We were only in Cambodia for 8 days. 28 hours of travel one way and 36 hours the other will really limit your time in a place. But 8 days spent with life-filled people in a beautiful country was enough to give us a flavor of what Cambodia holds. Not even 40 years after the end of a terrifying genocide, Cambodia feels like a country brimming with hope. True, the country still shows up near the bottom of corruption rankings, and by no means am I suggesting that it does not face significant struggles. It does. But for a place with such a haunted recent history, we were all in awe of the light in so many faces. It makes me question the response we have to our own histories – do we find hope or dwell in darkness? Anyways, this is what we did.
Most of our time was spent talking. We sat in circles and asked questions, filtered through translators, fascinating nonetheless. We heard the story of an 85 year old woman who survived the Khmer Rouge in refugee camps in Thailand and came back to her country eager to suck the marrow out of the bones of life (to use one of my favorite Thoreau-isms). We listened to a man who was one of three current Protestant pastors to survive the mass killing of 1975-1979. He became a Christian in the refugee camps, where for the first time, he told us, he met people who were willing to love him. He found a God who was Father and Mother after he had lost his parents to the regime’s brutality. And we were interviewed by Cambodian college students learning English – they asked us questions like “How are you feeling?” “Tell me about a time you shared the gospel,” and “Do you get good grades?”
We met a torchmaker who supplements his farming working by dipping tree leaves into boiling pitch for hours on end, a village savings group that pooled their earnings and started a local grocery, and a community kid’s club that taught us how to dance Khmer, a skill we utilized (poorly) the next night at a wedding reception. We prayed with small church communities. We learned from a chicken farmer. We sang.
We visited the ancient temple complexes at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, where the Khmer empire of the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries centered their rule. We heard about the constant back and forth in that time between Hinduism and Buddhism: one king dedicated his temple to Vishnu and the next to Buddha or the compassionate bodhisattva Lokeshvara. Our guide told us he never goes to these temples to pray because prayer is something to do in silence, not something to do to show off. And then he showed us a tree root that looks like a butt.
Many in Cambodia met their end in the late 70s, and many more returned to their country afterwards thinking the end was near. But now it moves like a land on the mend, filled with people ready to make an impact, fiercely proud of where they’re from. Of course, we did not meet every Cambodian; this hope might not be universal. I want to make it exceedingly clear that our short experience in Cambodia does not mean any of us our experts, or that we know what everyday life is like for everyday Cambodians. At the same time it is impossible to come back from that trip and not feel encouraged by what we saw and heard and encountered: a people standing upright and resolute, and new life filling the cracks.
P.S. Check out a few pictures from the trip here. More will be posted soon! All photo credits to the wonderful Robert W. Sackett.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.