Welcome to this week’s Inner-Outer You wisdom
Hello wisdom and adventure seekers!
This week’s article is an expert from a book I published in 2009 called, Memoirs of a Wandering Ninja – Walking the Path of Enlightenment. The only part I have changed is the title, which I have given the article here.
Hearts of Darkness: A Wandering Ninja’s Experience
Out of all the countries where I traveled, Cambodia affected me the most, emotionally.
Waking up early, I was off to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also called Prison 21 (S-21) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A young lady I had met on the flight over from Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) city in Vietnam named Van, had not connected with her friend Alan so she decided to come with me. There is nothing I can say about these places that could prepare you to see them in person. What affected me the most was knowing that this savagery was committed by Cambodia’s own people against each other.
While visiting the various memorials that are truly heart-wrenching, I found it extremely hard to swallow from the lump that had developed in my throat. The Khmer Rouge regime, headed by a communist dictator called Pol Pot, came to power and subjugated all people, starting with the city of Phnom Penh in 1975. Pol Pot and his army immediately implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Its goal was to transform Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Anyone that did not fit into their plan was tortured and killed. All foreigners were asked to leave immediately. The country was then sealed off from the eyes and ears of the outside world so nobody would know what was happening. All Cambodian citizens who had any education, who were middle or upper class, even people who wore glasses, were all murdered for being too smart. They wanted only people who would follow orders and not question. Babies and young children who belonged to the classes of families just mentioned were also killed! The few foreigners who ignored the order to leave met their fate in the Killing Fields. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S-21 was an old high school that was taken over in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge and turned into the largest centre of detention and place of torture in the country. It has been left much the same as it was found. I found walking through this place very eerie and disturbing. The Khmer Rouge took pictures of people who they tortured and killed. Many of these pictures are still up on the wall today. Looking into the faces of these people you can see the fear and the pain. You could see in their eyes and on their face that they knew death was near!
After the torturous high school we visited The Killing Fields which I found no easier. Many people were taken here from S-21 to be exterminated if they survived the torture. The Killing Fields, of which there are 338 across the country, are massive pits used as graves, many of which are still there today. Most of the bones have been dug up and only the pits remain now. I say most because on a rainy day it’s often said you can see bones rising to the surface. When I was walking around I discovered bits of clothing and human bones scattered across the fields from the unfortunate victims.
Cheung Ek memorial is a reminder of Cambodia’s nightmarish past. This 17-level tower is full of the skulls and bones of the some of the millions who were murdered. The monument is a reminder to the world of atrocities that occurred there, in the hope that they will never occur again. I can say without a doubt it is visually disturbing! As I said before, the sickening aspect of this which makes it worse is that the killing here was done not by any invading army, but by Cambodia’s own people. When I say killing, I mean it in the worst way. I don’t know how many times I shook my head asking how people could do this to other people, never mind their own people. It’s one thing to kill another person, and it’s quite another to slowly torture a person to death and enjoy the process. Even babies were not spared this terrible tragedy as their heads were smashed against trees. If there is ever an example of evil doings it is here. It is estimated by the United Nations that two million men, women and children lost their lives to the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge “revolution”. The Vietnamese who were the invading army and put a stop to this genocide were first on hand to discover this tragedy and they estimate between three to four million Cambodians died.
Cambodia still suffers from the war years. There are thousands of unexploded mines still left in the fields. At one point one hundred people a day would step on these mines and lose a leg and they were the lucky ones, for many others lost both legs or even their lives! You can see this all too well, as there are so many men, women and children walking around the streets begging for money, missing a leg, an arm or both.
One of the most heart-wrenching moments I experienced did not come from an amputee but from a bunch of street children. I was sitting at a small outdoor café, having some lunch after visiting the S-21 Museum and the Killing Fields, a tour that took the entire morning. My head still trying to make sense of what I had just seen. I was quite reflective, my mood quite somber while eating lunch with my friend Van. Many people would come over to our table with missing limbs, asking for money. I had traveled through many third world countries just prior to Cambodia but somehow, here, it was harder to say no to these unfortunate people. Even though every backpacker knows you can’t give money to everyone, there is just not enough money, it was the children who got to me the most. There were four children asking for money and I knew if I gave them some, my table would be surrounded by numerous unrelenting beggars in a matter of seconds. At the moment I wished I had all the money in the world but since I did not, I simply said no, but once again my heart sank.
