It's a Guy Thing

Cambodia: generation hope.

By Ian Kirke

American writer and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck concluded,“People don’t take trips… trips take people.”His encapsulation – succinct and sweet – accurately reflects my own personal adventures, although I am the first to acknowledge that I am privileged to have the means and opportunity to explore our amazing planet as frequently as I do. If you are open to the notion of discovery it often creates a series of unexpected connections that have the vibrancy to alter the very core of identity. Where I see myself in the world, and how I believe it works, has gone through several significant changes in recent years and I hold most dear the paradox of Albert Einstein’s celebrated conundrum:“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”My most recent cerebral collision with contradiction occurred in a country that is now imprinted in my consciousness for eternity ─ Cambodia. But first, let me start this epic journey over six thousand miles away in territory I am more familiar with ─ the United Kingdom.

There is something peculiar about the way Brits associate themselves with politics. The fact is, hardly anyone gets off their ass to vote, and a meaningful amount are willing to accept that lying politicians are – in some abnormal way – par for the course ─ acceptable and almost amusing. But in reality, how far away from anarchy, or even worse, is any seemingly stable nation-state? Are we so gullible as to simply rely on laws and conventions that the vast majority of us don’t really understand? And what happens when deliberate dishonesty has a firm grip on the levers of power ─ for instance, financial institutions, education, transport, energy, and more terrifyingly – the military. How powerful does a corrupt rogue state have to be to disrupt the collective moral compass towards ultimate horror? How far are we from being groomed, or terrified, into accepting genocide as normal? This is the contemporary history of Cambodia. But the story that so moved me began with a young man holding up a sign at Phnom Penh International Airport.

Liv’s smile was infectious and his genuinely warm words of welcome energized me out of the travel fatigue imposed by monotonous airport connections in Abu Dhabi and Bangkok. The former has to be one of the most soulless aviation hubs, whilst the sojourn at the second was sufficiently long enough to rue the decision not to spend at least one night in this hive of activity. Local guide Liv would be passe-partout for the next three days, before the onward journey to Siem Reap.

I recall a school friend of mine once talking about “Pol Pot,” but as a kid in the mid-1970s, my grasp of geopolitical issues, civil wars in far-off countries, and anything to do with the world beyond what I would have for tea that night was pretty much non-existent. Latterly I learned of the “Killing Fields” but to be frank our own European holocaust preoccupied my thoughts on genocide.

As Liv spoke eloquently about his country of birth I pushed him more, keen to fill the void in the abject and embarrassing gulf in my knowledge of what actually happened. His narrative was stunning, compelling, chilling, and odd as it may seem, captivating and compassionate. The slaughter of millions of innocent Cambodian people – men, women, children, and babies – happened in my lifetime and the incomprehensible injury caused to those that remain was suddenly all around me and embodied within Liv. It is his account that deserves to be shared. Over the coming days we would talk, reflect, and laugh, since there exists an incredible optimism born out of this terror.

Liv’s existence was as a direct result of the civil war that raged between 1975 and 1979, claiming the lives of two million inhabitants as a consequence of the barbarism inflicted by the Khmer Rouge under the direction of a man I had been made aware of only a few decades earlier by a nerdy classmate. Liv explained that “Pol Pot” actually stood for “Political Potential” and the real name of this monster was Saloth Sar. A well-educated man, his ultimate perversion was to create a Marxist master race that required the ethnic cleansing of those that were deemed to be superfluous to this ideal. For example, schoolteachers, academics, doctors, nurses, government officials and police officers. Not only were these factions – and others ─ murdered, but their family members too. This would, in the eyes of the oppressors, significantly reduce the likelihood of recrimination. Had I been in Cambodia at this time, rather than the safety of leafy Oxfordshire, I would have been killed along with my mum and sister, grandparents, uncles, aunties, and so on, since my civil servant dad would have been first to be slain. Only those that could demonstrate a clear and unmistakable association with farming were spared, since they were needed to work in the forced arable labor camps. Those who tried to evade detection were often outed when Khmer Rouge soldiers simply inspected their hands. Farming the land would never result in smooth skin around the fingers and hands. As Liv explained, resistance was futile. Lining up either side of a trench – sufficient to house a corpse – the two hundred imprisoned Cambodians who had been spared torture and ultimate disposal within the Killing Fields faced each other. One hundred men looked across the void at one hundred women. Scared strangers. Asking each man in turn, “Do you love this woman?” the only survivable response was “Yes.” Liv’s parents left and returned to the rice fields to serve the repressive regime once again.

