Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Temples of Angkor: Lepers, Giant Stone Faces, and the Largest Religious Building on the Planet

(ed. note: I realize that I've been posting slowly, however I'll be picking up the pace in the next few weeks, watch for more frequent updating!)

As our taxi pulled up to the immense stone causeway that leads into the worlds largest religious structure, the only sounds that we could hear were the yells from children:







If I had to bet on which countries children are the most adept at learning languages, I would have to put all of my money on Cambodia. The children, by virtue of necessity, can speak about a dozen languages with enough proficiency to get people from nearly any country to buy their postcards. Of course, English being the language of bartering the world over, more often than not I could make out what was going on, an unususal state of affairs for me.

Siem Reap, located 5.5 km South of Angkor Wat, is a city rebuilding itself at a lightning pace. Since Angkor was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, the main conduit of tourism, which is one of the country's biggest industries, has focused on that narrow path leading between town and temple. You wouldn't expect to find a first rate Mexican restaurant in the middle of Cambodia. Neither would you expect to find a European bakery or an enormous, Guiness-pouring Irish pub in the center of town. Since you wouldn't expect these things, like me, you'd be surprised when they were suggested to you by the swarming multitudes of street children.

This little girl was like a walking Fodor's guide for Siem Reap. She knew where to find the best aioli!

There is a thriving, nearly vibrant night life that goes on from about 7pm until bar close, which appears to be right around dawn, just long enough for people to stumble home and catch enough shut-eye to spend the rest of the day perusing some of the greatest architectural achievements on the planet.

Angkor Wat has been described so many times, by so many people that it is nearly useless to add to the lexicon of praise here. Nonetheless, to arrive on the site, and begin the nearly 1km walk that beings by crossing a moat 190 meters wide, which surrounds the entire site, through a massive archway, and finally into the temple grounds themselves is nothing short of super-awesome (I defy you to find any piece of literature, anywhere that refers to Angkor Wat as such. I'm breaking new ground here people).

The view...about to enter all that is superawesome!

From there, it is a mere jaunt of another half a kilometer until you are within the temple itself. The grounds leading up to the temple are dotted with ancient shrines and two immense libraries, each individually worthy of a day or so of exploration. However the siren song of five soaring, spired and shingled towers looms over you and implores you onward.

Getting closer...

....annnnd very slightly closer

Finally, you are under the main gate...

Nearly there...

...and as you pass through, you are witness to one of the most awesome, powerful, and lasting images that I have ever encountered. A simple camera could never capture the depth of the moment, as you enter a murky hallway, and see the towers rising above you through a narrow door.

Are you getting a sense of how long this took?

okay this is getting absurd...

Careful, you're about to learn something:

The temples of Angkor comprise over a thousand structures, ranging from the nearly perfect Angkor Wat, to barely a pile of stones, hardly identifiable as having once been anything. There are perhaps 20-30 temples that are still easy enough to identify to justify a visit as a tourist. The temples were built by the Khmers between the 9th and 15th centuries, and are considered to be the supreme architectural works of that culture. The big poppa of all the temples, Angkor Wat, was built by and for King Suryavarman II between 1112 and 1150. The layout is unique with respect to Buddhist and Hindu monuments, as it is oriented West, whereas most temples are oriented East. Scholars are still debating this oddity, however one of the theories posits that as this temple was dedicated to Vishnou, as opposed to Shiva, the Westward orientation makes sense as Vishnou's normal association is with the West. This is supported by the art of the bas-relief that scrolls all the way around the inside of the temple. This exquisite work of art (believed to be the longest work of carved art on Earth) is meant to be read while being kept on one's left, the opposite of the tradition at most other Angkorian monuments.

We're there! Here! Whatever!

