It was not until our very last hours in Cambodia that we finally got to visit the memorial pagoda erected on the mass killing field in Siem Reap, the gateway to Cambodia’s premier tourist attraction, Angkor Wat.
Why? Because the pagoda is not on the routine tourist itinerary. So, despite the fact that the father of our guide was murdered by the Khmer Rouge and his narration of the harshness of his subsequent childhood, my repeated pleas to visit the killing fields fell on deaf ears.
Ironically, the day of our visit happened to be The International Holocaust Remembrance Day. If only ours was not the only group at the skull pagoda. Two million tourists visit Siem Reap each year. Very few stop to pay their respect to those whose bones were piled in it. People just do not know.
And, yet, I felt hope that day. Cambodia is still a Communist dictatorship as our guide, repeatedly reminded us. But he also emphasized that two years ago he would not have dared say so out loud. He credited international pressure for forcing greater freedom of expression. In truth we did not need reminding. The difference between relatively democratic Thailand and the Burmese, Laotian and Cambodian dictatorship was difficult to miss. In Thailand urchins do not pester tourists.
You see, capitalism is good to children and the hope I felt in Cambodia was based on the visit to a house in a remote fishing village. The village has no electricity or running water but it did have cell phone towers and battery run television sets. An elderly matriarch invited us to visit her house. Well, she ran a sort of a shop. She proudly pointed to the picture of one of her daughters who she said is a physician in California.
But it was not that picture, but the presence of two sowing machines that made me hopeful. It seems that another of the woman’s daughter is sowing pillow covers for one of the hotels in Siam Reap. Well, where there are such enterprising women there is money for school fees and there is hope.