Traveling the Cambodian Genocide is a collection of travel essays and photographs that takes readers to the unexplored sites that the Khmer Rouge used to commit acts of genocide in the 1970s. In this 59-page ebook, I try to go beyond offering a sense place, by providing profiles of survivors and the younger generation of Cambodians, who, decades later, are still impacted by the atrocities.
While I encountered people still in search of justice, answers, normalcy, and opportunities in a country rife with corruption and covered with land mines, I was also introduced to a spirit of beautiful innocence and relentless optimism. One third of all profits from this ebook are being donated to A New Day Cambodia, a charity that helps Cambodian children. (Note: When the book was first published, I was working with Safe Haven Cambodia Children’s Trust. In November 2014, I decided to begin donating to A New Day Cambodia.)
Below, please find more information about the charity along with a free excerpt from the book. (If you’re already convinced, you can purchase Traveling the Cambodian Genocide by clicking here.)
The Charity: A New Day Cambodia
A third of all profits from the sale of this ebook will help support A New Day Cambodia, a charity that I want to see successful. During the genocide most of the country’s teachers and doctors were murdered. Thus, today’s illiteracy rates are high and life expectancy is low. Furthermore, the country is littered with millions of land mines, leaving many children parentless. As a result, a large number of kids forego their education to work on the streets, while others are forced into the sex trade. A New Day Cambodia focuses on providing shelter, food, and education to children who have been forced to scavenge in the garbage dumps.
Not sure if you want to buy the book? Read an excerpt.
An Excerpt from Traveling the Cambodian Genocide
My wife and I rode a rented motorbike from Kep, Cambodia, in search of the caves that the Khmer Rouge had used to commit mass murder.
“Where are the Kiriseila Caves?” I’d ask the locals, pointing to our map, which was hardly drawn to scale. They shook their heads. So I asked about the location of the nearby town. “What about Kampong Trach? Do you know Kampong Trach?”
Some shrugged and offered confused smiles; others pointed east down the unsealed tarmac of Route 33.
When Marissa and I reached the dusty town of Kampong Trach, ninety minutes after we had crashed the motorbike (twice) in front of the bike’s owner, we stopped at a house where a dozen children had spilled out onto the porch.
“Hello,” came a chorus of little voices. I asked about the caves. The matriarch sitting on the front porch shouted into the house for the resident English speaker. While we waited for the translator, the smallest child ran toward me. I showed her my hand, expecting a high five in return. She mimicked me, but instead of smacking her palm against mine, she patted my thigh and retreated. The little girl did this a few more times. Everyone smiled.
The translator, a teen who had mastered about fifty English words, emerged and provided complicated directions for a place that wound up existing straight down the road.
We snaked around potholes and attracted two kids on bicycles. “Where you from? What’s you name?” they asked, each trying to curry favor and secure their position as tour guide. But at the end of the road, we reached a house where a sixteen year-old boy named Da approached us with a ticket pad. He wore dress pants and a button-down shirt. Something about the professional-looking young man scared away the two kids on bicycles.
“I think you want to see the caves,” Da said. We nodded. “Well, I show you. If you happy with my service, you give tip for me to pay for my education.”
I knew that the area had a few caves. I wanted him to know, specifically, which caves we wanted to explore.
“We’re looking for the caves where…” I paused. What if Da and his family had been related to those who had been murdered? Or maybe Da’s family had supported the killers. Everyone in Cambodia was kin to the victims or related to the perpetrators. It felt wrong to use words like “Khmer Rouge” or “killing caves” in such proximity to these unmarked graves. “I want to see the caves where people were killed in the seventies.”
“I can show you caves where Khmer Rouge kept slaves. But I think the killing caves are closed,” Da said, pronouncing the forbidden words with ease. “Maybe I take you to see the pepper plantation later and then if you want to book a boat trip to Rabbit Island, I can arrange.”
“Let’s see the caves first,” I told the young entrepreneur.
The boy put away his ticket pad and hopped onto his motorbike. We did our best to follow as he sped along the dirt road and around rocks protruding from the mud like cement tire stoppers that prevent cars from rolling forward in a parking lot.
In a few hundred meters we were at the mouth of the cave. Five kids with flashlights skipped excitedly around the entrance. “Dark. Dark,” they preached, hoping to earn a buck for leasing out their lights.
