What a story tells often depends on who is telling it. In the 1960s and 1970s, a war was being fought in Vietnam. There were disagreements about which groups and ideologies would rule the country. I’d always known this event as the Vietnam War.
In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a museum documenting the event. At the War Remnants Museum (and around Vietnam), the event is known as the War of American Aggression. War era aircraft and artillery are on display at the museum. This is in addition to other artifacts, pictures, and stories. One display shows the service medals of a U.S. soldier, who donated them to the museum and apologized for his role in the war. Two exhibits stood out to me. One featured the photographs from various photojournalists who documented the war, and captured the day-to-day essence of the happenings on the ground. The other exhibit featured the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people during and long after the war.
Here are two of the pictures I snapped on my visit to the museum. The first is named “Mother”, and was made from bomb fragments. The second is of one of an aircraft in the courtyard of the museum.
I had never associated Cambodia with islands and beaches. In southeast Asia, I had heard phenomenal things about the island beaches in Thailand and the Philippines. I forget who made the suggestion, but someone offered that I could find a piece of island beach paradise in Cambodia on Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem.
I chose to head to Koh Rong Sanloem, the smaller of the two. I’m not sure how many people live on the island, but there is a village community on the northern tip of the island called M’Pai Bay. The community mostly consists of Khmer families, guesthouses, basic shops, and restaurants. The island doesn’t have any cars, but motorbikes are present. The motorbikes aren’t used nearly as much as they are on mainland Cambodia. Moving around the island is typically done on foot (If it’s close enough and there’s a path) or by boat. The interior of the island is dense jungle. I attempted to walk through the jungle on a path to another beach. While I made it to the other beach, it was a bit more of a hike than I was prepared for. The beach, pictured above, was definitely worth it. Of course, I got lost on the way back. Thankfully I found my way before sunset. For reference (if you ever want to go), I took this picture at Clearwater Bay on Koh Rong Sanloem.
One of the biggest attractions of the island, aside from its clear water and beautiful beaches, is the bio-luminescent plankton that can be seen just off the shore at night. In waist deep water, I could briefly see the shimmering light of plankton. As I walked in deeper and disturbed the water even more, I saw more plankton. Moving my hands underwater provided quite a show. It felt like I had figured out to do magic. It felt like I was a deity showing off my powers. This easily kept me entertained for the better part of 40 minutes. For those who may be wondering, it wasn’t possible for me to take pictures of this happening. It is truly something that you must experience in person.
Last week, I made my way to southern Cambodia. Kampot, to be specific. I had been told about the pepper farms and caves nearby. I also has heard about the crab market in the nearby town of Kep and the surrounding parks. I wanted to get out and see all of the things, so I rented a motorbike for the day.
After an exciting day eating and riding through the Kampot and Kep provinces, I made my way back to the guesthouse. During happy hour, various people were talking about their day’s events. The conversation turned to me. I talked about seeing the sites and eating delicious food. Someone remarked, “oh, you saw the real Cambodia today”. I’ve heard similar remarks several times before. While living in rural in rural eSwatini, some said that I was living in the real eSwatini. Wandering around Salvador Bahia and beyond inspired comments about seeing the real Brazil. But during the happy hour conversation, something clicked.
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is just as Cambodian as rural communities in the Kampot and Kep provinces. Even with its high rise buildings and KFC, it’s real Cambodia. Rio de Janeiro is as much Brazil as other Brazilian cities, towns, and villages without a picturesque Copacabana Beach. Furthermore, Copacabana Beach is as much of real Brazil as the favelas around the city. Manzini, the most populous city in eSwatini, is just as authentically Swazi with its busyness and amenities as Lushikishini (the rural community where I served).
