Just next to The Vine Retreat Center, near Kep and Kampot in southern Cambodia, you will find a large, circular pond ringed by banana trees. The trees, healthy and productive, were planted by guests at my Uncle’s wedding in summer 2011. The pond fills a deep crater planted by a B-52 during the Vietnam War.
How can I begin to describe what was meaningful to me about my trip to Cambodia? On the one hand, it was an emotionally intense and challenging experience, travelling in a country that still openly carries the wounds of having gone through some of the worst experiences that bear imagining. On the other hand…I also had a fascinating, entertaining, and deeply inspiring experience being there. I’ll tell some stories on both ends.
Author’s note: this isn’t going to be a particularly fun entry. I apologize for the lack of punchlines in the picture captions. My next entry will be back at Mitraniketan, and believe me, this place is comic gold.
National Landmine Museum
Before I left Siem Reap – actually, before I saw Angkor Wat – I asked my driver to make a small detour. On the way to Bateay Srei, I had seen a sign for “National Landmine Museum.” I had a vague notion that it existed, but was far enough out of the way that most people didn’t make time for it. The same could be said for Bateay Srei, however, and fortunately the two landmarks were quite close together.
I’m not going to give a detailed biography here of Aki Ra, the museum’s founder, because Cracked.com already wrote a fantastic profile of him in an article titled “The Six Most Aggressively Badass Things Done By Pacifists.” [Side note: I love Cracked.com, but for obvious reasons haven’t been reading it while I’ve been in India. In fact, since I’ve been here, I’ve only read ONE article on that site – and it was that one. It wasn’t until I was at the museum that I made the connection. Astounding.]
The very short version: Ra was a child soldier forced by the Khmer Rouge to plant landmines, then later a slightly older child soldier doing the same for the Vietnamese army. As an adult, he made it his mission to eradicate landmines, and using his knowledge of them, has personally deactivated over 50,000 mines. Many of those mines now are displayed in the museum.
In addition to continuing to work against landmines, Ra’s organization now also manages an orphanage and school. All in all, it was a deeply powerful place, a reminder both of the inexcusable harm that humans are willing to inflict on strangers and on the future – and of the incredible good that humans are willing to perform for strangers and for the future. If you’re ever in Siem Reap, consider this a must, up there with Angkor Wat. If you want to learn more about Ra’s organization, click here.
For the record: yes, landmines are still a severe problem in Cambodia. I feel like I saw more amputees there in 10 days than I had in the entire rest of my life, including some very young people. Even when I was in Angkor Thom – one of the most popular locations in one of the world’s most renowned tourist sites – I was reprimanded by a tour guide for briefly walking around some nice-looking trees. “Stay on the path,” he told me. “Landmines.”
Then, as I walked ahead: “Also, snakes.”
Back in Phnom Penh, I saw a few of the essential sites – the Russian Market, the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace, the National Museum, etc. But I also made time for Tuol Sleng – also known as S-21, also known as the Genocide Museum. During the Khmer Rouge era, it served as a prison camp in the middle of forcibly deserted Phnom Penh. Somewhere between 14,000 and 20,000 people are said to have died there, while fewer than 200 of its meticulously documented inmates are known to have survived.
The photo on the wall shows the body found on this bed after the Khmer Rouge abandoned Tuol Sleng.
And throughout the anguishing experience of wandering these grounds, one fact kept coming back to me and making the camp even more haunting. Before it was a death camp, it was a school. It was a school.
Over the door the French reads, “Special classroom.” On the blackboard, the French reads: “Before you do anything, you need the guard’s permission. It is absolutely forbidden to make noise.”
A chalkboard still displays chilling commands for obedience, from the wall of a classroom subdivided into tiny, bloodstained cells. A placard next to the exercise bars in the beautiful courtyard explains in detail how they had been used as torture racks. Numbers painted on the wall in one room were used to organize prisoners marked for death; numbers painted on the wall of the next room were mathematical equations and childish graffiti.
I won’t go on. It’s hard to write about, and I imagine it’s not much easier to read. There’s a lot of it I’m still processing anyway, and am not totally sure how to put it in words.
If you want to read more about the history of the Khmer Rouge – and really, I think all people, especially Americans, should – I always recommend Samantha Powers’ A Problem from Hell (which I haven’t read in many years, and should probably change that), but I bet there are other, more-focused books worth reading. I also received the recommendation to read Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over, which deals with the aftermath and the series of factors that have shaped modern-day Cambodia; I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but I definitely plan to track it down on my return to the U.S.
David and Natalie; and a Tale of Three NGOs
From the end of my day touring Phnom Penh, I had the great fortune to spend the remainder of my trip with my Uncle David, and with his wife (my Aunt!) Natalie. I say “fortune,” not only because it was an amazing experience, but also because they are NOT the types to take time off work. Their willingness to take the time to travel with me was, I was told by their friends, kind of an honor.
This is not what work usually looks like.
I knew bits and pieces of the work they did, and what had brought them to Cambodia (David roughly a decade ago, Natalie perhaps five years ago). I had only met Natalie the previous summer, when I made a much-needed pilgrimage to Celo, North Carolina prior to departing for India. By far the most rewarding part of my trip was getting to know more about the work they’ve done, and getting to know them both a lot more as people.
I’m going to give a very abridged version, and I hope I don’t get any of my details wrong enough to upset anyone.
Not long after moving to Cambodia, David helped set up an NGO, called Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC). Early work included setting up an orphanage for children who were surviving as scavengers in Cambodian dumps; the organization grew to focus primarily on issues of land tenure rights (i.e. advocating for people facing forced evictions) and community development. Recently David stepped down as BABC’s director, but remains involved; now, the organization is fully Cambodian-led, and has changed its name to Equitable Cambodia.
