As a reader and a writer, I’m always drawn to the idea of landscape and how it impacts or defines a character. In The Awakening, Kate Chopin describes a seductive sea that, in the end, is the only place in which Edna Pontellier can find solace. Cheryl Strayed talks about being alone in her memoir Wild, “as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.” And in The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife, three of my characters face three very different landscapes as Lynn struggles with her past on Denali’s slippery slopes, Frankie wonders at the heavenly nature of Central Oregon’s high desert, and Beth questions where exactly she’s landed in the afterlife and what awaits her from now on.
But landscape need not solely represent a geographical place. I just returned from a visit to Cambodia, where I tried to make sense of the holistic landscape–geographical, historical, political, cultural, religious, and social–and what it means to the people who live there in the 21st century. I suspect it’ll take me a long time to really digest and process my observations, but here’s an acrostic summary of what I learned about the Cambodian landscape and, to some extent, the Khmer people.
Complex: For centuries, this country has experienced countless political and religious influences from neighboring lands–including Thailand, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and China. No matter how many questions I asked, I still found myself confused about which ruler brought which influence into the land, and why. In relative terms, whereas the USA might be a shiny melting pot, Cambodia reminds me of a centuries-old cast-iron stew pot.
Atrocious: In the last several decades, the people of this small country have witnessed the senseless eradication of civilian villages by American troops as well as the torture and murder of individual citizens by one of their own leaders, Pol Pot, who ostensibly tried to lead the people out of the hands of America’s industrialists to an agrarian, communist society. I visited S21, the school-turned-torture-facility in the heart of Pnomh Penh where photos of thousands of victims were on display along with the interrogation rooms, holding cells, and some of the torture equipment. There were even dark red spots on the tile floor, about which I shudder to imagine more. As expected, it was horrific, but what bothered me most was looking into the eyes of the innocent children who were first photographed and catalogued, then tortured and killed. I couldn’t help but wonder how the surviving citizens were able to move on. Some of the people I met told stories of how their parents escaped. Others didn’t tell stories, and I’ll never know if they knew whether their own parents, siblings, and friends were among the tortured. Or whether they had, in fact, been the torturers.
Moto-centric: While cars, boats, and bicycles are plentiful in Cambodia, the motorcycle (and/or motorbike) is by far the predominant mode of getting around. Three adults on a motorcycle is common; my husband has seen up to seven humans on one bike. During the one week I was there, I saw huge sacks of rice, drums of petrol, live chickens by the dozen, small trees, and nursing babies transported by a driver. And of course there’s the tuk-tuk, a carriage that seats two or four passengers and is trailed from the back of a motorcycle. Driving people around all day doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but I heard a tuk-tuk costs about $3500, and a good tuk-tuk driver can make $1000 per month, which is probably six times what a typical worker might earn in Cambodia. And a 3-4 month investment payback isn’t too shoddy, either. The key, of course, is navigating traffic patterns where stoplights are few and unheeded, crosswalks are nearly impossible to find, and unspoken rules of the road dictate that the larger vehicles get the right-of-way. (Which means if you’re a pedestrian…good luck!)
Buddhist: Temples, pagodas, and statues adorn cities, small villages, and even corporate properties, and young monks walk the streets–although not nearly as many as before the Khmer Rouge’s heyday, when Buddhism was banned and religious clerics and monks were either murdered or exiled. Today, Buddhism is once again the official religion, and contemporary religious buildings and structures are colorful, well-cared for, and visited regularly. Older temples, like Angkor Wat, also display Buddhist statues and symbols, but a strong Hindu and animistic presence can also be found.
Overwhelming: Cambodia assaults the senses: tangled electrical wires…deformed beggars saying “hello, hello”…squawking green-feathered parakeets overhead…automobile horns and exhaust fumes…rice paddies…construction equipment pounding…pedestrians playing life-threatening Frogger to get across the street…lemongrass candles…raw fish markets and slippery floors…street vendors with trinkets, corn cobs, small clams…perspiration and baking sun…lazy street dogs, mean monkeys, and shy feral cats…oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road…stilted villages lining the rivers…skinny white cows grazing on green grass…laundry flapping on clotheslines…roadside litter…waving children…outdoors restaurants serving fish and rice dishes…tuk-tuks lined up on every street…ruins and jumbled tree roots…Apsara dancers and bas reliefs…and people speaking the indecipherable (to me) Khmer language everywhere.
Developing: Cambodia seems to be springing to life nowadays at a nearly exponential rate. High-rises are being built all over the capital city, and economic zones are drawing investors beyond the municipal limits. A sparkling new mall was just completed in Pnomh Penh, and restaurants of all sorts of cuisines, from French to Brazilian to Irish, are satisfying international (or curious) taste buds. Everyone, it seems, has a smart phone. And most of all, the Khmer people are anxious to invite investors and tourists to visit (and spend money in) their land.
Identity-seeking: The massacre of millions in the recent past means that Cambodia is now largely a youngish country. The combination of relative youth and fast-paced growth almost mandates an identity crisis just as it does in American teenagers, but the influences of other countries and the introduction of technology seem to have exacerbated the Cambodian need to keep up with the Jones’s financially and otherwise. On Diamond Island, for instance, there’s a whole community called Elite Town with streets named Harvard, Princeton, etc., and another development fashioned after the French Riviera with a replica of L’Arc de Triomphe. And then there’s the three-tower high rise clone of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. As beautiful as these creations were, I had a hard time reconciling their architectural designs and names with their Southeast Asian location. It was as if Cambodia wanted to be something other than what it really was, and if that’s the case, I find it sad because this is a land that has so much rich beauty to offer.
Anticipating: There is still much poverty in Cambodia. There’s a history of violence and sorrow. There’s traffic and chaos and great need. An ex-pat who lives there said he sometimes just has to shut down and take some time off from the burden of all that he witnesses. But there is a vibrant sense of joy and anticipation in the Khmer people. A feeling of hope. I saw this in the faces of market vendors, and tuk-tuk drivers, and tour guides. Our guide in Siem Reap was a well-spoken, friendly guy who openly talked about his home, where he lives with his wife and two kids in a rented room that’s smaller than my home office. He was proud of having accomplished that, and his next dream is to buy his own SUV.
But most of all, I saw this sincerity of acceptance and hope in the faces of the children. On our last day in Pnomh Penh, we took a boat ride to an island village. As we walked to and from a traditional silk-weaving house, we were encountered by numerous children so adorable that it became clear to me why Angelina Jolie couldn’t leave the country without one.
And while I took a number of pictures of these little darlings, and of the country’s landscape overall, there is one picture that I never snapped on my iPhone but that remains embedded in my memory. Three black-haired children, all under the age of six or seven, were lined up one in front of the other on the eastern bank of the Mekong River. Sunset was coming quick, and reddened rays shone down on their faces as our boat moved away from the shore. They sat there, these three, waving at us and blowing kisses with the broadest smiles in the world.
They didn’t know about their country’s complex past. They didn’t understand their present poverty or what future travails they may have to face. They simply knew how to appreciate life in the moment. Whether this is just a function of being young, or if it’s ingrained in the Khmer spirit in particular, is unclear to me, but I know it’s a trait that many of us–especially those of us more fortunate–seem to lack. Despite, or because of, all of this country’s complexities, the underlying mindset seems to be one of youthful joy and optimism. This, and those three little faces, is the Cambodian landscape that will remain with me.