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the color of resiliency
the people of Cambodia

Choung Ek

Prison and tools of torture at Tuol Sleng

Thirty-five years ago, the children of Cambodia stopped being children.  The Khmer Rouge executed men and women at Tuol Sleng and other interrogation centers around the country, scattering orphans across the land.  Prison guards dashed infants against a tree and dropped them into the mass grave at Choeung Ek, one of many infamous "killing fields."  And, the Khmer Rouge brainwashed many, molding innocent minds into soldiers, informants, and torturers. 

Execution tree Choung Ek

Killing tree and stupa at Choueng Ek

"We did not have the freedom to eat," our guide at Tuol Sleng explained.  As a teenager, he survived on a diet of grass, small raw insects, and any fruit that he could steal while he farmed fields of rice and fruit that were exported to China and Vietnam for weapons.  It is a story of loss, distress, disease, or hunger that we heard repeated from nearly every Khmer adult.    

Skulls in stupa Photographs of prisoners killed at Tuol Sleng

Skulls recovered from mass graves at Choueng Ek; photographs of prisoners at Tuol Sleng

Cambodia cannot escape this history.  Approximately two million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and an additional one million died of disease or famine.  Pol Pot, Brother Number 1 and the mastermind behind much of the terror spread between 1975 to 1979, remained a force in Cambodian politics until 1998.  To the astonishment of the Cambodians, the United Nations largely ignored the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge until the 1990s and it is only now, when many of those leaders are dead or aging, that they have been forced to stand for trial.     

Cambodian children with balloons

Children in Kampong Chnnang

A person could curl up in a ball and give up hope of a happier tomorrow with a history of gray and bloodred imprinted upon the memories of every adult.  Instead, a mere thirty years after these crimes against humanity were perpetrated in Cambodia, we found the full spectrum of human life and emotions spread across the country.

Baby with balloon Child at Battambang
Grandmother and child in Cambodia Children in Kampong Chnnang

Children and grandmother in Kampong Chnnang and Battambang

We braved the throngs at the Pnomh Penh mall to mingle with the girls in designer jeans and faux-Coach bags and the guys with iPhones and Blackberries.  We saw true poverty as we offered chicken skewers to a starving mother while her child looked tired but fed, and then we saw the type of poverty faked by children looking for an after-school snack from unsuspecting tourists.  

Boy with balloon

By the rice fields of Kampong Chnnang

We hung out with villagers---who sang poorly, mind you---performing karaoke after a wedding and spent our evening watching teenagers practice K-pop dance aerobics in the park by the river.  A grandmother chattered to us in Khmer, patting Patrick on the shoulder and laughing and smiling at me as she showed me her hand-made pottery. 

Girl with balloon Children with balloons at Kampong Chnnang, Cambodia
Kids with balloons Kids with balloons

In Kampong Chnnang

Our guesthouse owner finances the education of his two children and three other nephews and nieces in private schools so they can attend college and earn degrees.  Monks eagerly talked to us so they could improve their English and eventually apply to MBA programs in Thailand or Australia.

Patrick with the children at the pottery workshop

And, there are children, children everywhere, because children aged 15 and younger make up a third of the Cambodian population.  But, today's Cambodian children are children just like those you find in the rest of the world: full of smiles, laughter, and fun. 

Child lounging in one of the ubiquitous hammocks in Kampong Chnnang

They clamored for the balloons that Patrick blew up as fast as he could and crowded around me as I snapped their pictures.  Hundreds waved to us and yelled "hello" when we drove past them in a tuk-tuk or moto.  They smiled the secret smiles that only children seem to share and understand.

Children with balloons at Kampong ChnnangChildren on boat house at Kampong Chnnang

We have been both humbled and amazed to meet a nation of people who withstood and emerged from the cocoon in a shower of color.

What can you do?

Even now, Cambodia is the poorest among the Southeast Asian nations with an astonishingly low literacy rate and high unemployment rate.  We were amazed by the number of adults hanging around and relaxing in the middle of the afternoon on work days because they simply can't find jobs. 

Non-profit governmental organizations abound in Cambodia and everyone seems to have a solution to help the children.  We were impressed by the efforts of Mith Samlanh, an organization that trains street children in Cambodia to become cooks and waiters.  You can contribute to the organization on their website or you can eat at two of their restaurants, Friends and Romdeng, in Pnomh Penh and be served by the student wait-staff.  The food at both restaurants was among the best that we ate in Cambodia and, while pricey, we think it is an organization well worth supporting.