The temple itself is modeled after Mount Meru, home of the Gods in Hindu mythology. It is a common misconception that Angkor Wat has only three towers, as when viewed head-on, that is all you can see, however, the temple structure is actually called a quincunx, which means an arrangement of five objects with four at the corners and one at the center, and which sounds like a method of leaping backward and forwards through time, or possibly a smelly Anthony Quinn. Either way, entering the grounds brings with it a sense of both timelessness and contrast. As you wander the grounds it is impossible not to hear the voices in the back of your mind, those of the Khmer Rouge, and their victims, trying to tear away all the civilization and beauty that was created by these people. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge largely left the temples of Angkor alone, and due to the massive walls surrounding Angkor Wat, it has largely been preserved from the ravages of a jungle that has been all to eager to swallow its lesser neighbors.

Inside the walls. If you're wondering, the color of that sky is perfect. It's on the color spectrum between Indigo and Mauve

It took myself, Aidan and Lorraine (my friends of long standing at this point, there through thick and thin and kind of gross since way back in Laos) nearly an hour to simply find each other after splitting up at the site.

Have I mentioned the steps yet?

That boy on the steps is actually 3oo0 feet away. Neat optical illusion huh?

No description of Angkor Wat would be complete without a mention of one of the less illuminating aspects of a visit. In short: There are many, many steps to be climbed. These steps are very, extremely, umm...really steep. Like, scaling a vertical wall steep. After much huffing and puffing, one finds oneself at the uppermost level of the temple, and is greeted with scenes such as these:

"...oh soooola mia....."

"Hi, I'm the Buddha with the head. Aren't I nice?"

"........" (translation: Hi, I'm the Buddha without the head. Sucks huh?)

If you'll note the last two images, you'll see something about the Buddhas represented therein. One has a head, one does not. Three guesses as to which was the more common sight...

There is nothing funny about this picture. Beheaded deities are no laughing matter..which is why I got kicked out...

Well, since you are so clever, oh wise and gentle reader, you of course surmised that there are far more headless Buddhas than those who remain un-discombobulated. The simple reason for this is that every time that any group has ever decided to try and overtake Cambodia, it was decided that the best way to begin would be by beheading their most relevant deities. Makes sense if you think about it. Irony of ironies, the Khmer Rouge largely left the temple sites alone.

The arching, vaulted ceilings, vast sunken rooms, and multitudinous prayer areas and shrines could be explored for days in Angkor Wat, but our 50 dollar passes (and for the record, I cannot as of the time of this writing recall anything else on my entire trip that cost that much. Not even flights that I bought while in South Africa and India. This should actually be an entire other post, but here is unfortunately relegated to a parenthetical. As it turns out, only 28% of the revenue that comes into the Angkor temples goes towards their upkeep and refurbishing. The rest goes to a shady cabal of international companies who turn a massive profit on the whole endeavor. The filmy sheen that I had to scrub off of myself every night after temple-hopping wasn't sweat, it was corporate malevolence...and I can assure you, it clings), were only good for 3 days, and with so much to see, it was time to be on our way.

Temple, from a distance...duh.

Reverse view. The long walk home

The next stop on the normal first day temple tour is the site known as Bayon. Whether or not you are a professor of Khmer Studies at at a leading institution (which, perhaps you are), Bayon is fairly recognizable due to its unique architecture, spiritual importance and oh yeah...

"Arghhh!! I'm a huge stone head!"

(Chorus): Argh!! We're 200 huge stone heads!

...hundreds of enormous stone heads! One of the main reasons for visiting the temple is to see the painstakingly, meticulously rebuilt library that took dozens, perhaps hundreds of graduate students and archaeleogists years and years to finish. I, of course, didn't get a single picture of it. I was too busy with looking at things like:

If you hold the scepter of light at exactly the right time, at just the right get the location of the recipe of the perfect bowl of noodles....mmmm mysteriously delicious

Aidan thought he had discovered a doorway to Nirvana. Turns out it was a doorway to a record store that specialized in used Nirvana tapes. He got In Utero for 2 bucks!

