Over the Pchum Ben holiday last week, I visited Kep, a seaside town about a three hour drive from Phnom Penh. We needed a break from the noise of Phnom Penh and Kep was the perfect reprieve to escape. The lush green landscape, cascading mountains in the background, spectacular sunsets, fresh seafood, and laid back lifestyle was what we needed to break away from the urban jungle. Our time there was short, but it was just enough to remind us the beauty of nature in this resplendent retreat. Slow down, escape the noise and join me on this photo tour to get a taste of tranquility and nature in Kep, Kampot, and Bokor.
White Building, Phnom Penh, 2014. Built in 1963 by Cambodian architect Ly Ban Hap & Russian architect Vladmir Bodiansky, under the leadership of renowned Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann. Residents of the building are mostly civil servants, artists, and shopkeepers. A historic site, now there are rumors the building will be demolished. See a slideshow of the building at end of the story. All images © Banyanblog 2014.
Part I: An Outsider’s Perspective
When I moved to Phnom Penh last year, I never heard of the White Building. We first lived in the Wat Phnom area and eventually settled down in the Chankarmorn district. Then the White Building was right in front of me, evoking a range of thoughts, fluctuating between seeing it as an eye sore, to a curious fascination of what life was like inside.
As it became part of my daily line of vision, I often wondered who lived there? From the outside it looked old, dilapidated, and unsafe. In the daytime, it seemed to be surrounded in a swarm of chaos with shopkeepers selling their goods, children running without shoes, friends chatting in makeshift cafes and barbershops, couples fighting, monks gathering alms, and scavengers digging the trash to find bottles or cardboard to recycle. At night it seemed to be shrouded in mystery, evoking images of unpleasant things happening beneath dark stairwells.
These images were all crossing my path, moving along to the rhythm of life there. The building served as a backdrop that seemed to symbolize to outsiders a negative narrative of the country, poverty in plain sight, in the midst of an up and coming area of the city. Icons of the new Phnom Penh are being propped up in a rampant effort to create a new metropolis, particularly in the Chamkarmorn/Koh Pich area, with rapidly growing luxury housing, fine dining, a new casino, and a new high-end mall. These are all in the vicinity of the building and illustrate the stark contrasts of economic inequality that are pervasive around the city.
As I passed by on a daily basis, my own ignorance wondered, why doesn’t the city just tear down this place? But that was before I went inside, before I spoke with Pheak Samnang* and before I discovered another side of the narrative, which goes beyond what you see with the naked eye.
February 14, 2004
Over 20 years had passed since my father buried my brother, Sakeda, and my grandparents, Kong Sreng and Yey Eng in Battambang. Before the Khmer Rouge, family’s of the deceased conducted intricate funeral ceremonies for their loved ones in traditional Cambodian culture. However, the Khmer Rouge did not allow any mourning or attachments to family. Tradition and culture was destroyed and humanity along with it.
My father had to bury his son and parents-in-law without any Buddhist ceremonies, without any monks to help guide them into the next life. There was nothing he could do to commemorate their death or provide any offerings to them in the afterlife.
Instead, he had to bury his family unceremoniously and carry on as if nothing happened. My uncle, Pa Om, felt he never completed his duty as the filial son in his parents’ death. Even though decades had passed, finding these bones meant they could finally give the proper rituals for their loved ones. More so, they could find peace and closure through this process.
My father thought if he ever had the chance to go back to Oak-a-Bao, he was sure he could find the bones to give them a proper burial. For years, he also wanted to go back but was concerned about the safety. My uncle Om Ngat, who had lived in Battambang since 1979, was uncertain whether it was still safe to go. Pa Om was determined with or without anyone’s help. Finally they all decided they would take the chance and go together.
The sun was beating down on us that long February afternoon in 2004. Even though it was technically the “cool season” in Cambodia, being out in the open and dry fields for hours took a toll on our bodies. We were thirsty, hot, sweaty and disoriented. I wondered, what are we even doing here?
Then I looked around and realized the crossroads of fate was standing right in front of me. We were meant to be here. Destiny brought me back to Battambang, to Oak-a-bao, the Khmer Rouge camp I was born in over 20 years later. But seeing my birthplace was not the purpose of our visit. We were there to find the burial site of my family members who had died during the “bad times”. I will never forget my first visit back to Battambang, our visit back to Oak-a-bao. We were all looking for closure, all in our own way.
Today, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) presented the verdict to two of the highest-ranking surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Noun Chea, also known as Brother Number 2, and Khieu Samphan, the Head of State for Democratic Kampuchea, were found guilty by the international tribunal for crimes against humanity. They both received a life sentence.
Under their leadership, they were responsible for the deaths of over 1.7 million people who died at their hands by starvation, execution and rampant disease. Hearing this verdict and their crimes is painful for many who wanted see something more.
