From Cambridge to Cambodia: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness

It was a typical scorching April day just outside of Phnom Penh, and I could see the heat rise from the dusty road in thick, humid waves. Taxi drivers squatted patiently under leafy trees while families paced the covered walkway in front of Pochentong Airport, waiting for loved ones to arrive.

Only two years earlier, the airport consisted of a small, one-story building and a dirt "runway." Now the multi-story glass and steel international terminal housed a European-style cafe, richly wood-paneled lounges and enough A/C to cool half of Southeast Asia. Inside the sparkling new Dairy Queen, you could order your very own "Blizzard" in the middle of Cambodia—although for most Cambodians, the $2 or $3 price tag might mean giving up an entire day's wages or more. It all seemed so weirdly out of place, these false indicators of so-called-progress. They had no context where the things that truly matter are sometimes as simple as having books and a roof under which to study.

What originally brought me to Cambodia was a non-profit organization called Friendly Planet, which I co-founded with Michael Hawley PhD '93. One of our missions is to produce a series of children’s books that illustrate in pictures and words the lives of children living in countries all around the world. The hope is not only to teach children about their global community, but also to help support educational projects in the places we explore. In Cambodia, we will donate a portion of the proceeds from book sales to support schools being built by American Assistance for Cambodia in rural villages across the country. Education in Cambodia has become an increasing priority, even among the poorest farming communities, but the country still needs an estimated 5,000 new schools just to accommodate the current population of school age children.

While traveling, researching, photographing and writing about Cambodia, I quickly learned to appreciate the country. More than just a victim of genocide, it is a nation struggling with contradictions that hinder its cultural, economic and political regeneration. Before my first visit in early 2001, I had no idea what to expect. Like most people, my knowledge could be summed up in three names: Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the "Killing Fields." It was a place whose mention alone invoked sad head shaking and sighs from friends, with the occasional vague recollection of some landmine or missing tourist story in the news.

Heeding their cautious fears and warnings, I braced myself for the worst. On one hand, nothing that I had seen, read, or heard could have prepared me for kind of deep physical and psychological scarring that Cambodia carries. On the other hand, I was also completely unprepared to be overwhelmed by the cultural richness and physical beauty of the country. I realized that reducing an entire country to a single word like "genocide" not only hobbles its ability to move forward but also fails to acknowledge all the things that truly define a nation—its people, its culture, and its great history.

Everywhere I went, I found encouraging signs of hope, beauty, and generosity of spirit. They were in the faces of the school children I met, who took such incredible pride in their studies and dreamed of bright futures. They were embodied in the awe-inspiring ruins of Angkor. They were in the graceful gestures of young dancers studying the centuries old tradition of classical apsara dance. They were in the beautiful and warm smiles that seem to be a genetic gift to the Cambodian people. All of these experiences have helped me to form a more complete and human idea of Cambodia, one that looks inward into the soul of the country as much as it does to historical events.

There is, of course, no escaping the country's tragic past. Nearly two million people were killed under the Pol Pot regime. Any Cambodian you speak to who is over the age of thirty lost close family or friends to the genocide. And while no one could ever imagine trying to forget this horrible past, the country is looking urgently towards building its future. Organizations such as the Cambodian Master Performers Project are engaged in a desperate race against time to save the scattered remains of the rich Khmer culture. By both preserving the arts and passing them on to new generations, they hope that one day, Cambodia can again be renown for its beauty and artistry, not the dark history that nearly destroyed it. Despite the best efforts of the most dedicated people, so much more remains to be done if Cambodia is to step fully out of the shadow of its past and into a brighter future.

Sunset at Angkor
Sunset at Angkor highlights one of the intricate bas relief carvings that depicts life in the ancient Khmer Empire.

An elderly villager keeps cool in the hot April weather
An elderly villager keeps cool in the hot April weather.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians converge on Phnom Penh for the annual water festival, Bon Om Tuk
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians converge on Phnom Penh for the annual water festival, Bon Om Tuk. One of the biggest holidays in the Khmer calendar, Bon Om TUk marks the changing in direction of the current of the Tonle Sap River, as well as the end of the rainy season.

Monks, along with artists, doctors, teachers and musicians, were among those targeted and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Luckily, a new generation of young boys are helping to replenish the religious community, although some will only serve as monks for a few years as part of their education.

A detail from Banteay Srei
A detail from Banteay Srei, one of most intricately carved temples within Angkor.

An elderly woman makes an offering at the local wat to pay respect to her ancestors
An elderly woman makes an offering at the local wat to pay respect to her ancestors.

Kids at the Future Light Orphanage
Cameras always attract attention from the kids at the Future Light Orphanage (FLO), where children learn traditional crafts, music and dance as well as computer skills.

Sandy Choi and Michael Hawley (left) and boy with slingshot
Sandy Choi and Michael Hawley roast under the hot Cambodian sun in front of Angkor Wat, the largest religious edifice in the world (left). At right, this squirrelly young boy sat still for about two seconds before running off to play with his hand carved slingshot.

Two young friends enjoy a cool dip in a lake
Two young friends enjoy a cool dip in a lake formed from an ancient volcanic crater in Ratanakiri province.

Sign warning children not to play with landmines
This sign warning children not to play with landmines is the only billboard in the village of Rovieng.

Two young girls practice making Cambodian "mud pies" wrapped in banana leaves
Two young girls practice making Cambodian "mud pies" wrapped in banana leaves.

A chorus line of smiling girls
A chorus line of smiling girls wave hello in front of a brand new school sponsored by Nicholas Negroponte, founder and former director of the Media Lab.

Khmer New Year celebration
During the Khmer New Year, rowdy revelers follow the tradition of dousing one another with water and baby powder.

About the Authors

Sandy Choi '99 and Michael Hawley PhD '93 Sandy Choi '99 (far left) completed her SB degrees in economics and music in 1999. She currently lives in New York City with her dog, Rocket, and will be pursuing an MA in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University this fall. She plans to take a break from perfecting her Arabic and dissecting the pathologies of international organizations in order to run her second marathon (Chicago) in October.

Michael Hawley PhD '93, MIT's director of special projects, was on the faculty at the Media Lab for nearly a decade, where he also did his PhD work under Marvin Minsky. In industry, Hawley has worked with George Lucas and Steve Jobs. He is an accomplished pianist and recently debuted with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall.


RMV's Colleague said...

Thanks for sharing. Nice to have your blog.

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