It's a spiderweb, it looked nice in the light. What? Every picture has to be something you've never seen before?

As you peruse the exterior, it has hard not to feel like you are being watched. And this feeling becomes more prevalent, the more you look around. Fortunately, you are in good company with this uneasy feeling, as nearly everyone feels somewhat offput by the nearly 200 enormous carved stone faces that surround you everywhere you go. Bayon is unique for a few reasons in Angkor architecture: It is one of the only temples not surrounded by an outer wall, the prominence of the library indicates that it was significant both as a religious, and as an educational site, and it was constructed roughly 100 years after Angkor Wat, however there is evidence that points to it having been completed over a very long period of time, perhaps even longer than it took to complete Angkor Wat.

Wide angle view...big place

But really, you only want to know about the faces. (Sigh) poor, short attention-spanned readers.

Well, there is some dispute over exactly who or what the faces are depicting, but there is a general scholarly consensus (isn't it nice when nerds get along?) that the faces are either Jayavarman VII or Avalokitesvara. Although neither of those names probably mean much to you, the latter is extremely important in Buddhism. Without getting to in-depth here, the Avalokitesvara is the embodiment of all of the compassion of all of the Buddhas. As such, he is the most highly revered Bodhisattva (and to carry out the explanation one degree further the bodhisattva is the " being who is dedicated to assisting all sentient beings in achieving complete Buddhahood)(for further reading that won't help a whit in understanding what an Avalokitesvara or Bodisattva is, but will give you a look into the mind of a brilliant writer to whom those terms meant a lot, check out "The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac).

Anywho, we spent quite a bit of time wandering around, taking goofy pictures with the heads. That was my trip to Bayon. I am quite the student of culture huh?

"...just the two of us..."

"...just the two of us..."

Joking aside (though never entirely aside) Bayon is a place where you begin to wonder at any ghost story, mystical happening or alien landing that you've ever heard about. At a place like this, anything seems possible. There are some places in the world that seem to hold magic and mystery, beyond rational comprehension, places that leave you with a sense of wonder. Bayon, as fully as anyplace else that I have been, evokes these feelings. There is a hushed, overpowering atmosphere (when not congested with tour groups) that seems to demand silence and obeisance to...something.

It is interesting to note the different characteristics of the many faces at Bayon. Each face is slightly different from its mates, a fact that is pointed out in any number of tour guides and plaques at the site. Some of the faces are clearly happy, some seem angry, others demure or amused and still others paternal and knowing. It would be easy to spend a whole day, just trying to catalogue the look on each face, and interestingly enough, there are as many different interpretations, even for the same face, as there are people to look at it. While standing and staring at a face that to me looked joyful, a young boy passed me and gave a shudder. I asked him what was wrong (helpful scruffy stranger that I am) and he said that it looked like the face was mad at him.

What do you see in the faces?

As we left the temple, walking away down a wide stone path with our backs turned on the faces, I couldn't help but again get the feeling that for good or evil, we were being watched over as we made our way onwards. To me, it was comforting, but it seems to weigh differently on each person who visits.

Casting call picture for the sequel to the Danny Devito/Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Twins" entitled "Unlikely Twins at Buddhist Temples"

After sweating profusely at Bayon, it was a 2km walk to another temple whose name I forget, largely because it was under renovation and I didn't get anywhere near it. Fortuantely, this brought us right to the part of the day that I was looking forward to the most...a visit to the Terrace of the Leper King.

What is the historical significance, factual background and scholarly opinion on the Terrace...well, I'll tell you...


You don't want to hear that. Neither did I. I just wanted to do this:

"Hey...hey look at me...I'm the LEPER KING. I've got LEPROSY...ew...I'm all leprous because I'm the KING OF THE LEPERS...WAHHHHHH"

We finished the day by gazing vacantly at the Terrace of the Elephants, about which I know nothing, but made for a nice picture which you may

Terrace of the Elephants. Neat.