On the second day, Liv facilitated a visit to one of the many Killing Fields scattered across the country. “Words fail me” is often a lazy narrative used by those who find it challenging to connect with their most intimate inner feelings. On this occasion, I linked explicitly to the very essence of my emotional intelligence, yet I simply couldn’t find a narrative to capture how empty, lost and utterly bewildered I felt during those ensuing hours. The tower of skulls at Choeung Ek, each individually marked to indicate the horrific nature of death, left me numb. A somber tour of S-21 (security prison 21) ─ a former secondary school – the scene of sadistic torture on an industrial scale, chronicled the full extent of the depravity of the Pol Pot ideology. Yet Liv’s pride and optimism pulsed through like a flare in the darkest reaches of the most wretched of thunderstorms. He had only one ask: “Please tell your friends to come and visit us.” 

During the evening, a boat trip along the Mekong River showcased the most incredible of evening skylines and, contrary to some subsequent comments on social media, my images were not photoshopped. Liv explained that Phnom Penh was evacuated by the Khmer Rouge on the false premise that it was about to be bombed by the United States. People collected a few personal possessions in the belief that they would soon return to their homes. Many hundreds of thousands didn’t. Turning to more contemporary issues of the day, Liv spoke of his recent marriage and his keen interest in the beautiful game, with Liverpool football club being his English team of choice. Evidence – if any were needed – that life does go on. 

In 1979 Liv’s parents along with many thousands of other displaced Cambodians were liberated by Vietnamese troops who overthrew the governing dictatorship. But the country remained in turmoil and chaos for a period afterwards and his parents’ journey to Phnom Penh had to be undertaken at night in order to avoid pockets of Khmer Rouge resistance. They learnt to eat every conceivable creature, including tarantulas ─ an option still available to buy to eat from the local markets. Once they had negotiated the river crossing, made more hazardous due to the destruction of all the bridges into the city by the Khmer Rouge, his parents settled into a modest apartment vacated by the owners – presumed dead – and began to rebuild their lives. Some years later they received official confirmation from the Cambodian government that they were the legal owners of the property. Still together, they run a successful bicycle business in which Liv is a principal partner. Liv has the most glorious sense of humor since he still queries why, even to this day, his parents haven’t chosen a larger home!

As I bade farewell to Liv, I mentioned that I own a bicycle and his entrepreneurial vision immediately kicked in, “We can deliver to the UK!” The deal was sealed, as long as he changed his footballing allegiance, which he graciously did – at least for as long as it took to photograph him in my Notts County shirt!

Siem Reap is the gateway to the majestic Angkor Wat and several other mysterious and magical temples once lost to the jungle. Dor was the consummate traveling companion and expertly coordinated this incredible experience infusing his local experiences and exceptional cultural knowledge. Like Liv, he is a proud Cambodian and he added to my awe of this extraordinary place. Leaving Liv with his candid account of the civil war, Dor educated me on the ongoing clearance of landmines – a contemporary reminder of the conflict ─ laid by the Khmer Rouge and added to by opposing government forces and other military operations including the United States Air Force who dropped explosive devices along the Vietnam border. In all, around six million mines were distributed across the country. Visiting the APOPO mine action centre I was stunned to discover not only the extent of the danger (particularly for rural children) but the ingenious method employed to counter the risk. Trained rats are used to sniff out the TNT contained within the lethal mines, thus allowing significant rafts of countryside to be made safe in a fraction of the time it takes other mechanical methods, especially the deployment of metal detectors. Light enough not to detonate the device the revered rats are rewarded with a food treat when they signal first contact. The threat is then neutralized with a controlled explosion. 

Cambodia’s cultural and religious magnificence radiate from the ancient structures that tell the most astonishing story of human endeavor, spiritualism, and relationships. It has never ceased to baffle me that once supreme centers of human civilization can ultimately wither and die having once dominated the environment to the very edges of the known horizon. Yet, to fully appreciate this unique tale, a visit is essential as words can only provide an essence of the true majesty and mysticism. Dor was nonetheless cognisant of the most recent movie history that had left an enduring imprint, and in true tourist mode I couldn’t resist the Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) Tomb Raider pose in the astonishing Ta Prohm temple, nor could I leave without inspecting the wall carving of the Stegosaurus. Just think about that for a moment! Suddenly those late nights watching “Ancient Aliens” on the television no longer appear in vain.

Pub Street in downtown Siem Reap reverberated with a rhythm reflecting modern-day Cambodia. An almost innocent but wholly deserved vibe of optimism that seeks to magnify the beauty of growth and reconciliation, since those who were once among the victims of the deadly Khmer Rouge now share the same streets as their former tormentors.

The drop-off at the local airport came far too soon as Dor elegantly narrated the final farewell: “Thank you for visiting Cambodia and I wish you future health and happiness. It has been a privilege to have met you.” Reflecting Liv’s deep desire to promote the real Cambodia he simply concluded, “Please tell your friends to visit us.” I just about managed not to burst out crying.

Cambodia was more than a journey – it was a voyage of discovery that expanded my understanding of humanity that bit more and changed me forever. As a minister and author Bidemi Mark-Mordi observed, “The human spirit is like an elastic band. The more you stretch, the greater your capacity.” 

The Cambodian people I met were caring, creative and cool. If you can, I recommend that you check it out someday.

© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke