January in South Korea, without enough snow to close schools but just enough icy pavement to make walking treacherous, broke my spirit. For three weeks, the sun never cracked through the grey cement of the sky. I visited a tanning salon adjacent to the U.S. Army base in the hope that some vitamin D might break my foul mood. My co-worker Katie, from Wales, handled the frigid dishwater sky better than I did, and she often let me wear her winter coat as a blanket in the unheated office we shared.
With year-round classes and limited vacation time, ten days off in a row is the most an English teacher working in South Korea could hope for. Because Katie and I both worked for the public schools, we had the same vacations, eleven whole days at the end of February. We were going to find some sunshine. Katie, whose giant blue eyes made her look perpetually surprised, used our breaks at work to research travel destinations. I used my school-issued laptop to watch Battlestar Gallatica.
Based on airfares and the amount of money we’d need once in-country, Katie and I decided on Cambodia. I earned the three hundred dollars I took with me, my budget for the whole trip, in one afternoon, tutoring a group of schoolchildren for three hours off the books.
Cambodia has more than just the price to recommend it. Nearly two million tourists a year are drawn to Cambodia by the twelfth century stone temples near the northern city of Siem Reap. The hundreds of temples, often collectively called Angkor Wat, though that is the name only of the main temple closest to the admissions gate, cover a dozen square miles. We purchased a three-day pass and hired a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled taxi whose sides were open to the elements, with only bench seating and a roof), and still only saw a fraction of the ruins. Our first morning at the temples, we rounded a corner and Angkor Wat proper emerged from behind a strand of palm trees. Overcome by its beauty, I felt my eyes prickle with tears. Half a kilometer away, ten minutes on foot, the upper terrace of Bayon temple houses two hundred stone faces, each one unique, each one nearly as tall as I am.
At Ta Prohm, a temple where Mother Nature has proceeded unchecked, the trees tower above the crumbling stone arches, their roots cascading down the walls like rainwater. Ta Prohm is famous for its cameo appearance in the movie Tomb Raider. At sunset, most of the tourist flock to Phnom Bakheng, whose reflecting pool is rumored to be the best view for that time of day. Our driver brought Katie and me to Ta Prohm at sunset, and we had the entire structure to ourselves, save two monkeys and a small Cambodian child who entreated Katie and me to chase him. Giving up the hunt, we joined our driver, who had purchased us whole coconuts. The tops of the coconuts were lopped off, and there were colorful straws to drink the coconut water through. It would’ve been better with rum, but that’s a petty complaint to have about an amazing day.
Anyone in Cambodia older than thirty-six survived the Khmer Rouge, a brutal, oppressive regime that, by conservative accounts, brought about the deaths of one-third of the country’s population in less than five years. A million people starved to death, and another million were executed for being enemies of the state, often killed with pickaxes or by stoning, to conserve bullets. Of the nearly twenty thousand Cambodians who passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng Security Prison, some for no greater crime than wearing prescription eyeglasses, only twelve survived.
The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek in Cambodian, have a depressingly self-explanatory name. Prisoners who didn’t die at Tuol Sleng were taken to Cheoung Ek, hacked and beaten, then left to die. In the center of the grounds stands a memorial stupa, a Buddhist memorial, filled with the skulls of the victims. The stupa is sixty-two meters tall and contains the bones of over five thousand individuals. However, this represents only a fraction of the dead, and visitors of the site routinely find slivers of human bone jutting from the earth as they walk the grounds. The locals come here to honor their dead. They lay flowers on the stairs of the stupa, though few Cambodians know for certain the exact location of their relatives’ remains. The stupa at Cheoung Ek is simply the best they can do.
I was the one who insisted we visit the Killing Fields before returning to Seoul. “We can’t just drink the beer and ignore the past,” I lectured Katie. At our guesthouse, we’d hired a tuk-tuk to take us out to the Killing Fields in the afternoon, then on to the airport to catch our flight back to South Korea.