The long tunnel to enter the system was called Dragon Cave because the walls were ribbed as if we were walking through the skeletal remains of that mythical beast. Dragon Cave let out into a courtyard where a reclining Buddha and a few worshippers were gathered. We moved across the courtyard and into a second cave.
“This is where Khmer Rouge kept slaves. My parents were here for three months. They had to work in the rice fields,” Da said after I had asked him about his family.
Two elderly women who had just finished praying to a small Buddha statue inside the cavern lit cigarettes. Along the cave wall, piled up in the darkness, were a dozen concrete, gold-painted Buddha faces. They had been hacked off.
“What happened to the Buddhas?” I wondered.
“Khmer Rouge was looking for gold inside the Buddha.”
In a third cave sat more decapitated Buddhas. They had been poorly reconstructed. Their faces looked melted, resembling victims of arson who had been provided severely botched plastic surgery.
Da started in with the geological and biological constructs of the cave: the stalagmites, stalactites, and blackened coral that clung to the roof of the cave, alive millions of years ago when this had all been underseas.
“Can you take me to the killing caves?” I interrupted.
“I don’t think we can access it. I can take you to the pepper plantation, if you’d like to see this,” Da suggested.
Ever since I knew how to question, I had been a student of genocide. I spent my childhood digging up my grandparents’ Holocaust stories, and then dedicated a good chunk of time after college to researching the Holocaust and interviewing Grandma to record her past for a book I’m still completing. When she died, the Cambodian genocide moved in to fill the void that the Holocaust had left behind. I even switched writing projects, using the Cambodian genocide as the backstory for my novel’s protagonist. Though our trip to Cambodia was two weeks out of our ten-week honeymoon in Southeast Asia, Marissa knew that once we set foot in the country, romantic excursions to waterfalls and mountain tops lined with rice terraces were going to give way to the sites of past murders.
“I’d like to see the killing caves,” I told Da again.
Da wanted his tip, so he nodded and straddled his motorbike. We raced back to the ticket house and turned right, which brought us to a field where goats and cattle grazed. There was a dirty reservoir and a white farmhouse beside the pasture. Da turned at the reservoir and drove through the grassy field, toward a rock wall fortified by trees and bramble.
He peeled back a tangle of branches and penetrated the thorny bulwark.
“Come,” Da hollered.
“Do you think this is a good idea?” Marissa asked.
Her concern was legitimate. We were in the middle of nowhere and we were being invited into a thicket–a great place for a few teens to rob a pair of naive tourists. In fact, as I considered the consequences, a second teenager in a vest, trucker’s hat, jeans, and flip-flops walked toward us.
I followed Da through the bramble. Marissa followed me.
Red ants bit my neck and thorns pierced my shirt, but after five meters of bushwhacking, I stood facing a large rock. It was as tall as the dark entrance of the cave behind it, which was more like a shallow pit that led nowhere.
The boy in the trucker’s hat pulled open the bramble and sat down at Marissa’s feet. I studied the new arrival. He looked up at both of us with a curious smile. Years earlier, boys his age and Da’s age had entered this cave with machetes and farm tools and did away with a population. They did away with their countrymen, their neighbors, their friends, and their family. I wondered what this boy’s father had taught him.
“This is where the people stood,” Da said, touching the big rock at the entrance. I fingered holes that had been punched into the stone wall above the mouth of the cave. “Bullet holes,” said Da, who then pointed down at a rusty splash on the backside of the rock. He said it was blood.
It was unlikely.
“Where are the bones?” I asked, peering into the cool darkness.
“Collected,” Da said.
“And brought where?”
Marissa said my name. I turned to her and found her frozen. The teenager in the trucker’s hat was rubbing her thigh. I didn’t know whether I should grab him by the shirt or pull Marissa from the thicket. I kept thinking about Da’s killing cave and the tangle of thorny brush that kept us hidden from witnesses. I decided to grab Marissa’s hand and push her out through the thicket, expecting to see a gun or a blade when I turned to look behind us. But the teenager remained on the rock, appearing aloof to our concern or amused by the situation.
I exited the thorn forest. Marissa stood by our getaway vehicle. Da followed us.
“The bones are probably in Phnom Penh,” he said, still working for his tip.
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