Just a warning for little kiddies that I may get a little angry and serious in this one. No rude words I promise but you won’t find this topic coming up as an “Inquiry” subject.
Being more deeply aware of my surroundings has always been an interest of mine. It was probably nurtured by my dad’s passion for knowledge and understanding. I recall being overseas as a very young child and dad excitedly explaining the history of the place we were standing in. He would bring it alive and try to make you feel the intensity and richness of events that had happened on the actual cobblestones right under your feet.
That love of understanding the story of a place was crystallised in high school by my most influential teacher – Mr Peter Collins SJ. He stepped into the classroom and suddenly modern history was this complex, intricate, engrossing fascination. A story that you couldn’t have made up if you tried. He made me question. He made me never settle for one side of the story and he fed this hunger to truly understand the story of a place. What it felt like, smelt like or WAS like to be standing in a WW1 trench about to go over the top.
I am happy to say he is still around in my life – a friend now not a teacher. I had the lovely turn of fortune that he actually took up a profession very similar to mine. So much so that when he left the Jesuit priesthood and got married (and became Pete not Mr Collins SJ) we actually worked side by side with some clients. But regardless of the years he is still able to exert that teacher like power over me. He emailed a few days ago saying he loved the blog but couldn’t tell where in the world I was…so Pete, amidst my ponderings about history I will give you a little more detail. It may just push me up to a B+ (you were a fierce marker)
I am sitting on a balcony in Phnom Penh, children in bed, Mel by my side researching accommodation (you don’t realise how much of travelling with a family is all about very unglamorous logistics). It is hot. Sweaty, 86% humidity hot. That sweaty hot that creeps into you and gets under your skin so you have to consciously remind yourself to be happy with this constant state of slight discomfort. As soon as you remember what a nice crisp Melbourne Spring morning feels like you fear you will tip over the edge and scream with desperation to just NOT feel damp for a few minutes.
We have been here a few days now. The last few weeks have seen us yo-yo around central Thailand for two weeks. Out to Kanchanaburi to see the relics of the Thai-Burma Death railway, then elephant hunting (camera, not gun) out North East then back out to Kanchanaburi to see elephants in a sanctuary not a tourist park. (Whatever you do if you visit Thailand do some research on the difference. You will never look at a tourist park offering “elephant rides” the same again).
We left Bangkok and journeyed into Cambodia. I had not really thought about spending time here or anything much about it at all but we have lingered a little longer than anticipated due to how much there is to see. We crossed the Thai-Cambodia border and headed to Siem Reap – the launch off point for the temples of Angkor Wat.
The border was an experience in itself. You read a million travellers blogs about “Scambodia” and there is a reason. The border is this seething, chaotic, messy affair. You are peddled for overpriced fake tourist visa services while still on the bus then you are spewed out into this dusty madness of no man’s land. People coming and going at will. No “border gate” to speak of just pokey government offices with run down visa booths and bored looking immigration officials who sit there all day sweating, stamping, sweating, stamping. The administration version of hell with a social status much lower than their impressive uniforms suggest.
Then we made an uneventful final stage into Siem Reap which at first glance is a twilight zone of a tourist town that was actually conceived and built all at once – Canberra like – to serve Angkor Wat. Once I dropped my “Scambodia” guard I saw the Cambodians as one of the most lovely, open, warm and accepting peoples I have ever come across. That was tainted a little when I had one of the girls Samsung Galaxy tablets snatched out of my hands by a speeding motorbike rider on a street corner in Phnom Penh – but I am trying desperately to hold onto those lovely faces from Siem Reap. I think I stood there in complete disbelief for a little too long before I gave futile chase to the red shirted thief as he ran a red light and sped off into the hustle of the seedy city streets.
I will talk of Angkor Wat later as this was post meant to be about history. Because it seems that histoy chases us in this place – or more precisely I seem to be chasing it. And it seems to be the deeply sad, inhumane history I chase. I seem to seek it out so that I can try to understand what it was like to live in that time. I suppose there is some misguided notion that if I can show the girls how troubled so much of the history was here then they will appreciate their lot in life and the world a little more. But it is not uncommon for one of the girls to politely wait for me to finish some impassioned rant about the suffering these people went through before asking the simple question:
“Dad…do you reckon we could watch cartoons tonight?”
Yes. You need a Buddha like perspective to not get frustrated that in the mind of a child the suffering of 3 million Camodians can get trumped by a desire to watch Tom & Jerry. But that is not their weakness it is probably something they do not need to comprehend until later.
But as someone who loves the story of a place and even more so as a father I can find some of these historical experiences almost too much to bear. Sometimes I would like to watch Tom & Jerry as opposed to walk the Killing Fields.
