Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.
Most places I have visited over the past 45 years have a sense of history. The stories they tell are millennia old. Interesting and colourful, they lend a certain magic to the castles and cathedrals. But Vietnam and Cambodia are different. As a teenager, they were part of my nightly news. Their heroes are not knights of old. Their heroes are people who fought in the Cu Chi tunnels; who survived the barbaric Khmer Rouge. These people – who survived the darkest days of war and who now welcome you and those they fought against – are the reason to visit.
Unlike the professional tour guides most of us have encountered, many of those who will show you Vietnam and Cambodia are war survivors. Several were children during the conflicts; death, hunger and political dysfunction were their teachers. They know what war does, who it really hurts and have emerged miraculously on the other side. Like the dwindling numbers of Holocaust survivors, they are there to give testament.
The elfin-faced Duong was our guide in Vietnam. Raised on a steady diet of tapioca after the war, her small stature belied the large heart it contained. On a long bus ride to Hanoi from beautiful Halong Bay, she provided a fleeting glimpse into her childhood of hunger and pain, and of the father who returned from a re-education camp a tormented alcoholic. There were fond memories of a mother who died young, and of siblings who gave her their food rations to keep her hunger tears at bay.
She shared stories of her love for her country and the people of the north, where she was born. Each day, she walks a fine line between her humanity and her war-torn past. Raised in communist Vietnam, she wanted us to understand, to know the people – the heart of Vietnam – while keeping one eye on the rear-view mirror of evil that she grew up in. She was eager to show us everything – the good and the bad. However, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Duong could not bring herself to go inside. While the museum itself is a blatant propaganda machine, photos illustrating the unflinching truth about the brutality of war were on display for all to see. Duong escorted us to the museum and arranged for a meeting point afterward. The displays were a terrifying testament to the horror humans can inflict upon each other.
In Cambodia, our guide, Ry, interspersed his historical and cultural commentary with stories of how his family was forced to flee Phnom Penh under threat from the bloody Khmer Rouge. Ry explained how, in return for a bowl of dried shrimp, he agreed to help someone dislodge a hunk of metal from a rice paddy. Hearing his mother calling, he promised he would return to finish the work and collect the much-needed food. When he asked his mother why she called for him, puzzled, she replied that she had not. At that moment, an explosion in the field Ry had just crossed killed the person who had promised him that bowl of shrimp.
Many Cambodians are devout Buddhists and beautifully adorned temples are everywhere. Each town, city and village pays homage to Buddha. Ry, like many Cambodians, had spent time as a Buddhist monk. This faith permeates much of the culture and is the vital underpinning that allows Cambodians to find forgiveness, enabling the country to slowly move forward out of the dark.
Outside Phnom Penh are the infamous killing fields. No matter how much you prepare, it is a difficult place to visit. All these years later, bones still float to the surface in the soil. During our visit, I spotted a jawbone in one of the still-to-be-excavated graves. Bamboo fences surround the pits and are repositories for thousands of Buddhist blessing bracelets. These are prayers for the dead. I took the Canadian flag from my shirt and attached it to one. It hardly seemed enough to honour those who suffered there.
We walked the hallowed grounds, listening to stories about the unspeakable crimes that continued for years under cover of darkness. We were told how children – even babies – were exterminated to prevent them from one day avenging the deaths of their parents. I shuddered listening to how the systematic killings were used to silence teachers, journalists and anyone who was considered a threat. A mausoleum sits in the centre of a field, a glass tomb filled with skulls, femurs and jaws. There was time to pay our respects but I stood outside, unable to confront the horror any longer. My husband, braver than me, went inside to stare at the silent faces of the Cambodian past – faces that were to be its future. He eventually returned, stood by a banana tree and wept.
That night, I gratefully sipped the ginger tea that Thuang, our steward, had prepared for me. My thanks were not just for the warm relief to my sore throat, but for a kindness that healed my soul.
In Siem Reap, we attended Phare, the Cambodian circus. Unlike a traditional circus, it combines acrobatics, music and other arts. Developed in 1994 to help children overcome the trauma of refugee camps and the experience of war, it now provides education and opportunities for disadvantaged children to develop and establish themselves through a variety of artistic pursuits.
I was transfixed by the music, the dance and the talent of one young man in particular. Tall and slim, he was burdened by a variety of skeletal deformities. Standing beneath a singular spotlight on stage, with the music of war and the tormented acrobatics of his people swirling in the foreground, he raised his long, elegant hands and dipped them into a bucket of paint. In minutes, he transformed a blank canvas into a powerful piece of art infused with pain and beauty. I exhaled when he finished, and wiped tears from my eyes.
Please go. The vacation will amaze you. But the people, they will transform you.
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