I’ve never heard anyone describe the U.S. with similar language and sentiment. If someone visits Manhattan in New York and doesn’t leave Midtown, they have visited the real America. If someone visits Manhattan in Kansas and doesn’t leave the Kansas State University campus, they have also visited the real America. America, and by extension – Americans, is allowed to be more than one thing. At the same time. America can be simultaneously rich and poor, urban and rural, animal loving carnivores and animal loving vegetarians. All of this is the real America. This has been normalized. But Cambodia can’t be the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh and the rural fishing village of Chamcar Bei? Why can’t both Manzini and Lushikishini be viewed as real eSwatini?
I believe that the fuel behind this idea is the same one that fuels ideas of white supremacist racism and sexist chauvinism. It’s the idea that says if you’re non white, you can only be one thing. The same idea suggests that if you’re non (cis) male, again you can only be one thing. You want to be a Black man pursuing a PhD, and freestyle rap over beats you produce? Nah. Pick one. You want to be a woman who’s career focused and sexual liberated, or a woman who’s strong and nurturing? No can do. In a similar vein, you want to be a developing country with fanciful urban areas and abundant agricultural lands? Nope. It’s a single story, and as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us-it’s dangerous.
The truth is, we are much more alike than we like to admit. Sure, our cities, suburbs, and rural communities may look different. We may cook things in different ways, but we tend to cook similar things. We may speak different languages, but we’re all simply seeking to communicate and be heard. Regardless of what stage of development a country is in, that country is allowed to be multiple things. At the same time. Just like its residents.
Shortly after arriving in Cambodia, I was in a hostel in Phnom Penh talking with PCV who is currently serving here. We talked about our experiences in Peace Corps and life. I asked the Cambodia PCV for recommendations on things to do while here. He spoke very highly of the Mondulkiri Project in northeast Cambodia. The project has an elephant sanctuary for rescued elephants, and offers jungle trekking in addition to visits to the sanctuary to feed and bathe the elephants.
My interest was piqued. I read more about the project, and knew that I wanted to go. The project is home to five elephants. At least one was formerly used for elephant rides in Angkor Wat. Another was used for hauling logs from the jungle. Another was abused by her caretaker. The project also employs Bunong people, who live in the local community where the jungles and forests are.
The 18 kilometer trek started at the tour guide’s homestead just before 9 am. The views from the trek were quite awesome. Apparently, it’s the end of rainy season so the mosquitoes were minimal, but jungle floor was very slippery. This was especially true on inclines and declines. I lost my footing a few times and was invited to promptly sit down on the jungle floor. The trek included swimming in a river at a waterfall right before lunch. During the after lunch trekking, the rain started. Although it started as a light drizzle, it progressed into heavier rain. The jungle floor became even more slippery. We finally reached our destination: the Jungle Lodge. They had hammocks with blankets set up for us. They also served dinner, which included bamboo soup (made in real bamboo), breakfast, and lunch the next day.
The second day was all about the elephants in the sanctuary. We went down to the sanctuary with many bananas. We were able to feed the elephants in the jungle sanctuary. Once the elephants saw that we had the bananas, the gentle giants approached and took the fruit from our respective hands. Some elephants allowed us to remain close while others walked away to munch on some young bamboo. In the afternoon, we were able to swim with and bathe the elephants in the river. After a full two days of activity, I was tired and sore. I’m super thankful for the hot shower and delicious food I had back in town. The above picture is of me admiring the view at the beginning of the trek, when I was still dirt-free.
Be kind to yourself.
P.S. – Here go two more really cool pictures. The first is of a leaf that apparently ran out of chlorophyll. The second is of an elephant munching
Trigger Warning: The following post discusses the violence perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Some pictures are included at the end of the post.
I can’t remember when I first learned of the Khmer Rouge. I do remember several people telling me that I had to visit the genocide museum and the killing fields when I got to Cambodia. One guy suggested that visit the museum first to better understand the killing fields. I followed his advice.
