I have crossed a border leaving Thailand. On the other side of that line I entered a new land that presented me with culture shock equal to what I’d experienced upon arrival in Thailand seven months ago.
Across this border I was among a people who hold two histories — histories I had gone there to learn about. One history is glorious, the other horrific. As I observed both I became aware of a new development of exchange student life that is just as fascinating as Cambodia itself.
Why not start with the glorious history? Early on in my exchange I asked my host mother about the possibility of going to Cambodia to visit the ancient Khmer shrine, the jewel of South East Asia, Angkor Wat. Through perseverance on my host mother’s part I am fortunate to say that this is the place that currently gives me inspiration to write. Angkor Wat (“City Temple”) is a 12th century Hindu shrine — the largest religious monument in the world. It was the center of the dominant Khmer Empire for about three centuries. The temple was built both as an offering to the Hindu God Lord Vishnu and as the mausoleum of its creator, King Suryavarman.
On the bright 95 degree day that I visited, the ancient splendor of this structure radiated as strongly as the sun. Walking across the long causeway suspended over the surrounding moat, the high towers of Angkor rose formidably in the heavy heat, commanding my gaze and making my jaw drop. The lightly sculpted bas-reliefs carved into the temple’s southern wall, the remarkably unscathed pillar scriptures and meticulous construction and positioning of Angkor Wat is nothing less than extraordinary; a timeless beauty. Angkor Wat is considered by some to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World and after the time I spent there, I’ve decided that it is a site I must see again.
Though the purpose of my vacation in Cambodia was solely to tour Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, evidence of Cambodia’s second most eminent history, the Cambodian Genocide, was impossible to avoid. The four-year regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) is recent history and the scars of the slaughter are strikingly vivid to anyone touring Cambodia.
The starkest remnants of the genocide are everywhere. With a third of the pre-war population eradicated, I saw very few elderly individuals in my travels. Most had perished in the killing fields where other, younger captives had a better chance of survival. People 30 years old and younger, it seemed to me, were the only inhabitants remaining. The condition of the roads, forms of agriculture, popular forms of transportation, and sanitation were all about 40 years behind what is evident just across the border in Thailand. I also noticed that, although the markets around Angkor Wat were vast and illustrious, there wasn’t a single vendor hawking red scarves, the iconic symbol of the Khmer Rouge, even though there were many other colored scarves being sold.
The Khmer Rouge brought death not only to people, but also to the entire establishment of Cambodia and its culture. Teachers and “intellectuals” were specifically targeted by the Khmer Rouge and systematically executed, laying waste to traditions such as Cambodian music and dance and nearly eliminating early cultural history completely. Today, Cambodian dancers are very hard to find, as are Buddhist monks who also comprised one of the hardest hit contingencies during the genocide. Cambodia struggles today to maintain the character of its once illustrious culture that was nearly extinguished by Pol Pot’s genocidal authority.
My nationality, I discovered, had an effect on both my perception of the country and Cambodians’ reception of me. Our tour guide, my host brother and I both sensed, had a palpable aversion to me, the only American in the all-Thai group he was leading. He was the son of survivors, grandson and nephew of victims and his grief was clear, as it was for most Cambodians I interacted with. At some of the sites we visited the guide offhandedly refused to translate for me that which he’d said in Thai that was beyond my comprehension. In quizzing me about material he’d discussed at a given stop I discerned a vague condescension in his tone of voice that wasn’t present when doing the same with the other Thai members of the party. Frustrating as it was for me to communicate with the tour guide, I find the negative attitude some Cambodians hold for Americans completely understandable. The role the United States played in the onset of Pol Pot’s rise to power and ensuing massacre is a matter of record. This reality became very evident to me as I toured the nation almost 40 years after the fact.
Exchange students realize in moments like these that we must accept and shoulder our country entirely, without the luxury of being able to select which histories or stereotypes we agree with. We do, however, have the opportunity to present a fresh new image of our nation to the people we encounter, one which is more resolute than a textbook’s content or a vendetta’s hate. My experience in Cambodia was the first time my nationality has caused tangible disdain, and for that I am glad, since this experience will allow me to return to America with a deeper sense of identity and stronger motivation to aspire to a high level of humanity.
Zak Aldridge is a junior at Milford Central School. To read more from him, visit eightabovetheequator.wordpress.com.