I read before we left for Cambodia that a certain Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh held several open meditation hours during the week. Only one of those scheduled times coincided with our visit, and I entered it into our itinerary as a Marce must do. The website said it would be “in English” so I assumed a guided meditation, or a spiritual discourse by a monk. It turned out to be just an open quiet space with seat pads and I took a spot, made myself comfortable and settled in for the longest meditation session I’ve done in quite some time. My own practice is generally limited to ten minutes after my morning yoga, so an hour would be a challenge to my attention and my knees. As the beginning hour approached the room filled up with about 20 fellow meditators, most of whom seemed like regulars in their ritual entrance and eventual calm and steady posture.
As I practiced breathing in peace and exhaling love and lifted my internal gaze from the constant drone of my eternally busy brain, Jack explored the temple grounds and made friends with the resident cats and a few passing monks.
At the end of the hour a monk came in and chanted a blessing and I unfolded my cramped legs and joined Jack, refreshed, peaceful and proud that I didn’t fart or otherwise embarrass myself.
We took a tuktuk back to our neighborhood and had dinner at Friends, a wonderful tapas restaurant that’s part of a global alliance of training establishments whose students are former street youth or at-risk kids. The food was incredible, and though priced a little higher than other local restaurants, we were happy to support the cause, and the menu included many vegetarian and vegan options in addition to meat and fish, as well as creative cocktails. We loved it.
The lingering peaceful feeling from the meditation session helped the next morning when our tuktuk driver picked us up for the trip to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of many Killing Fields across Cambodia where a quarter of the population were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
The site is now a memorial and a beautifully written and produced audio tour guides visitors around the site and tells the horrific story of the Pol Pot regime.
We hadn’t planned much more for this day and took our time touring the quiet memorial. One of the optional tracks in the audio tour is an excerpt from an orchestral piece by a Cambodian composer and we sat on a bench by the river letting the music express the sadness we felt that a peaceful civilization with a rich cultural history could fall victim to a murderous tyrant determined to send the country back to the Bronze Age.
Bullets were expensive so the mass killings were accomplished using whatever weapons came to hand, mostly various farm implements, and these jagged dried palm leaves, used to slit the throats of the victims. The image still gives me nightmares. This is not ancient history but the methods were crude and barbaric.
Babies and their mothers were swung by their feet to bash their brains against this tree, then thrown into an adjacent pit. Hundreds of mourners have hung bracelets on the tree in remembrance of the victims, and I took off an ankle bracelet I’ve worn since the Caribbean to add to the collection. As I tied it on I thought of all the beautiful places it’s been and I made a wish for eternal peace for the lives that were brutally ended here. It’s impossible to conceive how any human being could do these things.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a Buddhist stupa filled with the skulls and bones of 5000 victims.
The condition of the skulls hints at the torture these people were subjected to, or the method of their murder.
Most travelers to Phnom Penh combine the Killing Fields with a tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. After hearing firsthand reports from fellows cruisers we decided against more harrowing nightmare fodder and instead took refuge in our hotel for a few hours before countering the horrors of Pol Pot with a celebration of Khmer culture we booked for that evening. If you’re too young to remember Pol Pot or you need a refresher you can find a brief one here.