scarred physically and emotionally. Nothing was going to erase those painful memories. The physical scars might remind him of the haunting past, but the psychological wounds would prove to be impossible to heal. My heart went out to him.

In 1999, when the war ended, Noy moved to Siem Reap, where he and his uncle presently work at the War Museum for free. He volunteers in exchange for food and shelter, while his uncle gets paid US$40 a month from the government. I could tell he did not like spending every single moment of his life at the museum, with war tanks, machine guns and photos, constantly bringing back those memories that anyone in his situation would want to leave behind.

Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh - Photo by David Whitney
Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh – Photo by David Whitney

"When we moved here after the war, we had nothing. We’d lost everything, every single thing." Noy finally broke down and cried. The memories of the war were too painful, haunting him every day and night. I almost cried with him. I could imagine him as a helpless child, defending himself in that cruel battle that seemed like it would never end. Yet now that they have all found peace, Noy still continues his struggles against the haunting past. He is not alone, millions of Cambodians to this day, still suffer the long-term effects of the war – some had lost their family members, some have become disabled and some might just be the next victims to the existing landmines out there. The war might have ended 9 years ago, but to some of them, it is still not over, and will never be over.

No matter how tragic, Cambodian history can never be erased or rectified. Cambodia fights hard to move on, though – with their headstrong determination, they will put the war behind them.

Leaving the War Museum, Noy silently whispered, "May God bless you."

As this history chapter comes to an end, we were looking forward to seeing other aspects of this amazing country. Besides a valuable history lesson, Cambodia has an extremely rich culture – beautiful and enchanting temples, alluring arts and crafts. A visit to the Ancient Angkor Wat temple was awesome: walking through the maze-like temples brought us into the world of Hindu god Vishnu and his kingdom. Renting a local tuk-tuk was an interesting way of seeing Siem Reap, immersing in its intriguing culture. Our driver Tun, brought us around the temples, even gave us a short history of each. It takes over a day to explore all the temples.

Siem Reap's night market
Siem Reap’s night market

At night, the city turns into a little town of exotic smells, hawkers and bikes ringing their bells. It is alive with a laidback atmosphere, peddlers come out to sell and tourists seek the best places for dinner. Speaking about food, Khmer cuisine is an eclectic combination of sweet aroma, thick curry and fresh crisp. The most popular Amok chicken is composed of tender slices of chicken cooked in thick green curry and spices. Their mango salad has an interestingly refreshing taste. Traditional Aspara dance is an inspiring form of entertainment that goes well with dinner and drinks.

All in all, Cambodia brings you back to the past, and at the same time, shows you its history, culture and traditions. A country with so much to offer – I couldn’t ask for more.

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BUDGET $32 per day

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>> More reading: Cambodia: S-21, The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

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