About a half hour southwest of the city center, in a peaceful longan
orchard, there is a 10-meter high stupa, filled with 8000 skulls. They
are arranged on a series of platforms and their jawless faces peer out
across the four directions. This is the killing fields of Cheong Ek. In
a three-year period, between 1975 and 1978, 17,000 people were
transported here for extermination by the Khmer Rouge.
I stepped out of the tuk-tuk, and surprised myself by weeping, openly
weeping. Even though I had girded myself for the sight, it still
Across the field some kids laughed and played, further out some men
worked in a rice paddy. A bone colored cow gazed at me
wandered around at random, trying to process, trying to understand the
unknowable. Beauty and darkness, hand in hand. It is not at
difficult to find bits of human bone, tatters of cloth on the ground,
especially among the craters of the now exhumed mass graves.
I spent who knows how long here, only taking notice of the time when I
saw the sun sinking low on the horizon. A caretaker began to sweep the
steps of the stupa and I took it as a cue to head back to town. The
standard profile is to see Cheoung Ek, and then stop by Toul Sleng,
otherwise known as S-21, the
detention center near the Russian Market. Feeling somewhat
numb, I decided to save that for another day and retreated back
to the FCC for several beers.
I walked home though the dark streets,
past night markets, men playing billiards outdoors, past the main veins
of scooters and tuk-tuks, and back to smaller streets.
reckoning I found my hotel and went right to sleep without fanfare.
How do you process such a stark and brutal reminder of the evil that
inhabits this earth? How can you learn any sort of lesson from it? It
seems too big for moralizing, it seems more like a force of nature.
Maybe Spaulding was right, maybe there is an invisible cloud of evil
that surrounds our earth and touches down in places like Cambodia,
Germany, Washington D.C...
I don't know if these are questions that I am qualified to answer, but
the next day I found myself neck deep in the Gulf of Thailand, in that
perfect, clear, body temperature water, surrounded by happy, laughing
children. The latest generation of orphans from a country that has only
recently emerged from 30 years of war.