We found Choeung Ek more or less by accident. It was on the way.
I love Southeast Asia, I always have. I am treating my mother to a road-trip from Saigon to Bangkok as a 70th-birthday present but also because I want her to love it the way I do. The trip is going well. She grew up in the tropics, and this place, with its mangos and palm trees and firecracker sun, brings her back to her childhood.
The ten-mile tuk-tuk ride to the memorial costs us five dollars round-trip. Everything here is priced in American money. Admission is five dollars per person and includes rental of a high-tech headset that serves as an audio guide for the tour. Dante had Virgil, I get this gizmo. Headsets are available in English, German, Spanish — almost in any language other than Khmer. Choeung Ek is for foreigners now.
It isn’t what I expected.
Half the area is taken up by a small lake, crowded with lilies and shaded by acacias. Birds sing and zip across the mirror-finish water. The grounds are mostly grassy meadows. One section, like much of western Indochina, remains dimpled by bomb craters. Whitish butterflies rest on long stalks of grass, then flutter off.
Once an orchard, Choeung Ek became a Chinese cemetery for a while. Those graves are mostly gone now, or at least the gravestones are gone. Still, I can imagine the peace of mourning here: a family encircles the grave site, holding a portrait of the departed. They burn joss-sticks and stacks of ersatz currency: their ancestor will be not only honored but prosperous in the afterlife.
From the earthen dike that forms the west end of the little lake, I can see a rolling valley of farms and rice patties, now lit brilliantly by the setting sun. My camera is slung around my neck, of course. I’m supposed to be a tourist, but I can’t bear to take a picture, not here. What could I do with the photo? Show it to my friends? “Here. See this? You’d never know...” I want to say something to my mother, but I don’t. She is quiet too and she takes my arm and we walk along the chain-link fence that separates Choeung Ek from the neighboring fields.
Two children are standing in the weeds on the other side. They beg through the fence. The girl must be about six, she’s missing her upper incisors. The boy is younger, still a toddler. We give them a dollar — probably more than their parents earn in a day — and we take their picture. The toddler grips the fencing with one pudgy hand.
ARTICLE CONTINUES ON NEXT PAGE