Today we have arrived in Da Nang after spending the past week travelling through Cambodia. I am excited to meet with the representatives of the Da Nang University as well as the two schools we will be spending time in this week to find out about our placements. We have only been here for several hours, and already we are seeing a big difference between Thailand and Cambodia, which were very tourist-centred countries, and Vietnam, which is not so. In Thailand and Cambodia many more people would approach us on the streets asking where we were from and if we wanted a taxi, a tuk-tuk, or to buy something. In Vietnam, we are not approached nearly as much, and we can wave away unwanted sales with much more ease.
The week we spent in Cambodia was beautiful and very culturally rich. We spent several days in Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat. I highly recommend bringing books about the region to all travellers that go anywhere in the world! In our first day of being in Cambodia I read “First they Killed My Father”, the story of a Pol Pot regime survivor, and I purchased a history of Angkor Wat. Here are some fun things I learned about Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples: Angkor Thom was the largest known settlement complex of the pre-industrial era. The construction of Bayon, one of the temples in Angkor Thom heralded the rise of Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion of the Khmer Empire. Most of the temples were designed to look grander through proportional reduction architecture - stairs narrow towards the top, carvings reduce in scale. Interestingly enough, the stairs in our hotel are build the same way, with the height of each stair decreasing 1/3 between floors.
While in Siem Reap, we fell in love with Phare, the Cambodian circus! It was intimate, lively, incredibly authentic, and a very wonderful experience. This circus is part of a performing arts school that provides free education for youth from tough life situations. Every year they provide free education to 1,200 youth and graduate 150 professional artists! All the music is live and the performers are so genuinely excited to perform! The shows the circus puts on often discuss challenging topics, such as bullying, alienation, and self-discovery, but they also have very funny shows, and we got to see one of each. The funny show we saw was called Same Same but Different, a phrase commonly used in Thailand and Cambodia to describe the similarities and differences between the culture of locals and that of tourists. I have fully adopted this phrase, and have even purchased a shirt with the saying. It is very useful when comparing cultures in conversation.
We also checked out the Le Chantiers Écoles, a part of the same organization as the Phare circus, which provides students from impoverished villages free education and career opportunities in the arts. All of the artists are trained in more than one craft, and their talent is incredible! We got to tour the workshops and see wood carving of statues out of wood and stone and silk paintings, each of which takes 3-4 weeks to complete. We also saw some metalworking, pottery making, and jewelry making. The school even has a silk farm and artists who weave, dye, and paint on the silk.
Before moving on to Vietnam, we spent several days in Phnom Penh, where we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields to learn about perhaps the most grim period in Cambodian history. Tuol Sleng was a former school where innocents were brutally and systematically tortured, and the killing fields saw tens of thousands of innocents buried in mass graves. One out of every four Cambodians lost their lives during Pol Pot’s regime (approximately 2 out of 8 million citizens). The book “First they killed my father” along with internet research helped me repare for this visit, so it was not quite as shocking as it would have been while listening to the audio guides on both tours. As the guide said, we now share the responsibility of passing on these stories, so that humanity never forgets the horrors that occurred here. We remember so that it does not happen again.
As a soon-to-be-teacher, I felt a lot of respect for the Cambodian people when I learned that all high school students learn about the Pol Pot regime and the genocide. Many classes from around Cambodia are provided with scholarships to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing fields. I feel that in Canada, we learned about wars, Japanese camps, and residential schools that are part of our history, but we are very distanced from it. Students do not get to experience these locations first hand, and the flexibility of teaching the content means that not all students have a teacher that truly emphasized the importance of knowing about such things. In Canada, I struggle with the notion that we are asked to teach about unjust actions of the past, but the culture of schools and of Canada in general always tends to coat everything in a layer of protective padding because of potential “triggers” and the tendency towards conflict avoidance. I find that we are also quite polarized in terms of our approach to many issues - either we refrain from holding anyone accountable, or we point our finger of blame and assign sole and full responsibility. The attitude of the guide at the museums and the history books when it came to the Cambodian genocide was admirable - atrocities happened, and they were terrible, but they are in the past and we cannot change anything now, so let’s work to make sure they are not forgotten, so that this does not happen again. They are not bitter, they are not vengeful, they are not angry. I am sure that they have such moments, but this is not their root emotion when they talk or teach about it. I think this philosophy of letting go of the past and living well in the present definitely stems from the Buddhist religion prominent here. Coming from Canada, where a lot of issues are always hot-topic and get people on all sides of all debates get very angry and intense, I really appreciate the calm, rational, and constructive mentality of the Cambodians.
View from our hotel in Siem Reap.
Phare, Cambodian Circus.
Artisans of Angkor silk painting workshop
Silk worm coccoons being unwoven
Artist polishing stone carving with water
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum