It’s July 2018. Today is the last day of my visit to Siem Reap. Later this afternoon I have to catch my flight, and the thought of being so far away from Cambodia pains me deeply. I have failed to do so much: six years ago I moved to Asia to take a job as a professor and to be closer to Cambodia. I longed for proximity to my parents’ birthplace—to see with my own eyes the landscapes of their past. I hoped to lay down some kind of record of the war they had survived, to write a book that my mother and father and brothers could see themselves in. But many things in Cambodia have taken me by surprise; it is one thing to inherit the shadows of the past, another to walk among them.
I arrive at the Cambodia War Remnant Museum, just outside of Siem Reap, about five kilometres south of the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. In the sweltering afternoon heat, I take in the arresting sight of the fenced-in outdoor space: dozens of obsolete war machines are interspersed among the banyan and palm trees. At a glance, the rusted brown tanks and aircraft carriers merge seamlessly with the browns of the trees, soil, and pits. The remains of war are starting to be reclaimed by nature. Lifeworlds woven together. Unlike the nearby ruins of the ancient Angkor empire, an attraction that draws millions of tourists each year, this boneyard feels hidden from the world. Inside the museum, I learn that war material in Cambodia used to be scrapped for recycled metal. People salvaged what they could to make a living. I’ve spent time in graveyards as a child, alone in the car at night as my family members scavenged the ground for earthworms they could sell to farmers. Back then, I felt excitement at watching my parents move among the dead, but today I feel unsure of how to move through such a ghostly area.
In the compound, one caption catches my eye: “Artillery 85 mm made in China, 1946. 4.75 m length, size 85 mm, fighting power approximately 13.10 km, was used in Cambodia by Pol Pot regime (1975–1979) and was finally destroyed in 1998 at Osmach battlefield the West of Siem Reap Province.” This retired artillery is a fragment of a missing picture: one of fraternity between China and Cambodia—brothers in arms, some would say. This is an image of Cambodia that most have preferred not to see, drawn instead to the iconic pictures of skulls and bones, of the sunken earth of mass graves. Many tourists have gaped at the horrors of Pol Pot’s killing fields, have shaken their heads in astonishment at the sheer brutality of this regime, but few have cared to see the horrors committed before and after Pol Pot’s time: the military aid that flowed from China to the Khmer Rouge, the bombs that the United States dropped on Cambodia, the refugees that were turned back at the borders.
This boneyard is a cemetery of the longue durée of imperial violence in Cambodia. It houses the remnants of one of the hottest laboratories of the Cold War in Asia, wherein the United States secretly dropped more than 2.7 million tons of bombs, more bombs than the allies dropped in all of World War II. One exhibit, labelled Bomb House, gives an account of this planned destruction. The wooden hut’s walls are lined with deactivated rockets and an information board displays an archival photo of Richard Nixon pointing at a map of Cambodia. Here stands a technician, the man who turned Cambodia into an experiment in “collateral damage.” My mother and father’s stories about fleeing the U.S. bombs suddenly come back to me. “To hide from the American bombs, we took shelter under a Buddhist pagoda,” my father once told me. After the Khmer Rouge rose to power in the ashes of those bombs, my parents and brothers slept in the fields for almost four years, barely clinging to life. In the hazy afternoon heat, I feel the familiar emotions of anger and bitterness rise in me.
Winding dirt paths cut around the inert weapons, creating a maze for solo travellers and tour groups looking for their fix of the war-ravaged exotic. Cambodian men dressed in blue army uniforms, likely former Khmer Rouge soldiers, offer tours of the surroundings. Many guides carry the wounds of war—prosthetics, bullet wounds, scars—visible for all to see. One guide assembles me and a small group of English-speaking visitors. He tells us: “I spent nearly my whole life in the war. I died more than ten times during the war. They called me a cat. I will show you the scar, the shrapnel, the ball bearing. Everywhere there are holes in my body.” At one point during his story, a thirty-something American man in the group, on break from his conference in Chiang Mai, leans over and asks me if I know who Pol Pot is. I have no time for explanations today.
Our guide continues: “They took away my family and then they killed them. I ate the crickets, grasshoppers, frog, fish, snake, everything. A hornet’s nest dropped down on me. I live thirty miles north from here. About fifty kilometres. My wife died three years ago. Lung cancer from the uranium. On April 16, 2017, my friend stepped on a mine and it took off his legs.” He takes us to a large ruined tank and peers over the top to point out something inside: “My friend’s bones inside. Bowin. He died.” I feel a whirling as I listen to him, wishing he would stop, but I am incapable of extracting myself from the group.
I’m jolted out of my daze as our guide ends his monologue to ask our names. I tell him mine, and there is immediate recognition on his part: “You were born in Khao-I-Dang! Khao-I-Dang is the mountain in Thailand. Her name,” he says to the group, “is the same as that mountain.” The story of my name is a complicated one. KID is the nickname for the refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand that swelled to the size of a small city back in 1980. Those who made it to this camp were thought to be the most fortunate refugees of the war. Our guide explains: “Some, like your family, when they went to Thailand, were very, very lucky. They got to immigrate, to live in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and Europe, but some were not so lucky. They got repatriated by the United Nations.” Then he says to me, “I see that you are a little bit upset, but you will know how lucky you are.” I don’t know how to respond, to express the sadness I feel in this moment, standing before this man whom I should call bou (uncle in Khmer) but don’t. Uncle, I want to say, I’m sorry your life has been so hard.
An Australian woman, with two bored and indifferent teenage daughters, jumps in: “Yes, we are very lucky to be Australian, but we have a lot of different cultures that like to bring their cultures into Australia”—laughter from the group—“which is actually the dangerous part.”
Our group passes by Chinese-speaking tourists who pose for photos with old rifles and tanks, as if wishing the equipment could be suddenly reanimated. The captions are all in English. More than once a Chinese-speaking passerby stops me, points at something, and asks me in Putonghua,“Zhè shì shénme (這是什麼)”—What is this? I shrug and say, “Wŏ bù zhīdào (我不知道)”—I don’t know.
We come to a crater at the edge of the compound that is fenced off by razor wire but curiously unmarked. Our guide tells us it was caused by the U.S. bombing in 1973, but there is noticeable hesitation in his voice. He doesn’t want to linger here, quickly moving us on to the next station. I wonder what in the museum is real and what is fabricated, if it even matters. At the centre of the crater, a little ecosystem has formed, with bright-pink lotus blossoms sprouting up from a pool of lily pads and murky brown water. The Cambodian belief is that the lotus flower emerging from mud symbolizes strength, hope, faith that a new lifeworld can be reborn from the darkest places. I think of the biology of cellular and organic regrowth—that every species, no matter how damaged, is capable of regeneration.
The blazing sun shines in my eyes and time has gotten away from me. Something has both paralyzed me and left me ungrounded. When I arrive at Siem Reap airport, I find I have missed my flight.
kid teo is the pen name of Y-Dang Troeung, who is assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia. She was born on the border of Cambodia and Thailand and currently lives in Vancouver with her partner and son.