Much of our writing thus far has focused on the light stuff – notable places we have visited, short-term projects, photo journals – typical musings of two self-proclaimed travel writers. But our tales of South-East Asia wouldn’t be complete without touching upon some of the more serious and often shocking sights we witnessed in a region that has seen its fair share of death and destruction in recent times.
For those interested in a little bit of background, let’s start at the 1950s – turbulent times for many nations. With the Cold War splitting the world between capitalism and communism, several countries during this era descended into civil war, fighting amongst themselves over the best form of governance. In South-East Asia, things were no different and by 1955, Vietnam became embroiled in a devastating war that would last for 20 long, embittered years and drastically affect its neighboring countries.
In 1975, the Vietnam War ended but the region was far from peace. In neighboring Cambodia, this was the year that a group of communist guerrilla fighters defeated government backed forces and took control of the country. People celebrated on the streets of Phnom Penh that day the Khmer Rouge took over. Little did anyone know then that this would ultimately lead to one of the worst genocidal regimes to ever occur – one that would last for 4 years and wipe out nearly two million people along the way.
The timing of these events allowed us, as travelers, a very unique perspective. They occurred recent enough that anyone middle-aged or older actually lived through them, but old enough that governments and agencies had time to collect and document evidence in museums, memorials and visitor centers. That combined effect of first-hand encounters and comprehensive exhibits is what ultimately made our experience so incredibly powerful.
In our four months of travel, Charlie and I saw grotesque images of torture, watched chilling documentaries and walked through mass graves. But that wasn’t all. We also passed locals on the street missing limbs – victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO) or landmines that still litter this region. We shared train rides and bought goods from people with severe facial defects and deformities – a result of exposure to toxic chemicals that were used in warfare. Seeing the suffering that continues today, 40 years on – that was the worst part and what made these events so much more real to us.
In every country we visited, there are still serious warnings about venturing off well-marked paths. In many places guides are an absolute must as a step in the wrong direction can set off an unexploded bomb or landmine. For us transient folk, this just meant being careful over the few months we were there – it posed a temporary inconvenience. But for those who call this region home, this is their life. And every year thousands of men, women and especially children, almost always the poorest and least threatening, continue to lose their lives or their limbs.
Experiencing these sights was depressing and heartbreaking but also so necessary, each powerful in its own way. We had read about events like these in history books, we had watched movies about them…but nothing can quite replace the depth we gained from actually being in the affected areas ourselves. This was an important aspect of travel that we hadn’t quite planned for but one that definitely left its mark on us.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.
– John Lennon