The judgement today stripped the victims, living and dead, the right to see these leaders suffer as they did. Yet despite the angry emotions I felt today, I also remembered a different kind of Khmer Rouge leader, one who risked his life to save our family.
Last week I had the strangest dream. I dreamt I was in the living room with my father. We were sitting on the floor and he had his shirt off but was wearing a sarong. I sat next to him and tightly wrapped my hands around his right arm, afraid to let go. He was sitting in a calm state and had a vacant but peaceful look on his face. I was hysterically crying, and kept saying to him “don’t go”, “don’t go”! Then my mother walked in the room and whispered to me “don’t tell him he is dead. He doesn’t know.”
A few weeks ago I embarked on a long flight back home to visit family and friends in the U.S. for the summer. It’s hard to believe almost a year has passed since we left for Cambodia. It’s nostalgic to be back home and enjoy the things that I missed. Some of them are simple things I took for granted like a fresh cool breeze, expanses of luscious green grass and trees, playgrounds that are shaded, and traffic that moves in an organized fashion. Some things I deeply miss, I can’t get back.
I’ve been in a writing limbo over the last few weeks, partly from being busy trying to do as much as I can while I am here. The other part, the seemingly lack of inspiration. As the days went by, I could feel my motivation to write slipping away from me, or so I thought.
It was easy to be inspired in Phnom Penh with the cacophony of restless images and an unknown life beckoning me to rediscover it. But being back home is different. It’s a different kind of noise, a known life and routine, and a different kind of calling. I’ve realized the source of inspiration here is quieter, calmer and perhaps more soothing because it has the familiarity of home. Instead of being drawn by life outside the house, it’s what’s inside my childhood home that inspired me to write this.
Over the last few months I’ve had a Khmer teacher who has helped me learn how to read and write Khmer. The alphabet and grammar are fairly straightforward (the vowels are a bit tricky). Writing is a bit difficult as it is entirely different than the Roman script. While we focus most of our lessons on the mechanics of the language I am also learning interesting and important aspects of Khmer communication. What I’m learning is that the Khmer language is fairly complex in the layers of communication. Cambodia is a very hierarchical society and words are chosen depending on whom you are speaking with.
There are many websites, blogs and books if one is interested in learning the history and basics of Khmer language. What might not be as easily accessible are the unwritten rules of this hierarchy in communication. Through language, Khmers communicate the values they put on respect and distinction of social classes in society. This social value is transmitted through the importance that Khmer people put on honorific titles and the different words one uses to speak with certain people.
I have a confession. I have a hard time speaking my native language, Khmer. I can speak it but my proficiency is not where I would like it to be. I sometimes struggle to have in depth conversations with my Khmer friends and family members in Cambodia. I cannot read or write it and don’t understand Khmer humor which involves a lot of parables and proverbs.
This language barrier has made me feel more like an outsider than I expected. I have lived here for almost a year and sometimes I feel more like a tourist rather than a Khmer born citizen. Most Khmers will speak to me in English first, then be surprised when I respond back in my choppy Khmer with an American accent. I tell them I am Khmer, born in Battambang. Then they look confused and ask, “Why don’t you speak better Khmer?” To which I say, “I’ve lived in the U.S. since I was five years old.”
People may wonder why my parents didn’t teach me how to speak Khmer properly in the U.S., especially because my father was a Khmer-French literature professor. The fact is, it’s not my parents’ fault. It is my fault. It’s a story that may be familiar to many Khmers in the diaspora.
It has been almost a year since I've been in Cambodia. This milestone makes me realize how lucky I am to have this second chance at rediscovering my homeland again. I am thankful that I have been able to share the window of my world, past and present, to the outside world.
I've been amazed by the many connections I've made so far from this blog, from rising young leaders in Cambodia; to teachers, tuk tuk drivers and street food vendors struggling to survive; to people around the world who genuinely care about my country.
One of them is Duncan Stuart who is from New Zealand but his heart belongs to Cambodia. He spends his free time helping to raise awareness and funds for Savong School, a free school in Siem Reap. Duncan genuinely cares about the many issues affecting Cambodia and his blog at Savong School aims to provide a broader picture of Cambodia's development in the education sector. I conducted an email interview with Duncan for his blog and shared my reflections of coming back home, thoughts about the education system in Cambodia, and my hopes and dreams for my country. Below is the interview. Thank you Duncan for the opportunity.
This interview was first published on Savong School
REDISCOVERING A DIGNIFIED PAST: INTERVIEW WITH MITTY STEELE
By: Duncan Stuart, April 21st , 2014
More than quarter of 1 million Cambodians live in the USA and for the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the refugees who escaped Cambodia during the Pol Pot era there is inevitably a sense of incompleteness; a sense of a stolen personal history. Among the US-based Cambodians to retrace the steps of her family, and to reconnect on a personal level with Cambodia is Mitty Steele, a young writer who began interviewing her father 10 years ago before he died.