Next: A trip way...way out, and some Indiana Jones style adventure...not to be missed!

Cambodia: A difficult reality

"...Although directly responsible for the death of about 750,000, the policies of the Khmer Rouge led to, mainly through starvation and displacement, the death of over 1 million people. In terms of the number of people killed as a proportion of the population of the country it ruled, it was one of the most lethal regimes of the 20th century."
Thus did I find myself in the heart of a country with one of the most brutal histories in recent memory. Only not mentioned in the same breath as Kosovo, Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo because of a difference of a decade or so, the destructive force and moral vacuum that existed in Cambodia until late 1979 is hardly discussed or given much thought in America.

I arrived in Cambodia on a day that would prove to be typical of the remainder of my time in South East Asia: Humid, obscenely hot, and interspersed with massive downpourings of rain. I suppose that I should have been expecting this as it was the "rainy season", however I had (foolishly) expected that a city that had been subjected to such a season every year for the last say...oh...thousand or so years, would have been adequately equipped to deal with such torrents of downpour.

"...yeah, take the next left past the family of ducks and before all the frogs..."

"...Sure...what a GREAT day for a bike ride...WONDERFUL suggestion..."

I thought wrong. Phnom Penh has the water-management infrastructure of a toddler. That is, whenever, and wherever it can get wet, it will get wet. Before launching into what I saw in Cambodia, it is worth a moment to take a look at the trial-by-ditch hopping that was required to get to my guest house.

I walked to my guest house at night and went to sleep, when I woke up, there was a 3 foot deep ditch outside my door, filled with water, dug without any of the business-owners knowledge. Gotta love corrupt buearucracy

Simply getting out of the "backpacker area" was a challenge.

..though with sunsets like these...

...why leave at all? (view from my guesthouse porch)

As far as I could tell, there are only two industries currently in operation in Cambodia: tourism, and cashew plantations. Most of the plantations are owned by foreigners and they produce a staggering amount of the worlds cashews (here's a fun fact: if you've eaten cashews at any point in the last three years, chances are very good that they came from Cambodia, but were routed through somewhere in South America so that they can get a good "branding" name on them). Since talking about cashews is not (I imagine) particularly illuminating, let us move on to tourism.

Phnom Penh is a very large city, organized around two or three very large central streets. The cheap accomodation area is down an alley, which is down a second alley, which narrows into an alley-ish type lane that is unlit at night and feels exactly like you would if you were in a movie, being chased by thugs and you were the unnamed bit part actor who everyone knows is about to eat a bullet to allow the hero to get away. Not someplace that I wanted to be stumbling around in alone.

The primary reason that people come to Phnom Penh is to see the legacy of the Khmer Rouge through the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum (S-21) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Both are horrific reminders of the atrocities carried out by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, both invoke the same kind of skin-crawling, nail-biting, eyes-averting behavior that you would find at a typical auto accident, however they are necessarily experienced on a much broader scale.

s-21, a former elementary school turned nightmarish prison

I visited Tuol Sleng first. What makes this stark, broken edifice particularly frightening is the buildings former role: Prior to being one of the worst prisons on Earth, it was a primary school. It is also very important to understand what the name of the prison means. In Khmer, Tuol Sleng means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees", a name chosen for the detention center by the Khmer officials as a kind of sick joke among themselves.