Natalie comes from Melbourne, and specializes in tenure rights law. She had a portfolio which included a couple countries (Cambodia and East Timor are the ones that I recall), and ended up basing herself in Cambodia, where she also was. The two of them met through work, and ended up partnering professionally and, as I have indicated, maritally. Together they now run an international consulting group, with the awesome name of Inclusive Development International. They’re basically rock stars.
Hence the silly string/shaving cream/carrot cake birthday surprise for David.
Anyway, jumping back to BABC. One of the projects that they took on was a big, multi-year community development project in Chamcar Bei, a rural village near Kampot in a region that was devastated by war through the 90s. As part of the project, they set up a school (the adorably named “Our School”) and a Women’s Handicraft and Development Association (including a coconut jewelry unit called EcoNut, and a discarded plastic bag weaving unit called FunkyJunk), both of which are now locally run (and both of which I the opportunity to visit).
Another of the premiere goals they set was to rejuvenate the local pepper industry. Kampot pepper had been world famous prior to the Khmer Rouge; French chefs are said to have considered it the world’s best. But when the project began, it wasn’t being grown or promoted other than in small pockets.
As part of his work on this project, David decided to buy some land and start a small pepper farm. Eventually he decided to build a small house on that land. The idea evolved from a small house became a big guest house, and that evolved some more. Today, The Vine is Lonely Planet’s number one recommendation for Kep. And it’s amazing.
Explosion of flowers right outside my window.
The Vine features plenty of eco-friendly measures, such as solar-powered heaters, a salt-water pool, and widespread use of sustainable materials. Its meals are unbelievably good (cooked by local chefs trained by another local chef, who was once BABC’s cleaning person, and now manages her own resort in Koh Kong), and not only emphasize local ingredients, but also pull many of their ingredients right out of The Vine’s garden. They offer community tours, and sell locally made handicrafts alongside the world’s greatest pepper. They host yoga retreats. They have a bar. Their grounds are unbelievably gorgeous. They have a horse. You should go there.
Also, need I remind you how they celebrate birthdays?
The Vine was also where David and Natalie had their wedding – actually, one of their weddings. They held two: a traditional Cambodian wedding at The Vine, followed the next day by a traditional Jewish wedding at a restored French villa-turned-guesthouse on the beach owned by a friend. Since I had missed the wedding, it was really great to get the opportunity to see both of those spots.
Unfortunately for me, it was tourist season and The Vine was booked up for much of January, so I was only able to stay there for two nights. It was a really, really nice two nights.
This entry is already nearing the dreaded 2,000 word mark, so I won’t reflect much on why I was so interested in this stuff, and in the work that David and Natalie had done. Perhaps, though, you can read between the lines of what I’ve written here and elsewhere and see how, just like at Mitraniketan, I was fascinated to see a different and remarkable model of inclusive, comprehensive, community-driven development. Now soliciting recommendations for my next travel itinerary.
Rest of the Trip
I’ll reduce the rest of my trip (before and after The Vine) to bullets and photos:
- I realize I mentioned the Silver Pagoda earlier, but you’ve really got to see pictures. Here’s some.
- Also, check out this building under construction:
That one is actually not a temple. In spite of its huge size and the manpower being used to build it…that will actually be used as a funeral pyre for recently deceased King Sihanouk (and for casual students of Cambodian history – yes, that Sihanouk).
- Hung out in Kampot, and ended up sipping a mojito in a riverside bar listening to an awesome and eclectic group of musicians practicing for a night-time gig.
- Visited the famous and much-praised Kep Crab Market
- Spent my last travelling night on Rabbit Island, a small and beautiful island with cute little bungalows, seafood that literally could not be fresher, and disappointingly sketchy massage stands.
And beautiful sunsets.
We went for a night-time swim under the stars. David said there were phosphorescent plankton sometimes, and he thought they might be visible if there was less light. Not seeing any evidence, I remained unconvinced and eventually returned to my bungalow – but as I reached my steps, the power cut off across the island, and I decided to give it another shot. I walked slowly into the water…and I don’t know how to convey what a cool experience it is, to have every step suddenly light up below you in a shower of sparks, brighter and brighter as you move deeper, until your every movement erupts into an explosion of light. But it’s pretty cool.
This is actually a still from Life of Pi, but the effect was more or less the same.
- Went back to Phnom Penh, where we joined some of David and Natalie’s friends for a dinner party. From there, we ended our night – and my trip to Cambodia – with a “high-intensity bluegrass” concert at a bar by Grass Snake Union, a Phnom Penh-based band that had played at David and Natalie’s wedding. They alternated rocking bluegrass tunes with bluegrass covers of songs like Poker Face. They were great.
- And then it was time to return, which meant another 9-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur. This one was not quite so magical, as I spent roughly 45 minutes lost at K.L. Sentral, a transport terminal surrounded by the least logical or pedestrian-supportive road spiral I’ve ever encountered.
IT DOES NOT COUNT AS A SIDEWALK IF IT IS ENTIRELY OBSTRUCTED BY A VERTICAL GARDEN, KUALA LUMPUR.
Even so, I (eventually) made it to the very cool national museum and a travelling exhibit on masks around the world, then wandered the streets until the magic found me again and I randomly ended up in my “thought-about but not planned-for” destination of Chinatown. Unfortunately I was starving and probably not discriminating enough, and ended up having a buffet meal that wasn’t really spectacular. Oh well.
Actually, I’m just really bad at buffets.
- That night I was back in Kochi; by the next evening I was back at Mitraniketan, ready to teach full-time for my remaining seven weeks at Mitraniketan. Actually I would only end up teaching three days in the next two weeks. But that’s a story for another time.