I look out the window of my homestay house to see a dog lazily lying on an ox cart asleep. The sun is starting to set so he has perfectly positioned himself be to within a light beam created by a tree, warming himself with the rays. The sound of water buffalo trotting down the road is all the more atmospheric. However, my focus shifts to less idyllic images, images from the history books. The dust of 20th Century has largely settled in many ways but one must remember that this region is the most bombed area in world history and the bloodiest front of an otherwise “Cold” War. Furthermore, Cambodia had one of the worst genocides in all of history.
When you’re living on a little island, with a single road only wide enough for motorcycles and pedestrians, history seems like a distant abstraction. However, like Cambodia, Laos was pulled into the Cold War vortex which consumed most of Southeast Asia for decades. Often when I saw Cambodians above a certain age I would think about how they had must of witnessed the Khmer Rouge Year Zero apocalypse. In Lao, I think about how older Lao people must have witnessed to some extent the carpet bombing of the eastern half of the country which happened daily for nine years. However, when you talk to young people wielding their smartphones it’s hard to believe that such horrific events gripped these nations because they subscribe to the same youth culture and music tastes that you do. Furthermore, the sense of complete tranquility in these rural communities adds to the disbelief.
In many ways these violent historical events seem on a numerical timeline recent but in person distant. When you travel around both Cambodia and Laos the violent historical events of the 20th Century start to blur when you see glittering office buildings being built or huge billboard advertisements for the latest cellphone. However, when you visit the S-21 torture facility or The Killing Fields history comes back into disturbingly sharp focus. Similarly, at our hostel in Siem Riep where the inexplicable swimming pool sized craters were eventually explained to be bomb craters. History jumps from the background to the foreground and back again. Although these countries recognize the dark days of their past, I don’t believe they want those days to define the future. Both the Lao and Khmer people radiate a sense of optimism, rather than the pessimism that one would think people would possess after experiencing so many traumatic days in the past. As this region charges forward economically and the dark days recede further in the past I can only image that the violent events of the 20th Century will define these two countries and the whole region less and less. But until then it’s fascinating to see the relationship between past and present.