As I entered the front gates, I was accosted by several people with various deforming injuries. There was a very young boy missing a leg, hobbling along on a splintering wooden crutch, his hand out and a dead sheen in his eyes, looking through me even as he asked for my money. Perhaps the most difficult person to face was a man who could have been anywhere from 3o to 60 years old. His face looked as if it had been melted, from the forehead down. There was skin and tissue connecting the top of his brows to the cheekbone below, and where his eyes should have been was simply an amorphous, gelatinous mess that he seemed to be able to move side to side. This man was missing one of his arms and his left foot. These people were victims of one of the most vicious, unfair and deplorable forms of munitions known to man: the landmine. There are an estimated 4-6 million landmines still remaining in Cambodia, and when they tell you to stick to the beaten path, they are deadly serious. It is further estimated that there are 40,000 landmine related amputees in Cambodia, one of the highest figures of any country. Entering the country, I had tried to steel myself to encounter such people. I had heard from other travelers about the horrors that they had witnessed, but what struck me the most about the stories that I heard were people's reactions to the disfigured. More often than not, I was told that a person had had to "look away" or had "quickly turned and walked away." This struck me as being particularly cruel. Amputee or not, these victims were still people, and I resolved to look at each one of them, not to shy away, but to make the effort to behave as I would hope to be treated should something similar have befallen me.

That first man put this resolve to the test immediately. I can say that I did look at him (more likely stared) and that I politely demurred when he requested money (I later learned that the most likely source of his disfigurement was from white phosphorus gas, a substance still widely in use today by world militaries, both for marking locations and for "smoking out" suspected insurgents/terrorists etc.). From that point on, I tried to react with as little shock or staring behavior as I could when being faced with such situations. It was not particularly easy.

Tuol Sleng prison was, as I mentioned, a primary school, and walking around its ghostly hallways, it is not hard to imagine the sounds of children rushing through the corridors and the low murmur of teachers talking to each other as they passed between classes. Unfortunately, the screams and groans of the tortured and dying, the sizzle and smell of electrifying flesh and the crunch of bones under hammers and chisels are far too easy to convince yourself that you can hear as well. The museum is set up very simply, and is beginning to fall apart. The "tour" starts on the first floor and consists of small, former classrooms, each of which now simply has the wire mesh of a bed, and several tools scattered about on top of it.

A classroom-turned-torture chamber at S-21

Without any explanation, the room would appear somewhat benign, if not also a bit sinister. It is the accompanying black and white pictures on the wall that lend abhorrent depth to the morbid tableau with which you are faced. Each room has one or two pictures on the walls. Each picture is of a recently tortured person, lashed to the bed, as often as not with barbed wire. Most of these people are quite clearly dead, their tongues hanging out of their mouths and their eyes rolled back in their heads. Mercifully, some of the pictures are too dark, or too obscure to make out.

As I made my way around the ground floor, stepping into one torture chamber/classrooom after another, I couldn't help but reflect back on my own primary school education. Safe, carpeted, colorful, and sheltered, there were vestiges of such things in these classrooms. With a lot of imagination, you could almost see crayon pictures on the walls and small chairs and tables on the floor. But then, as your gaze moved towards the windows, covered in two layers of thick, unmovable bars, and the bare, ominous emptiness of the room (preserved as it was found after the overthrow of the Khmer government), you find yourself unable to speak and fighting back tears (activities that I had to manage on a recurring basis).

It was terrible.

One of the main features of the museum is a display of hundreds of black and white photographs of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. The majority of the prisoners who passed through s-21 were former Khmer soldiers who were thought to have been disloyal. However thousands of others, regular citizens and foreigners alike (including Americans, Brits, Aussies and New Zealanders) passed through, and died in the camp. To know that every single one of the faces staring blankly out at you from dozens of years of history was dead, often at an age so young that a simple confused look was all that was registered on the subjects face, was a draining experience.

The upper floors were where most of the inmates lived. They are dark, murky, tiny hovels that I could barely squeeze myself into, let alone think about living in.

The tiles that look like "L"'s on the floor represent the walls of the cells. There were usually about 2-6 feet apart

Hallway in-between dozens of cubicle-cells

Outside of the school buildings, right across from an area that still had pull-up bars intact from a jungle gym, was an enormous gallows, one that was used both for executions by hanging, and also for prisoner torture. They would tie a noose around a prisoners feet, then hoist them up in the air, sometimes pulling on them from below, and sometimes simply letting them dangle there for extended periods of time, after which they would bring them back inside to extract confessions ranging from extortion, to conspiracy to murder. There were hardly any people who were confessing to a crime that they were even aware of.

