A Little History

Trip Start Dec 09, 2006
Trip End Apr 12, 2007

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The capital of Cambodia is a city stricken with a horrific history.  Not more than 30 years ago, the Khmer Rouge regime committed genocide on over a third of it's population.  Imagine every third person you know - murdered, often for no good reason.
Two historical sites in and near Phnom Penh serve as a somber reminder of this Cambodian holocaust and both were high priorities on Steve and my lists.  The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek was 17 km south of Phnom Penh and the site where about 17,000 people were murdered over the course of four years.  Tuol Sleng Prison (a.k.a. Security Prison 21 or S21) was a former high school in the heart of Phnom Penh before it was converted to a prison used for torture and interrogation by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.  Eventually it became a detention center for people who were about to be murdered out at Choeung Ek. 
Yeah, not a happy history, I know.  I've studied the holocaust of World War II, and though I don't dare compare one with the other, what's sobering to me is the fact that I was alive during this atrocity in Cambodia.  Being within the walls of Tuol Sleng got me wondering about the people who passed through here and if anyone in my family was affected by the Khmer Rouge. Luckily, I had a great historian with me - my mommy.
My mother and I came to Tuol Sleng (now called the Genocide Museum) on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.  For whatever reason, she chose to remain in the courtyard of the old school and enjoy the afternoon on a park bench under the shade of a tree.  I couldn't tell you why she didn't want to tour the grounds, but I had a feeling this one was a little close to home (literally) and I've learned to just let such things be. 
I proceeded around the school grounds and made my way through each converted classroom which now had bars on the windows and remnants of shackles on the floor.  The entire facility was earily quiet in the middle of the day and you could nearly hear the echoes of former prisoners being tortured.
It took me about two hours to see the whole museum.  I read every story I found, and paused to listen in each room to which I came.  I remember looking at one picture on the wall of a man being tortured and feeling chills when I realized that I was standing in the same room as the picture.  This happened more than once.  Chilling.
All the while, my mom waited patiently in the courtyard near the pull up bars where they used to hang prisoners.  I came out to her when I was done and we sat under a tree to take what I thought would be a short break.
Perhaps it was because we were inside a place with extreme historical significance, or maybe the chill of ghosts sparked my interest. Either way,  I needed to discuss what I had just saw.
"Did we know anyone who died here, mom?" I asked.
"No, I don't think so."
And there I thought the conversation would end, as it usually did when I talked about my family's history with my parents. The Vietnam War and the drama that surrounded it is a tough subject for everyone who was touched by it.  Because no one enjoys talking about it (except for the Communists), even first generation Vietnamese-Americans like myself have many holes in our stories about our family. 
That afternoon, under a shaded tree in one of the most terrifying prisons in modern history, my mother opened up and filled some of those holes for me.  We talked for nearly two hours inside that former school.  Well, she talked - I mostly listened. It's a good story and I hope to tell it some day.  It would be too long to do it justice here. 
My mother and I only spent two nights together in Phnom Penh.  On January 10, she left our group to head back home to Huntington Beach, California.  She claims to be an old retired social worker, but she just completed a month backpacking Southeast Asia with her son.  No small task. Just ask Steve. 
I ain't afraid to admit it.  I shed a little tear when I said goodbye to my mom in the airport. I'll easily tell you that the two hours with my mom on that bench in Tuol Sleng, was one of the highlights of the past 30 days. However, more appropriate would be to say that it was one of the most endearing moments of my past 31 years. 
Thanks for coming on this trip with me, mom.  I'll never forget it.
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