Mixed into the capital city of Phnom Penh is what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also called S21. The site was originally a school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into one of their prisons in an effort to cleanse and rebuild Cambodia. All intellectuals and professionals were arrested. Even people with glasses were arrested. People who were suspected of not being loyal to the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, were arrested. Anyone and everyone was at risk of being arrested. They were then interrogated and tortured. It was suspected that the prisoners had ties to, or were assisting, the CIA or the KGB. After it was determined that they had no more useful information, they were killed.
At the museum, there are artifacts from when the facility was used as a prison. Some metal beds still have the shackles used to restrain prisoners. Next to the bed is a munitions box that was given to be used as a toilet. There are also pictures in some of the rooms from when they discovered the prison. They are pretty graphic. At some buildings, they put up barbed wire fencing to prevent prisoners from jumping to commit suicide. The regime wanted to maintain total control. They also had the practice of killing entire families, including children. The rationale was that they didn’t want anyone from that family to come back seeking revenge.
When S21 ran out of space to bury prisoners, they began taking prisoners outside of the city to kill them and bury them in mass graves. Because bullets were so expensive, they stopped using them and killed with whatever tools they had. Executions were conducted on the edge of the mass grave so that the prisoner could fall in. The regime sprayed toxic chemicals on the recently deceased to mask the smell and to kill anyone who wasn’t dead yet. There’s a tree close to the centre of the killing fields known as the killing tree. It was used to smash babies until they died. Although the regime was ousted in 1979, there are still bones and bone fragments being unearthed due to rain and shifting soil.
At both sites, they have some of the skulls of the deceased on display. Some have cracks or bullet holes. Some are missing portions. They also have various torture devices on display at the genocide museum. They are both really somber places. One point that stuck with me is that Cambodia lost about a quarter of its population during the Khmer Rouge regime. From eight million people, that’s two million gone. And it’s not ancient history. This was 40 years ago. That’s extremely sobering. Another fact that blew my mind: S21 and the killing fields are part of a much larger network. In other words, there were prisons all over Cambodia and there still are mass grave sites all over the country. Not all of the mass graves have been uncovered because of unknown locations or inaccessibility.
If you ever have the opportunity to go to these sites, definitely go (if it’s line with being kind to yourself).
Some weeks ago, I started looking for my next destination. After lots of internal dialogue and price checking, I settled on Cambodia. Phnom Penh, to be exact. One of the things that I’ve grown fond of is extended layovers. Especially in places where visas are free. On the way to Cambodia, I was so fortunate.
Flying from Chennai, I had to connect in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). When I booked the flight, I started looking for things to do in the city to take advantage of my fifteen hour layover. I found that Malaysia was known for having really good food. I also learned that Kuala Lumpur has a plethora of pasar malams, or night markets, filled with the aforementioned really good food. I had to go.
This blog post helped me figure things out. After landing, I went to the city centre to check out the Petronas Twin Towers and walk around. By early evening, I was ready to let my tastebuds explore. I made my way over to the Taman Connaught night market. It’s massive. Like seriously massive. Like “go with friends and pace yourself with a bite of this and a taste of that because you’ll be overwhelmed with deliciousness” massive. There was a lot of pork, with a smattering of poultry. There were all different kinds of fruit (available whole, in pieces, juiced, and sometimes smoothied). With some dishes, noodles or rice played a prominent role. In many dishes, eggs featured generously. While most stalls had menu boards or signs in English, some did not. It’s an excellent opportunity to see if your eyes can figure out what your tastebuds desire. There were also stalls selling clothing, cell phone accessories, and other things.
After two hours of walking through the stalls, I decided to call it quits. I had been gluttonous enough. I had eaten to my heart’s content. I was ready for a corner and a nap. If you ever have the opportunity to visit (and eat) at any of the night markets in Kuala Lumpur, do it! But pace yourself. For the market is mighty, and the stomach is small. The picture above is of one of the stalls serving salted egg things.
Be kind to yourself.
P.S. – here’s a picture of me about to dig into something called salted egg chicken. It was pretty delicious.