The top floor of the prison had a room with pictures in it of the former Khmer Rouge leaders, along with placards discussing their whereabouts today. A depressing number of them are, or have been living free for the last 20 years. It is only in the past few years that a "court" system has gotten around to charging these people with war crimes, and many of the worst perpetrators have either fled the country or have died. At a museum in any Western country, these examples of tyranny and horror would be as equally protected by the rules of the museum as were the other exhibits. This was not the case here. Instead, every photo of every leader was defiled, scratched, marked up and profaned. All save one. Pol Pot, the leader and perhaps worst criminal of them all did not have his picture violated in any way...because there was simply no picture up for him.

The placard bearing Pol Pot's name below an empty space where a picture once hung

If I had to guess, I would say that at some point, there was a picture of Pol Pot on that wall, and that during that time, that picture suffered sufficient violation as to not be able to be displayed. The blank wall provided a stark contrast to the picture laden space around it, and, as well as any other display in the museum, demonstrated the power of the raw emotion that Tuol Sleng is infused with. Anger, pain, humiliation and despair are not mere notions here, they are tangible elements, able to be touched and examined and held.

I left Tuol Sleng with quite a bit on my mind. The rest of my day did not prove any easier.

The "Killing fields" are not what most people assume them to be. There were literally hundreds of sites around the country, many just being discovered now, where the Khmer Rouge mutilated and killed fellow Cambodians. It is largely assumed that the "killing field" outside of Phnom Penh is the primary one, however it was simply another site in a long list of such places at which thousands upon thousands of people died. However due to its status as the main execution field being served by Tuol Sleng prison, and due to its proximity to Phnom Penh, the site known as Choeung Ek is the most popular, and as such the most developed site to try and make sense of the varying atrocities that occurred.

There is only one road to Choeung Ek, and your options for getting there are limited. I chose to take a moto (the small moped like instruments of white-knuckle inducing fame) which ended up being a terrible idea for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were the fact that 1. Choeung Ek was an hour away 2. the road there was unpaved and unsmooth, making for a very dusty, very bumpy ride, and 3. It is rainy season. It rained. Going 60kph straight into winds that are already driving the rain into at that speed is a little bit like driving into a shotgun blast of M&M's. If you haven't had such an experience, I can assure you that it is unpleasant.

I arrived at the site, paid the entrance fee, and entered. This is what I was greeted with:

Imagine coming upon this in a field if you didn't know what it was...terrifying

This particular killing field has been made into a shrine and a place of memory. The building pictured above is roughly 5 stories high, and is known as a stupa (buddhist religious structure). As imposing as the physical structure itself is, it becomes more so by several degrees of magnitude upon realizing what it is filled with...

One of the legacies of the genocide in Cambodia is bones. Hundreds and thousands of bones. This stupa is filled with thousands and thousands of human skulls, dug up from the area immediately surrounding the building itself. Five stories of them. I am running low on adjectives to describe horror, but the lump in my throat and the sick feeling from my eyelids to my toenails, all seeming as if they wanted to run and cry and explode and vomit and fight and build at the same time, hopefully gives an accurate idea of what I experienced there. Gazing up at this massive tower of death is an experience unlike any that I have previously undergone.

As it turns out, bones are not the only remnants that are found in the killing fields

The text reads: "After excavating the Mass Graves, Victims' Clothes Were Cleaned By Deoderants in 1988 (sic)."

Though a body may decompose rather quickly, leaving behind only a skeleton as proof of an existence, the clothing that these people took to the grave has survived as a testament to lost humanity for far longer.

As you walk among the grounds of Choeung Ek, you come to a multitude of shallow pits. Many of them are simply steep depressions in the grass, perhaps 5-7 feet deep. Passing these, you find a number of other pits, which have been excavated to a further degree and surrounded by a fence...

