After an absolutely spectacular, rewarding, challenging and emotional 2 week journey in Cambodia I have set foot safely on Australian soil but know my heart has lingered behind me, holding closely the memories of the diverse experiences we encountered, the beautiful people who brightened each day and the many lessons I learnt about myself, my friends and the human race.
I often came to blog about my experiences but fell soundly asleep within moments of sinking into my bed every evening, and felt my short attention span didn’t give justice to the stories that need recounting. So over the next week I’ll continue to post up blogs with different themes about our journey in hope that it may even shed a little light on a small country that has captured my heart.
Cambodia can best be described as the land of a thousand smiles, here, there and everywhere a friendly Cambodian is always smiling, laughing and appreciating the life they’ve paved in a resourceful country. Though a life emerging from the wake of one of history’s worst genocides and a consequent cycle of poverty, there is no doubt that Cambodia is a country looking and moving forward.
If there’s one thing that’s struck me this week, it’s the universality of the wave – such a simple hand gesture with so much meaning and opportunity for interaction. Whether it be waving at the cheeky children who yell out from their school playgrounds “Hello what is your name” (not clear yet whether they think ‘what is your name’ is part of the greeting or just generally wanting to know my name!) or the colourful monks as they dutifully pass on their way to morning chants or meditation. A wave carries so much joy, often much laughter and always hope for a return. Waves are often beckoning, a sign for you to come closer and play or join in, a sign welcoming you into a home, or simply a sign recognising the shared path we travel together.
One wave that stays painted clearly in my mind was that of Bou Meng, one of the few remaining survivors of Tuol Sleng prison – a place where over 14,000 Cambodians passed through en route to their final tragic resting place in the Killing Fields. (To read more about the Pol Pot regime during the 1970s-1980s head here.) After making my way through the prison, a school that was converted into cells and torture chambers for men, women and children, I was overcome with a sense of grief of the sinister nature of our human race, brothers killing brothers, children killing elders, I was determined to get out as quickly as possible and made a quick beeline to the exit, only to catch a glimpse of Bou Meng in the corner of my eye. I stopped and stared for what felt like minutes but perhaps lasted seconds, trying to work out what I could say to him. What could reverse the horror he’d experienced, the torture he’d witnessed and the loss he’d suffered. Should I apologise for the tragedy he’d been apart of or thank him for the hope he imparts to others by his willingness to come back to where it started all these years later? As I stared he smiled and waved at me, beckoning me over and pointing to the seat next to him, taking my hands in his as I sat down. Before I could begin the meaningless mutter I’d prepared, he simply said ‘thank you’.
I’ve learnt that the greatest lesson we can take away from Cambodia is not to forget, ignore and sweep the atrocities under the carpet, but acknowledge what has happened and partner with Cambodia in their quest to move forward. I’ve learnt this history is part of their identity, their motivation for striving towards a better future and a reason for the way they so beautifully value their family and community.
It’s hard coming back home to a fast-paced city where we no longer know our neighbours or no longer greet people on the street but I think it’s time to bring the universal wave back to Sydney. I know there are many evening walkers and joggers in my neighbourhood so this week I’m challenging myself to go for a walk each evening and greet each passerby. It’s time to experience community Cambodian style 🙂