After a very busy and emotionally exhausting week, we all enjoyed a chance to get out of Phnom Penh and see a bit of the countryside. We went to Prey Veng, which is about two hours by bus from Phnom Penh. We were hosted there by Pastor Noun Visal from the the Prey Veng Christian Center. This was a wonderful connection made for us by Mennonite Central Committee in Cambodia. We were also pleased to be able to connect with Vince and Tyler, who are MCC workers in Prey Veng Province. They are both from North America. Pastor Visal showed us around the city of Prey Veng and then took us to a lovely spot overlooking the Mekong River floodplains. Each student packed their own picnic lunch, and we all ate by the water. After lunch, we had a chance to look around town or head back to our guest house and relax. Later in the afternoon we went out to a small grouping of shrines on an island outside of town. It was a lovely setting full of beautiful, old trees, surrounded by rice paddies and fishing ponds. Most excitingly, there were monkeys! The students were both intrigued by and scared of the monkeys and their antics. The monkeys seemed to have similar feelings about us. Fortunately, bananas helped break the ice and we had some up close and personal moments with the monkeys (but not too close).
After the monkeys left (read: bananas ran out), we had a chance to hear from Pastor Visal about his conversion to Christianity, what it is like to be a Christian in a predominantly Buddhist country, and to learn about his local church. In addition, he was able to share the story about his family’s experience during the Khmer Rouge period, when he lost a number of his immediate family members. He spoke about how his Christian faith has helped him and his family to heal from the pain, trauma and loss they experienced. We enjoyed the opportunity to worship at Pastor Visal’s church on Sunday morning, and the SSTers were able to share a song with the congregation.
Pain, trauma and loss. This was a major theme this week as we grappled with the Khmer Rouge period. Students expressed their dismay at the “touristification” of the Khmer Rouge sites. It was hard to see large groups of tourists taking selfies in front of the mass graves at the Killing Fields, and the gift shop at Tuol Sleng seemed particularly inappropriate. On the other hand, some expressed their gratefulness that Cambodians are willing to share this part of their past so that people will know what happened, and so that history does not repeat itself. We spoke about how the audio tracks at the Killing Fields set an appropriately reverent tone, and helped us learn even more about this horrific period in Cambodian history. We will all be changed forever by what we learned and saw this past week.
One last thing that happened since our last post was a chance to go to the Extraordinary Chambers of the Cambodian Courts (ECCC) on Thursday. At the ECCC, a team of Cambodian and UN lawyers/judges are prosecuting the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge and others who committed the most grave crimes against humanity during that time. When we arrived at the court, which is located outside of Phnom Penh in a specially built courthouse, we only knew that we would be meeting with Mr. Neth Pheaktra, the communications director of the court. When we arrived, we were told that we would also be able to sit in on the testimony of one of the Khmer Rouge survivors. It was fascinating to hear the cross-examination of this man who had lost his entire family, including his wife, children, parents, brother, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews. The most moving part though, was when at the end, the chief judge told the survivor he had the opportunity to tell his story to the court. It was powerful to hear this, and we felt especially privileged to be able to hear his account of what happened to him during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Back to tonight. Our trip to Prey Veng ended with a wonderful lunch at a popular Cambodian market and picnic spot outside of Phnom Penh. Maria, one of our Cambodian assistants, took us to a spot where there were bamboo huts suspended over a lake. We sat on mats or laid in hammocks, ordered food from a nearby Khmer restaurant, and waited for our delicious lunch to arrive. We had fun spending time together, enjoying the breeze, and relaxing in this uniquely Cambodian spot before heading back into town to return to our families.
This coming week promises to be exciting, as we head north to Siem Reap. Here, among other things, we will be visiting the amazing Angkor Wat temples, lakes and preserved forest.