Sunday, February 8, 2009

Battambang (Cambodia)

In Battambang, I took a bike around to explore the main temples and sites. It turned out to be a magical day. At one of the temples (which actually served as the inspiration for Angkor Wat), I met some kids on a school trip to the temple, and ended up chatting with them in bits of Cambodian (Khmer) and English. They offered me some food (slices of mango and oranges), and then told me about a cave around the base of the hill that they were going to. I followed them down the steep path to cave entrance, where two young kids in tattered clothes and flashlights were waiting. Over the next half hour to an hour, they led us through the cave, crouching and crawling through tight spaces, which opened up into large caverns with sunlight piercing the roof hundreds of feet above us. The final stopping point was a small Buddha shrine in one of the caverns, surrounded by dripping stalagtites.

Similar to Burma, Battambang receives few tourists, and probably as a result, the people are especially warm and welcoming. “hellos” and “bye-byes” greet you at every turn, and girls giggle and wave at the sight of a white man wandering through the countryside. My little bit of Cambodian (Khmer) makes their response especially enjoyable, as they respond with surprise and delight, or run away giggling after exchanging a few words. At lunch, I juggled for some young school kids, and they shyly hide from me anytime I tried to take a picture (at the request of their mother). I have some great shots of them burying their faces in their arms.

In evening though Battambang really comes alive. The main riverside garden or park is packed with food vendors and Cambodians dancing. Similar to one park in Bangkok, the dance is a combination of yoga, aerobics, and choreographed moves. The scene was picture perfect though. The sun setting over the river, a park packed with Cambodians dancing to variety of songs including some oldies and Beatles hits, and children playing all around you. As I said, magical.

Sitting in the park, watching the various dances and children around me, I thought about another thing I had seen today, one of the killing caves of Battambang, where the Khmer Rouge bayoneted, bludgeoned and shot to death thousands of people, dumping them deep in the cavernous mouth of the earth. The killing cave is now mostly a series of concrete steps down into the cavern, where you find a platform with a reclining Buddha, peacefully smiling at you, and various shrines and cages filled with skulls and bones –all mixed together, a jumbled mess as identity was lost and forgotten in the mass grave. My driver for the day told me about the people in his family who were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and how they still don’t know where their bodies lie. Perhaps in that gash in the earth, mixed among the bones, lie members of his family.

More steps led me further into the darkness, deeper in the earth’s mouth. It was almost pitch black except for a stream of light from the surface, piercing the darkness. I wonder how many people stared up from this point, in their final moments. How many died here.

I’m proud of being an American. But in Cambodia, staring out from the grave in the belly of the earth, today is not a proud day. America failed the Cambodians. America betrayed them. And America bears a terrible responsibility for the brutal bombing inflicted on the country, for its abandonment of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, and for providing political support to the Khmer Rouge after Vietnam invaded in 1979 and stopped the genocide.

Today was a magical day. But not all magic is good or heartwarming. Seeing the Cambodians now, feeling their warmth and hospitality, watching them dance to Beatles songs as the sun lights up the sky, I can still feel the dampness of the killing cave. Its magic will also stay with me.

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