This time, however, my heart was about to be deeply touched. As these children were leaving, I noticed one of them quickly taking a handful of food from one of our plates. Not having much of an appetite after the morning’s excursions, we put our plates on the table next to us for lack of space, and they still had a lot of food on them. That’s when it hit me, what an idiot I am! I was so totally self-absorbed in my mood I forgot there were almost two full plates of food not being eaten and here were children who were starving. When I saw the child gobble the food down so fast, I called the waiter over with great urgency in my voice. I asked him to give the remaining food from our plates to these children. I must admit I was feeling a bit ashamed for not thinking about this sooner. The child who grabbed the food was walking away fast, as they are not supposed to touch anything on the tables. I got the waiter to call him back with his friends. You could certainly tell that this was not a normal situation for them to be called back, save maybe to be yelled at. At first they were very afraid to consider even the thought. Then with great reluctance, demonstrated by their hesitant steps, they inched their way back. They came only so close. They were dressed in extremely dirty and torn clothes and their faces and hands were black from dirt. There seemed to be an invisible barrier for they would not come to the table to eat the food. I asked the waiter to put the plates on a chair closer to them. Giving me a look that said he didn’t get paid for this, he took the plates and a chair and put it about six feet from the table.
As he turned to walk back, the children moved towards the food quickly. You have never seen children grab food, shove it into their mouths, and eat so fast! I was in shock. These children were starving! You could see it expressed in their very behavior. This was the first time I had seen this type of behavior up close. When they were done, my eyes still fixated on the children, I yelled once again for the waiter, but he was off serving another person. Three of the children ran away quickly. The one that remained did so only to carefully take the plates from the chair and walk them back over to my table slowly. With the greatest of care, the boy placed the plates so softly on the table that it did not even make a sound. At that moment our eyes met and with the smile of an angel he expressed his gratitude, which felt to me as if it penetrated my soul. For a second while we gazed into each other’s eyes, I lost track of who was who. I know it sounds strange but it’s true! There seemed to be no separation between us, only the sameness at a level far beyond the experience. In that second or two we were the same! And a second after that, he was running away.
My jaw dropped, my heart sank, and a tear came to my eye. I called to him in a pleading manner, “Stay, stay” while I gestured with my hands trying to get his attention. I yelled again for the waiter to come quickly, feeling a sudden overwhelming sense of desperation. I wanted to order a full plate of food or two. I would have ordered ten plates if it would have filled their little bellies. The boy did not understand English and ran off. In a matter of minutes they had come, begged, eaten and run off. I think I experienced every depth of sadness that one could experience in those few minutes. Perhaps I was set up for this in the morning by seeing the S-21 torture museum, the Killing Fields, and the endless number of people with limbs missing. I felt an overwhelming amount of empathy for the tragedy these people had experienced for decades and realized they were still experiencing it. As a North American far removed, I normally lived with luxuries and a quality of life that we all seemed to take so much for granted. This was so clear to me in that moment, and for a few minutes the tears streamed down my cheeks. I was speechless at what I had just witnessed. I had seen this type of poverty time and time again in other countries like India and Nepal and Vietnam, but for some reason it affected me the most in Cambodia. Somehow I knew this experience had profoundly touched my soul and would be on my mind for the rest of my journey, and by that I mean, my life. Something had shifted inside of me. While this was a painful experience I also felt very blessed to have been touched so deeply, and a joy was born. I had such gratitude for this experience and everything in life. I felt truly blessed and connected to all others.
Videos of my experiences:
Quote to reflect on:
“I saw light, like the sunrise, when I got to the border but I felt nervous until today — when I get complete freedom.”
– said by Dith Pran, Killing Fields survivor – said when he crossed the border into freedom from Cambodia to Thailand.