Cambodia: Tourist Survivor Guilt 101

I returned from Siem Reap two days ago and I’m still trying to reconcile the amazing time I had there with the acutely depressing experience of reading Loung Ung’s “First They Killed My Father” on the plane ride home.

Book Number 14 is too depressing for a regular entry.  I need to interject more personal feelings and allow myself more freedom to write about it.  Even now I’m sort of dreading it.  So I’ll start with my own experience in Cambodia.

Think about that soft-spoken, kind and beautiful neighbor of yours who always wears a smile when you see her.  She’s charming, she’s genuine and likable.  Then one day, you somehow learn that your neighbor survived a nightmarish history of abduction and rape in her teens.  In hindsight, you realize there was a kind of sadness and reserve about her that you had failed to detect.  You only noticed her kind smile.

Your neighbor is the nation of Cambodia.

If I wasn’t already aware of the country’s tragic history when I arrived, I might not ever have guessed that Cambodia has something brewing beneath the surface.  Siem Reap was a sleepy town with pleasant tuk tuk drivers, generous hospitality workers, and people on farms and in rice fields who would smile and wave as you rode by.   It was sort of picture perfect.

But I knew it had to be far from perfect underneath.  On our last day, we rode horses in the village area outside the main part of the city.  Our guide, “Johnny,” was quick with a joke and obviously had a repertoire.  He called Yun “Cowboy,” and humored him by spouting off words in Korean.  We talked about the different people he’s met from different countries, and the superficial banter began to die down as Johnny told us that he has never been outside Cambodia.  He doesn’t have a passport – he can’t afford one.

“People who come to Cambodia only see a nice picture, you know.  A few days of beautiful sights.  Everything looks so nice.  But actually, we have a lot of problems.  Our situation is not good…you know?”

“Yes, I know.”

Well, I did know.  But I couldn’t truly understand.  And that’s where the guilt began.

Here the three of us – a Korean guy, an American girl, and a native Cambodian guide – were trekking on horseback through the “undiscovered” parts of Siem Reap.  At every corner were stray dogs, chickens, skinny cows with loose folds of skin, and tiny naked children running up to say hello.  No one begged or put on a show.  The whole place was genuine, if a bit used to seeing other horse-riding, helmet-wearing tourists coming through on their turf.  But the difference is that to me the scenery was quaint and exotic, whereas to Johnny it was normal and mundane.  Perhaps he’d rather be somewhere else.  Maybe he was bored – how many other tourists must he have made the same joke with about that random shack on the water buffalo farm being the “VIP guesthouse”?  Perhaps he really did think it was funny.  I’ll never know for sure.  But I’ll also never forget the sad, deflated look on his face after we got back to the ranch and said our goodbyes.

Perhaps I can’t ever understand or fully see the “real” Cambodia – but at least I could catch a glimpse of it, from Johnny’s point of view.  I try to shake the feeling of guilt that I can come and go freely, while he is “stuck” in Cambodia.  Oh wait, but is that patronizing?  Must not have arrogant preconceptions towards the local people.  These are the joys of ethics debates when you’re traveling Southeast Asia.

The other big “aha” moment I had while in Siem Reap was probably when I went to the bookstore.  I scoured the Cambodia section, hoping to find a novel or a memoir to catch my interest.  Something like a travelogue, or maybe historical fiction from Angkor times.  But there was nothing of that nature.  Instead, it was all books about the Cambodian genocide.  Title after title, anything you could want: “The Gate,” “When Broken Glass Floats,” “Voices from S-21,” “Brother Number One,” all the ones that circulate in your Amazon feed of “suggested reading” when you type in “Cambodia.”  I didn’t have luck earlier looking online, so why was I surprised at the bookstore?  Perhaps it was just seeing the long row of books lined up, in the flesh, one after the other.  So many different accounts of suffering, torture and anguish under the one, same hideous event.  It was all but impossible to not read a book about the genocide if I was going to read a Cambodian book at all.  So I buckled down and went for one of the most popular titles.

We picked up First They Killed My Father from a vendor outside one of the Angkor temples.  Yes, that’s how inescapable the genocide is: along with scarves and bracelets, the vendors will bring it straight to you if you’re too lazy to buy it yourself.  Plus, it’s hard saying “no” to your duty of being historically informed when the price has been halved.  Plus, I already knew a bit about the genocide.  How disturbing could it possibly be?

Oh gosh.  What did I know?

I was sensible enough to save it for the end of the Siem Reap trip.  While sitting, bored, in the airport terminal in the bright morning light I felt confident.  This will be an interesting book.  This will be an insightful book.  And it was.  For the first eighteen pages, it was exactly that.

First They Killed My Father is an absolutely devastating memoir.  As one reviewer aptly put it, “it burns like a firebrand.”  I’ll tell you why.  It’s not written from the point of view of an adult woman looking back on what happened.  It’s written from the point of view of a child, because the author was a child when the events happened.  She relives it in present tense, lending a mood of immediacy, suspension and dread.  Seeing and experiencing the horrors through a child’s eyes seems beyond the pale, but that’s exactly what her story is.

