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 overwhelmed me.

Across the field some kids laughed and played, further out some men worked in a rice paddy. A bone colored cow gazed at me thoughtfully.  I wandered around at random, trying to process, trying to understand the unknowable.  Beauty and darkness, hand in hand.  It is not at all 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 emotionally 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.

By dead 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.

Copyright Estate of Anthony Vail Sloan 2009