Sometimes what you perceive as a sign of hope could easily appear unremarkable and commonplace elsewhere. For me, that heart-lifting moment was the sight of an open truck driving along a country road in Siem Reap one morning, the truck’s back flap rattling each time it went over a bump and dozens of watermelons, perched precariously inside, shaking merrily. A boy sat inside the truck, smiling at everyone. It was a happy moment.
A few years earlier, there would have been no trucks on that road, or certainly none carrying fruit. The boy would have had an AK-47. And the goods inside the truck could have been jade, timber and, in some instances, wounded or dead bodies.
A decade of relative peace leads many to think that the days when Cambodia’s fields were irrigated with blood are far behind, if not over. But for visitors, it is uncanny how close to the surface that conflict still lives. When I first went to Siem Reap to see Cambodia’s link with India, the Angkor Wat, I was one of two guests at the hotel. (The other was a former Vietnam war veteran, who now worked to fit artificial limbs on victims of landmines, a “soldier” one Khmer Rouge commander once called “ever-courageous, never sleeps, never misses”.) The danger of mines was constant. To go to the temples, we had to agree to be accompanied by guards carrying machine guns. And, rather chillingly, the tour operator emphasized to us, we had to follow our guard step by step. We must not stray; we must follow the trodden path. There were mines.
It was a surreal way to see those outstanding works in the jungle. In many Western countries, tourists driving on interstate highways are alerted to “scenic spots” where you can park and take photographs. It takes away some of the spontaneity from photography, and makes pictures look identical. The difference is that nothing prevents you from going on the road not taken, in the hope of capturing that glimpse of an image that has eluded everyone else. Try doing it in Siem Reap, and you may not have all your limbs in place.
Exploits: Khmer Rouge forcibly derobed monks and closed pagodas.
To be sure, the mine clearance programme is active in Cambodia, and it is a greater success than Cambodian democracy. Almost all mines around the capital city Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat have been cleared, but many are still half-buried under the grass. At one time, according to some estimates, there were 10 million mines in Cambodia. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre, though, estimates the number to be between four million and six million.
The bulk of the remaining mines are near Battambang and the north-west, along the Thai border, where the Khmer Rouge was active. Risks have diminished hugely, but Cambodia is not yet mine-free—it cannot be so, given the ease with which mines can be placed and their low cost, sometimes as little as Rs150—and the task of demining is labour-intensive and risky. The only mines visitors now see near Angkor Wat are in the Land Mine Museum, built by a former Khmer Rouge soldier, Aki Ra, who wants to educate the world about the horrors of that period.
This idea—of harsh reality intruding on a landscape of unparalleled beauty—is a recurring one in Cambodia. Drive outside Phnom Penh, and the guide will casually point out a paddy patch, saying that was a killing field. Stop the car at what appears to be a road shrine, and you see a mountain of skulls, a monument to the victims of the Pol Pot years.
Perhaps the most macabre place of interest is Tuol Sleng, a former school, which was turned into a torture chamber. There, you find crude, rusty metallic whips, iron bedsteads, and even bloodstains on the wall. There are statements pasted on the walls, displaying inmates’ confessions. They get progressively more outlandish, revealing people willing to confess to anything to get out. Sadly, very few did.
Room after room was filled with ordinary-looking objects, which were intended to cut grass, to dig the ground, to lie on, to drill holes in walls, to hang pictures with—but which had been used instead to run over bodies, to strike and wound, to bleed and cause pain. Nobody deserved that, innocent or guilty.
The ghastliest site is a large map of Cambodia, made entirely of skulls. And yet, never underestimate human ingenuity for bad taste. What I recall today is not the map, but the way some tourists from Singapore behaved near it. They posed in front of the map, smiling cheerfully, flashing the V sign, as if they were standing next to Mickey Mouse in Disneyland.
It would be nice to believe in the 12th century temples of Angkor Wat, which carry on their walls mythological tales so vivid to me. When the temples emerged from the forest after French explorers discovered the site in the 1860s, they supposedly revealed a civilization far ahead of its time. I reflected back to that halcyon time when there was supposedly no cruelty; in a sense, there was Ram Rajya. But do we really know that?
Today, the walls along those temples, scrubbed, restored and cleaned by many governments, including India’s, showcase the triumph of good over evil, but they also celebrate wars, with their own paradigm of cruelty and violence. How were those prisoners treated then? Were there Tuol Slengs? Lao Gais? Gulags? Guantanamos? Were those Gods any better at treating the civilian population, compared to the villains we term as evil today? When Lanka burned after Ravana’s fall—an iconic image on some of those temples—did no innocent Lankan die? And do we read that mythology in a particular way because it was written by an admirer of the victor, Ram?
Not all heroes are perfect. When you stray too far from myths and histories, the questions that emerge are often uncomfortable. You have to tread carefully; there are landmines. And that’s why many prefer to follow the boy with the AK-47, instead of walking on the road not taken.
(Write to Salil at firstname.lastname@example.org)