A Must Read: The Angkor Complex, Killing Fields through the Eyes of my Guide Sopal
Diary Entry: February 2012
How I wish I have recorded all my conversations with Sopal on a tape. This way I can just write and post everything verbatim. The problem also is whether I would like to publish his name. Not that it’s a dangerous thing to do but just to protect his identity. There are certain episodes of our conversations when he became a little bit emotional. Understandable, but I was under the impression that his whole life made him a little bit stoic, yet open to reforms, unfazed but consistent with his ideals of what a society should be.
Sopal was my guide during my recent visit to the famous Angkor complex in Cambodia. He just turned 30, and because of the nearness of our ages, we really bonded so well. He was so passionate in telling the history of Angkor and being a history buff myself, the whole trip was just a big classroom, where we just talked and discussed things in the air, talking about life in Cambodia, the people, beliefs and most of all, the recent past that marred the nation.
There are guides who can be quite reserved, knowledgeable but lack the inner voice. But with Sopal, I felt his sincerity, his honesty and maybe a dose of bravery as he discusses history, as it happens, in his very eyes.
Sopal was born a year after that infamous Khmer Rouge genocide, where nearly 300, 000 citizens were killed, naming it “Killing Fields” And even after that, it took a great deal of time for the Cambodians to regain themselves, to get back to their lives and start again. He was born in a small village close to Siem Reap but later moved to Phnom Peng for his University degree. He finished Business Administration and Tourism and later worked in an advertising company. Then, he joined a Buddhist Monastery and became a monk for a year and this he attributed the reason why he became a guide.
Call it destiny but he passed the licensure exam for guides with flying colors. Being a guide, a freelance in fact, he can control his time and even concentrate on some projects he is so actively involved with. This he told me his charity work, where he gathers and invites the finest and intelligent girls in villages and sends them to school. This way, they could be a productive member of the society. He was very honest that most girls don’t go to school and just being groomed in becoming housewives. Being married to a schoolteacher himself, he particularly believes that education will surely change lives.
Sopal lived with his aunt while growing up. From the age of nine till he turned 18, he didn’t see his parents. It was the arrangement and strictly imposed by his father. They had to leave the village and get an education. He had to live far from his sister and neither one of them will communicate with each other, lest be detected by some traitors in their village. There was even a time when the Khmer Rouge invited his father for a small talk, to bring back his son from Phnom Peng, to prevent further capitalist intrusions and be a productive member of the Khmer Rouge regime. His father gently replied, “I don’t know where my son is and whether he was still alive”.
Sopal’s family suffered a lot during the Khmer Rouge regime. Two of his uncles from his father side died in the killing fields. One uncle from his mother side suffered the same fate. He even described how bullets were so precious and long bamboo sticks were used instead. His little brother accidentally steeped into a landmine and only both legs were brought back home.
To date, there are still thousands of landmines scattered all over Cambodia. The sad part is we don’t know where these landmines are. There was never a blue print of the exact location. Sopal made a joke that it only took a dollar to make a landmine but thousands of dollars maybe of finding each one of them. There are always incidents where farmers were killed because of these landmines. And because the wife never got an education, it was really hard for a woman to learn a skill or anything at all, just so she can feed the family that got affected with these horrible landmines.
As I listen to him the whole day, I realized how brave he was in telling his story. It maybe a bit distorted, maybe some opinions may hurt other people, but he was at least honest. He was beyond honest to a point of telling me things that a normal guide wouldn’t tell his clients. He was not angry, in fact, he embraces the sad reality of a Cambodian society. To borrow his words, this is the face of Cambodia.
And to end our conversations, he brought me to a place where all the skulls of those who died in different killing fields were placed in a temple stupa. I just couldn’t look at it. It made me teary-eyed, it made me cry and just simply uttered a small prayer. I remember his words, “There are only few intellectuals left in this country and slowly recovering. There are only few of us, with my age, who are educated. The Killing Fields did not only kill professionals but also killed hopes and dreams. I want as many kids in different villages to get an education, even until high school. This will change their lives”
I left Cambodia with a heavy heart. It was truly a magical place with so much history. Soon I’ll write about the Angkor complex. I just felt like writing a story about my guide first who revived a seemingly forgotten fragment of my past. We have things in common. So many, in fact.
He said a lot of things that maybe some history books wouldn’t agree on. But that’s the problem with history. It always depends on who is writing it. But at the end of the day, you always follow what your heart says. The sad part is sometimes, we fought for what we believe in, even to the bitter end. Or is it really sad after all?
—— from one of the pages of my Diary.