The next morning we went to the Choeung Ek “killing fields” and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. These are requisite stops for visitors who want to understand modern Cambodia, but it is a grim day. At the killing fields, about nine miles southeast of Phnom Penh, an audio tour led us to a ribbon-covered tree where soldiers had bludgeoned hundreds of children to death and to a temple piled with cracked skulls. After years of civil war, the victorious Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, a former teacher who was educated in France, wanted to make Cambodia into his idealized version of a premodern agricultural state. Within days of taking over the country in 1975, his army emptied schools, hospitals, businesses and urban residences, eventually murdering about two million people.
I was feeling overwhelmed by the time we took a break at the nearby Boddhi Tree guesthouse, where we ordered mango yogurt smoothies and read these words, attributed to the Dalai Lama, on a small poster tacked to a bulletin board in the café: when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
All day I’d been looking at Cambodia through a filter of death and darkness. It was time for me to look through a filter of light.
Tucked behind a tall wall in an airy corner of Phnom Penh, CCPCR houses some 50 girls between three and 25 years of age who have been trafficked, raped and abused. We were here to meet the director and arrange a bank transfer for the $1,000 we had raised. As soon as the gates opened, little girls danced around our car, hugging Melissa and tugging her to a table filled with crayons, paper and books—she’d been there before, visiting and playing with them, and they clearly adored her. CCPCR’s mild-mannered director, 39-year-old Nget Thy, introduced me to the shelter housemother and proudly showed off the girls’ weaving looms and sewing classroom. Like so many of the people we met in Cambodia, he’d grown up amid unimaginable poverty, fear and homelessness in the aftermath of the genocide. Yet here he was now, his offices on the grounds of a former brothel, reaching out to the next generation.
Cambodia’s population is disproportionately young, with about a third of its people under the age of 14. But for every adult the Khmer Rouge killed, a child like Thy survived and is working now to rebuild the country. In this land where so many lives were cut short, the survivors are strong. Given my fears about not outliving my mother, how could this not resonate in my soul?
I became an international adviser to CCPCR that very afternoon and began the work that I would continue back home: raising funds, writing grants and raising awareness for Thy’s grassroots organization, which helps hundreds of children through outreach programs and a border-rescue station. That day I started taking notes for a book that will trace how the life of one girl blossomed because of one donation. Before this trip to Cambodia, I’d expected to have trouble finding something I could do from the U.S. without having to uproot my life and move across the ocean. It turned out that joining forces with Thy and promising to tell the girls’ stories of tragedy and hope was as easy as getting myself there, asking the right questions and being ready to say yes.
I was fairly humming with happiness when we left Phnom Penh by bus to explore some of Cambodia’s other highlights: the beaches along the Gulf of Thailand and the Buddhist and Hindu temple ruins of the Angkor Archaeological Park complex in the northern province of Siem Reap. For eight hours we rode through the center of the country along miles of dusty roads lined with worn brown shacks on stilts and paths dotted with tiny schoolchildren on enormous bicycles. We saw live chickens being carried on poles to market, old minivans overflowing with workers—about 30 per van—and wedding parties that blared music into the countryside. It was Chinese New Year, celebrated with weeklong family gatherings in the villages and at the shore drinking Angkor Beer and eating steamed crabs, tiny hot clams, giant roasted prawns and more. At a roadside market, Frank, braver than I, tried a fried tarantula and swore it tasted like grasshopper.