...and bearing signs that read:

I can't imagine whose job it was to count the bodies that were recovered, and I don't want to think about how often a sign such as this could have been repeated in any number of places all over the country.

I don't want to think about these things, but I can't help myself.

Elsewhere, there are signs reading "This is a tree against which soldiers threw children to stop their crying", "Mass grave of X number of victims who had been beaten to death", etc. etc. etc.

In the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, a bullet was far too precious to waste on something so base and unimportant as a prisoners life. No, instead, the way that most people died in the killing fields was by being lined up at the edge of pits, already full of dead and decaying bodies, and then beaten to death with Oxcart handles, simple lengths of stout wood. As this procedure happened down a line, it was necessary to have several guards with bayonets fixed to their rifles to ensure that no-one tried to break ranks and run before it was their turn with the bat. It is important to understand the brutality, and senselessness of the manner of death, in any situation such as at the killing fields, to ensure that the site does not simply become a series of large holes in the ground with signs. There is very little to visually suggest that anything horrible had happened there (provided you were not looking at the stupa), and if it wasn't being highlighted for you, it could easily be missed.

Or so I thought.

As I walked around, the ground under my feet crunched quite frequently, and I tripped a few times over what I believed to be very small rocks. After the third stumble, I bent down to see what it was that I was tripping over

Human teeth. Scattered everywhere. They tended to blend in with the ground around them, but if you stopped and gave your footsteps even a cursory glance, the full weight, the magnitude of what happened there is unavoidable. Upon closer inspection, one can find stained blue and off-white cloth, coming up through the ground as well. I later found out that the baskets placed every 20 feet or so, are for visitors to place bone fragments and bits of clothing that they find when the rains come and these items rise to the surface. Apparently, these baskets need to be emptied every few days.

There was something interesting about the Choeung Ek site, that bears mentioning. During my entire visit, I was harangued by groups of children, all of whom, it appeared, lived on or near the killing fields. When I first walked onto the grounds past the stupa, several little girls came up to me and asked if I wanted to take their picture. Knowing this scam from any number of other clever children in other countries, I told them that I wouldn't be requiring their modeling services. After a few more rejections, they contented themselves to follow me around for some time, occasionally asking for sweets or for a drink of my water (which I eventually gave them). At first, I was bothered by these kids and their near constant chatter. When I gave them the bottle, they quickly drained it and then began an impromptu game of "water-bottle soccer", yelling and screaming and running about. My first impulse was to shout at them "Hey, be quiet! Don't you realize how solemn and reverent and overwhelmed you should be? Is the memory of your country so short that you can just play here without being awed by the horror of what happened here? Don't you know what happened here?"

And then I realized that of course they knew what had happened. It was right in everyones face, and moreover, it had happened only 20-some odd years ago. These kids knew as well as anyone. But what to do? Should they not play? Should they sit around and be sad and mope and let the past weigh them down until them became bitter at a world that could allow such things to happen? These kids had the right idea. Instead of death in this place, they saw a lesson. Instead of a burden, this place was a reminder, always there, always a part of the past, but never to be a part of their future. So why not play? Why not try to make some money off of a tourist who comes there? What I realized after some time is that what I was seeing was life carrying on, washing away the trangressions of its past and creating an opportunity for the future. I had just missed it because the poles of tragedy and opportunity were literally sitting one right on top of the other. Those children may grow up to be entrepeneurs or prostitutes or chefs or soldiers or bus drivers or lawyers or doctors, but the point is that they will grow up.

That was for me, ultimately, the lesson to be taken away from Tuol Sleng, and the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. Life will go on for this country, the past will be remembered so that it won't be repeated, and the children will grow up in the shadow of that past, but not be smothered by it.

That, is a good lesson, one worth learning, and more importantly, one worth teaching.

Next: The temples of Angkor and Siem Reap, the pride of Cambodia