It wasn’t the kind of sight I thought I’d face when we walked through the nondescript gates of a rambling monastery on the southern side of town. But there I was, peering into a pentagonally shaped case, taller than me and stacked high with human skulls, cheekbones pressed against the glass. To my left two female monks, one older than the other, sat in a shaded pergola reciting prayers, the soft words rolling off their tongues and rising thinly in the air. Alongside a small Buddhist museum, eight or nine boys were playing soccer in saffron coloured robes vigorously kicking up the dust. It was mid morning and though my rickshaw driver had assured me this was the Killing Fields Memorial, it felt more like we’d arrived in a Buddhist training centre.
It had occurred to me days earlier on the temple steps of Angkor Wat that to really know something of Cambodia, was to understand her brutal days of the Khmer Rouge and piece together her splintered history. So I’d sought out the chance to experience one of the war memorial’s while in Siem Reap, though what I really wanted to understand was the depth of tolerance and warmth of a people whose big smiles and even bigger hearts shone everywhere. I’d spent the week climbing temple stairwells and running my palms along the rough stone walls leading to the reclining seats of old Buddha’s and temples devoted to Lord Vishnu. With the passing of empires carved in their temple walls, they told the story of empires lost and won, the divinity of kings and a people rich in faith. As we walked through the smaller Bayon temple of Angkor, the jolly smile on Buddha’s face was everywhere, chiselled into sky high blocks of stone. The pale green canopy of leaves shuffled in the afternoon breeze and everywhere I looked the gentle knowing faces seemed to be looking back. If you can measure a place by the warmth of its people, you can feel the heart of Cambodia etched within the smiles of both past and present.
Walking around the war memorial and reading the translations of the killings is pretty heavy going. And yet like a burst of light these young boys, heads shaven and wearing loose Buddhist robes were running around laughing, fascinated with us tourists and lighting joss sticks. Maybe it’s this thread of spirituality running through the ages that brings such peace, but I wonder at a people who have churned through the decades in such hardship, I marvel at their resilience and the look of welcome we found in their soft brown eyes and broad grins.”No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path”. These words pop into my mind and I see the energy they bring, brushing away the darkness. I wonder at how blessed we are; to come, to touch but the surface and leave, though with a little more understanding than when we came. It’s at this moment that I realise why I love to travel and why the stories, once told, are carried always in our hearts.