04/11/2010 20:36
Handing out balloons to kids is such a great idea! Light, portable, and FUN, and not something they know to expect (money, candy, pens).
04/11/2010 20:37
Love the photos with the colorful balloons, very creative. Cambodia was one of the most amazing and depressing places we have visited in 6 months. Also love that you had a call to action to help the people of Cambodia, and Mith Samlanh is a very Road Forks appropriate choice.
04/11/2010 20:37
Chetan Sankar
This is an unbelievably touching photo-essay. Mixing the dread of the past with the hope of the future is amazing. The essay is a must-read for world leaders who make decisions impacting many people.

Love,
Dad
04/11/2010 20:40
Lakshmi Sankar
Akila,
Very nicely done. The pictures moved my heart and touched my soul. How sad that these things happened just in the recent past while the whole world just slept on. It is heart-warming to see those children holding those colorful balloons. Love, Mom
04/12/2010 02:21
Your post is very moving. I love that you guys thought to hand out balloons - it looks like they were appreciated.
04/12/2010 02:37
Nicely done with the black and white and colour effects. I wouldn't have been able to visit. Good on you for giving it a thoughtful coverage.
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04/12/2010 13:50
Shiva
Akila,

This is a beautiful post - reminds me of my experiences in Cambodia and the incredible time that I got to spend with the Khmer people. The tragedy that occurred during the Pol Pot era is unfortunately too little known in the west, and especially the United States, which played such a huge role in the crisis that occurred in Cambodia.

Love,

Shiva
04/12/2010 13:51
Great photos and blog guys! We loved Cambodia and its people, its such a special place. You've done a great job capturing the feel of the country.
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04/13/2010 13:06
Thank you! We were moved by the incredible fortitude of the people and nearly every traveler we talked to felt the same way. It's a very special country.
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04/25/2010 06:24
I agree with all the comments above!
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04/30/2010 12:42
Thanks Jen!
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01/19/2011 20:41
We noticed a huge number of charities and orphanages when we visited last year, which is very sad. Despite the history, what struck me was how extraordinarily nice and courteous the people were. Did you get a chance to talk to older people about their stories during the bad years? Ours was a whirlwind trip focusing mostly on Angkor temples, but I wish we'd been able to interact more with people.
01/19/2011 20:41
Arundhati, We felt very lucky because we stayed for three weeks in Cambodia, we discovered the amazing strength and wonderfulness of the people in Cambodia. They are some of the warmest, kindest people we have met throughout our entire travels. We talked to several of the middle-aged people about their experiences with the Khmer Rouge. Interestingly, it wasn't a subject that they avoided discussing because it is so deeply part of their consciousness and history. Like the South Koreans who discuss their separation from their North Korean families, nearly every middle-aged Cambodian we met had lost a father, mother, uncle, or aunt (and, occasionally, a brother or sister to the Khmer Rouge). It's a source of constant sadness but they have moved on, picking up the pieces of their lives by studying as best as they can, and surviving. One of the weirdest things (for us, at least) was seeing a stupa filled with skulls outside of a school in Battambang. The children played right next to the stupa, kicking balls, girls giggling, just like regular school kids, because the skulls are always there.
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07/08/2011 20:08
i get goosebumps as i read your experience... i remember when I went to tuong sleng last 2009, i saw some people in tears and i didn't understand why... i kept on walking inside the museum and started reading the small notes posted on the wall... before i knew it, i was already crying... went out to breathe... truly a moving experience...

btw, amazing pictures of colored balloons and monochrome pics of children... i wil be back in cambodia this weel and i'll try to visit the restaurant that you've mentioned...
07/13/2011 13:38
It is one of the most moving places we've ever been. And, definitely check out Romdeng and Friends if you can --- the food there is really good and the cause is worth your while. Have fun in Cambodia!
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07/19/2011 04:56
Such a beautiful photos! The contrast of black and white colors and the colorful balloons looks very pleasing to the eyes. I also love the article because its so touching and shows the reality of poverty and how it affects the children in our society.
07/26/2011 11:54
What and amazing post though it is so sad! I am thankful for the 7 links because after going through some of peoples old work I realize that some of the old stuff deserves reading. I love the splash of color in the black and white photos.
03/31/2012 06:41
Beautiful post you two. Cambodia was one of the most moving and emotional countries we have ever visited and we too were amazed at the resilience of the people. I can't believe they have a mall in Pnomh Penh now. I had heard that things are changing rapidly. I really love your photo essay with the balloons, beautiful.
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03/31/2012 06:41
Beautifully put together post. The black-and-white photos with the reserved blasts of color really set the mood for the text. Well done.
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