Sometimes you set out on an adventure simply looking for beauty, but end up finding something much more profound and powerful. That’s exactly what happened to me during a recent trip to Cambodia. I had planned to spend my time exploring the monuments and temples of the ancient city of Angkor, reveling in their breathtaking beauty, but an unexpected visit to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge changed everything.
It was still dark and I was riding in a tuk-tuk, basically a two-wheeled rickshaw pulled by a motorcycle. My intention was to see the sunrise from the ruins of the ancient Buddhist temple known as Angkor Wat (the city of Angkor served as the capital of the Khmer Empire, which lasted from from 802 to 1431). The history of Angkor Wat is fascinating: It was built with huge stone blocks that were dragged over 30 miles by approximately 6,000 elephants and 300,000 men.
Angkor Wat is, without a doubt, one of the great wonders of the world. The sunlight bounces off the temple walls, blending in with the amazing architecture that surrounds you. The magnificence and scale of the site are comparable only to the temple complexes of the ancient Aztec, Incan, Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires.
Astonishingly, visitors to Angkor Wat can move freely throughout the complex, which has made it tremendously popular. Tourists can walk through the same halls and passageways that kings and monks strolled through centuries ago; only a few areas are closed to the public, where restoration is ongoing. The walls and floors look pretty worn down, however, so I don’t know how much longer this policy will prevail.
Just a short tuk-tuk ride away is the mind-blowing temple of Ta Prohm. The temple’s inhabitants were driven away in the 14th century by a long and crippling drought; in the intervening years, the roots of enormous trees have grown throughout the temple, swallowing up walls and corridors. The trees and temple stones have come together to form a new kind of architectural masterpiece. Although millions of tourists visit Ta Prohm every year, you still leave thinking you’ve discovered something that no one has ever seen before.
My official guide for this adventure was a former journalist calling himself “Y.” Like most Cambodians, he is deeply proud of the majesty of the Angkor ruins, with their unique blend of natural beauty and architectural ambition. Cambodians know very well that there is no place like this anywhere else in the world. But Y wanted to tell me a completely different story about his country.
Not far from Angkor, on the outskirts of the city of Siem Reap, was one of the camps where the revolutionary tyrant Pol Pot massacred thousands of his own people between 1975 and 1979. As has been widely documented, up to 2 million people were killed as part of a brutal revolutionary campaign against capitalism. The Khmer Rouge targeted members of the middle class as well city dwellers and anyone with a formal education.
Y was 15 years old, he said, when Pol Pot violently seized power. He told me he was separated from his family and only managed to survive the ruthless communist regime by pretending he couldn’t read or write. His father didn’t make it, however; Y never saw him again.
“You will understand everything in two minutes,” Y said as we arrived at one of the camps, now a memorial, where his countrymen were massacred. “If you don’t want to see human remains you can stay in the tuk-tuk,” he said. I didn’t stay.
I can’t see faraway objects clearly. But as we approached a tower at the camp — roughly 10 feet tall with see-through walls — it became clear that it contained skulls and bones. The skulls were placed one next to the other, in a certain order; some were broken, others were toothless. At the bottom, long bones, maybe from arms and legs, were piled up. It was impossible to tell to whom they had belonged.
Y was right. Now I understood.
We didn’t say a word on our way back to my hotel. I welcomed the noise of the tuk-tuk as I labored to process what I had just seen. Ultimately, for me, the camp was just an unexpected stop on a tour of a foreign country. But for Y, it was part of a larger reality that has tormented him all his life.
We said our goodbyes knowing that we wouldn’t see each other again, but well-aware that we now shared a secret, that Y had opened my eyes. As I stared at him, his eyes filled with tears.