We started the historical journey by visitng Changi Prision in Singapore. A place my Grandfather would have passed through as a POW in WW2. I remember him trying to tell me stories of it when I was young. He would sit me down and describe his experience. I feel sad and numb and regretful recalling that I too squirmed and itched to get away – all the while sitting respectfully and listening to his stories only half understanding what he was saying. If only I could ask him questions now.
Then we journeyed to Hell Fire Pass outside Kanchanaburi. The notorious section of the Thai-Burma railway that caused so much pain, suffering and death. You walk it these days, often amongst crowds of people. Japanese tourists (what do they think when they go there?), school groups and smiling Thais and other local nationals who actually lost more of their fellow countrymen than all the Allied forces put together. It’s funny how Australia can exaggerate its ownership over some of these places in this sometimes skewed ANZAC fervour that seems to exist. The flag draped Ozzie tourists who don’t stop to realise that almost 70 times the number of local labourers died on the Thai-Burma railway than Australians.
Numbers. You get numb to numbers. 2800 Australians, 200,000 romshu, Dutch, America, English. The numbers pile up in your mind and you become numb until you visit the Kanchanaburi war graveyard and read the personal inscriptions.
“My husband..one day I wil understand this..”
“My son lies here in a foreign land – please lay a flower for him”
On and on they go until you can feel the pain of the mother of the only son as she rips open the official war letter informing her regretfully that her son has given the ultimate sacrifice.
I look across the cemetery at my daughters playing and jumping over the endless rows of graves and I cant help myself from crying. They wonder why I hug them so tight that evening and kiss them on the foreheads with fierceness. It is almost like I am making up for those fathers who never got the chance again.
So we left that history and came to another – Cambodia. If you are like me then there is a deep reflex association with Cambodia that I have. If a clinical psychologist was to run a word association on me and they said “Cambodia” I would say “Killing Fields” without drawing breath.
I knew only a little of the facts so I bought a history of the Pol Pot regime and started reading feverishly. Once again numbers came to haunt me. Large numbers this time. Numbers so large that your rational mind stops working. Then you start to look for the day to day reality and nothing makes sense. How could something like this occur not 30 years ago?
But with a slow creeping horror you realise that it is happening now. I read the history of the pre Khmer Rouge period and it was unnerving. The US trying to destroy the communist ideology through bombs. So as a “sideshow” to Vietnam they crippled Cambodia with indiscriminate, village razing B52 boming raids. Thousands of tons of bombs. Stories of villages having their population cut by 2/3rds from one event. Then those survivors are approached by a Khmer Rouge solider offering a way of fighting the imperialists who just killed their family…what would you do?
With a sickening feeling you realise that you could substitute the word Cambodia with Middle East and away we go again. The US using ridiculous force and death to drive power into the hands of mad men who then use a misguided ideology to justify oppression and cruelty on their own people.
That’s how it starts but then you can’t comprehend how it is perpetuated by fellow human beings.
I shall stop. There are friends of the girls who read this blog and it is no place for a rant about the state that humanity can degrade to. We started on this journey to show our girls how beautiful this world was and I seem to be drawn to the opposite. As Ellie asked the other day:
“Dad…when are we going to go to a place that isn’t about war?”
Maybe I am hoping that showing them a small part of this will make them appreciate how good we have it in Australia. Just yesterday after a day thinking and pondering about the death and suffering that had occurred in the very streets I walked on, I came home and switched on the TV.
As it happened they had Australian TV streaming on one channel. It was the ABC’s Q & A. I watched these well meaning people sit there all snug and warm in the air conditioned studio and snipe at how bad things were. How much we need to “fix” things. How some people in Australia are discriminated against. How the system is not fair.
Sitting here in Phnom Penh, wondering what I am about to see tomorrow when I walk the halls of a Khmer Rouge torture centre I struggled to empathise. I struggled to see how we could ever comprehend what true oppression and discrimination was. I struggled to see how people could NOT see that we live in one of the most beautiful, blessed, egalitarian, functional, accepting and generally just societies on the planet. If you really want to achieve and you are willing to contribute, participate and work then absolutely nothing holds you back. I fear that many of my generation actually want the good bits without the hard bits. They want it given to them.
I wouldn’t wish the hardships of this land on anyone. But when I switch on the TV and see people complaining and then watch footage of our “leaders” in parliament bickering about each other then I start to get mad. I want to line the entire country of Australia up and make them shuffle single file through the Killing Fields. Then let them go home and kiss their kids goodnight.
Then we’ll see who is really worried about who wins The Bachelor.