Disembarking at Kampong Chhnang, we were received by little local girls bearing flowers and intricately folded leaves. A team of rickety carts awaited, each pulled by a pair of oxen. The animals seemed well-fed enough, but they had curiously flappy skin hanging from their necks. With two passengers per cart, our group became a slow-moving caravan that attracted much attention as we trundled along past rice paddies and new houses being built on stilts.
We reached the temple a bit behind schedule, so the monks had already eaten, but local women were already preparing rice noodles for their next meal. We received a water blessing from a bespectacled monk, who tied bright colored strings to our wrists (left for women, right for men) that are meant to be kept on for at least three days.
Once back on the ship we stopped at nearby Koh Chen island, where the prominent local industry is metal smithing - particularly copper and silver. We entered one household workshop where several family members, male and female, used mallets against various tools on thin sheets of metals, expertly lending the medium spectacular shapes and designs.
Walking further into the village, all the while drawing the curious eyes of the local children, we met Oum Son Thon, an 82 year-old Khmer Rouge survivor and math teacher. Seated on the wooden pews of in his outdoor classroom like pupils from a bygone era, we listened to his experience under the Pol Pot regime, a time of fear and terror, which set the tone for the following day.
Having reached Phnom Penh, one of our first excursions was out to the Killing Fields - the only preserved mass grave site out of over 400 used by the Khmer Rouge. Some of the graves on site have been excavated. Every year with the rains the mass graves get shallower; upon visiting one can see scraps of cloth from the victims' clothing protruding from the soil, and occasionally bones and teeth too.
A puppy and its mother frolicked near the tree adorned with bracelets, where soldiers smashed babies against the trunk before killing their mothers. Another grave is demarcated, this one for the headless bodies of Khmer Rouge soldiers given the ultimate punishment. A large 'stupa' contains skulls and remnants recovered from the excavation; a memorial for the lives lost where one can buy incense and flowers.
Back in the capital city we stopped at what was formerly the S-21 Jail, now a museum. Here we met several other survivors - one, a boy recovered by the Vietnamese army when they stormed Phnom Penh, the other two adults who'd been imprisoned, tortured and interrogated. They've returned to this place of trauma to share their stories.
Cambodia seems a place of inherent tension working toward reconciliation; where former Khmer Rouge leaders run the current government and live side by side with those whose families were killed by the regime. We hear multiple times that the latter often would like nothing more than to exact revenge, but the prospect of a life sentence stops them.
Reflecting on all of the lives lost and families shattered, I am grateful to have known three of my four grandparents; to have grown up without fear. My country is not perfect but, then, whose is?