Loung Ung, up until age five, has lived a charmed life in a middle class family in Phnom Penh.  She recalls fondling going for cyclo rides with her mother at the market, and her father’s loving acceptance of her unruly personality.  She had six siblings to play and mess around with.  Then one day, she comes home to her mother hurriedly packing and telling everyone else to get ready to leave their home.  Ignorant of what’s happening, five-year-old Loung repeatedly asks, “But, why?”  So might the reader who also fails to grasps the brutal absurdity that was the Khmer Rouge.  “Why?”  becomes a fairly central question in this book.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many answers.

You know a book is going to be a tough read with a title like this, especially with the adverb “first” at the beginning.  It suggests that there will also be a “then,” “next,” “after that,” and a “finally” – the family member body count is up to your imagination (I will say this much: not everyone dies!)  Even though Loung’s dad is marked for obliteration from the cover page, you can’t help but love and revere him as he wisely guides his family through the terrors for the first half of the book.  When he dies, it almost feels like your own dad has died.  When Luoung looks up at the night sky, hoping her father is watching her from the stars as she cries out, “Pa, I miss you,” every painful cathartic memory of watching The Lion King rushed back from my childhood.  The cruel senselessness of the killings and the destruction as witnessed from a child’s point of view was honestly hard for me to handle.

Luong isn’t exactly your normal five-year-old, though.  She is amazingly resilient and strong-willed, to the point that I had to wonder at times if the author was being 100% honest about her younger self’s mental abilities.  Her fighting spirit ultimately lands her in a training camp for child soldiers.  Even as she is indoctrinated with Khmer Rogue propaganda she continues to nurse her hatred for these same people who caused her family’s suffering.  Her hatred is what keeps her alive.

My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness.  Sadness makes me want to die inside.  Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life.  Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill.  

Perhaps one of the darkest moments in the book are not the tragedies that befall Luong and those around her, but a scene soon after the Vietnam invasion in which a Khmer Rogue soldier has been captured and tied up before an angry mob.  Demanding justice, the crowd declares he should die a long, painful death.  Finally, two women come forward asking to do the deed.  Both of them recognize the solider as a murderer of their families, and they want revenge.  Luong watches as the women hack the solider to death.

The frightening thing is, at this point in the narrative you feel nothing but sympathy towards the victims and wholehearted approval of as much bloody vengeance as possible.  The hatred and rage is palpable.  Absent here are any notions of forgiveness or grace from God – there are no Corrie Ten Booms nor are there repentant soldiers.  Instead of a sublime afterlife is the belief in karma: “What goes around comes around.”  It’s bleak, but it oddly makes sense because you are inside the child Luong’s head.  Considering where she’s come from and what she’s been through, anyone would hesitate to cast a stone.  Yet she does not fancy herself a hero, either.  She simply tells things as she experiences them.  The lack of pretense, of sermonizing or over-reflecting is one of the most powerful points of the book.

In the Author’s Note at the beginning, Ung informs the reader: “Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians.  If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.”

Don’t know that I can argue with that.  So that leads to the thought: “Wow, thank goodness I wasn’t living in Cambodia at that time.”  And right after that comes a smidgin of a feeling some call Survivor’s Guilt.  “Well, why wasn’t I around at that time?  Why was I spared?”

Logically I understand that I am not guilty.  There is nothing I could have done to atone or to change the situation.  The Cambodian genocide happened before I was born, in fact.  I think the guilt pops up when I ride in the back of a tuk tuk around Siem Reap, surveying the beautiful scenery and having a wonderful time when the people living here, all around me, are part of this tragic legacy that they are continuing to deal with.  The entire nation of Cambodia is essentially still suffering from PTSD, and it’s reflected in the economy and in the culture.  PTSD doesn’t go away after one generation, especially when it’s killed 2 million people.  And there are even more real kinds of aftermath in Cambodia, like land mines that continue to claim lives every year.

So is it a bad thing that I have a great and fun time while I’m in Cambodia?  Or do I need to mortify myself with history books and interviews lest I act irreverent while on holiday?  I suppose it’s a balance – there’s nothing wrong with being happy and enjoying yourself.  It’s how us humans naturally want to feel.  But it’s important to be informed of the sober realities as well.  It’s all part of the package.  And don’t forget to smile, lest you take life too seriously.  It’s how the Cambodians seem get through life these days, and they do a great job of it.


Author: 29 Books

I read novels from South Korea, Japan, England, Nigeria, and any other place that intrigues me.

2 thoughts on “Cambodia: Tourist Survivor Guilt 101”

  1. I appreciate your tactful review of a book with such horrific subject matter. You’ve managed to convey the beauty of the Cambodia you experienced yet give a voice to the ghosts that still haunt that land. Cruelty is a pervasive theme throughout our world’s history and I appreciate you making me more aware of what some of my neighbors have suffered.


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