The lack of wind that Sunday afternoon made the sun feel doubly hot. Where the cotton of my sundress ended, the pleather of the seat stuck to my thighs. The cheap material had split from age, and the sharp tears in the vinyl covering dug into my skin. I knew when I stood my sweat-sticky flesh would want to stay behind. The Killing Fields are well past the city proper, but as the colonial building facades turned to concrete walls, and the paved roads gave way to dirt, I sensed we were being led astray. There were none of the hand-painted billboards that had encouraged us not to forget the Killing Fields we’d seen in the early minutes of the journey.
Turning his head just enough to make himself heard over the chug and whir of the tiny engine the driver said, “I will take you to an orphanage.” I shook my head and mouthed objections, but the driver turned his back before my protests could register. We were already bouncing down a nameless red dirt road, a side street farther away from either the Killing Fields or the city. Even if I had persuaded the driver to pull over and let us out, we didn’t know where we were. This stretch of road was nearly empty with no other tuk-tuks in sight.
Katie leaned forward to tap the driver’s shoulder. “Not too long, okay? A few minutes.”
“Just a few minutes,” our driver agreed, smiling.
“Goddammit, Katie,” I whispered as harshly as I could as the driver took a sharp left down a steep hill.
The road flattened out into a corrugated tin and cardboard village. Food wrappers and empty bottles littered the cracked, dry ground. Off to the side a large tin pot sat over an open flame, attended by a shirtless, shoeless child who looked no more than six. At the driver’s honk, a dozen other children emerged from behind the makeshift walls, none of them fully dressed, followed into the red dirt clearing by a young woman in her late teens. The children crowded around the tuk-tuk, reaching inside and trailing their dirty fingers over our arms and shins.
“Hello, Miss.”
“Beautiful, Miss.”
“Miss, I love you.”
I pulled my limbs closer to my body and turned my head to stare up the hill, towards where I imagined the city to be. “Come on,” the young woman entreated us, with arms outstretched. “Come see our home.”
Katie climbed out of the tuk-tuk, looking over her shoulder at me and mouthing the words Fifteen minutes. I blamed Katie for this detour, not only for agreeing but also for counting her money at a table in front of our guesthouse before we got in the tuk-tuk. She had nearly one hundred fifty dollars in tens and fives. Accepted everywhere in Cambodia, few places display prices in anything other than U.S. dollars. I believed the driver saw Katie’s ready supply of cash and figured her for an easy mark.
There are at least half a dozen good, sensible, logical reasons for tourists to avoid the orphanages in Cambodia, or any country for that matter. It confuses the children, who may form an attachment to someone they’ll never see again. Tourists have no way of knowing the real orphanages from the collections of children who are kept out of school and used to hustle up cash. Usually, no one stays in-country long enough to ensure that whatever money they’ve been persuaded to donate is actually put to good use. Both the Lonely Planet guidebook and the Cambodian government encourage donations to UNICEF instead of orphanage visits.
I wanted the glossy photos of a guidebook, the temples and the two-dollar cocktails. Instead, the ugliness of the real world threatened to taint my first vacation in a year. The “home” this young woman spoke of lacked walls or beds or indoor plumbing. The children were visibly unhealthy, scabbed and skinny, their over-large eyes speaking not of innocence, but of vitamin deficiencies. The air stank: heat and unwashed bodies, garbage and shit.
As a traveler, I have always prided myself on honoring the history of a place, bearing witness to the past. As an American, I have the luxury of imagining that history ends as neatly as the dates in a book: The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, took control of Cambodia on April 17, 1975, and ruled the country until January 1979.
History doesn’t end. It churns ever onward, and it leaves wreckage in its wake. These children needed so much: new clothes, shoes, socks, beds, school, books, indoor plumbing. Parents. In the face of so much lack, I shut down. Even the grandest of gestures seemed futile, and so I did nothing.
From the tuk-tuk, I watched as Katie counted out her wrinkled American money, placing it in the young woman’s outstretched hand, by my count about fifty dollars. From the pinch of her eyebrows, I suspected Katie was paying up to hasten our departure. This generosity, however enforced, was buying our ticket back into civilization.
Good deed done, the driver took us to the Killing Fields. Less than an acre is open to the public, with the stupa and a small museum detailing the site’s gruesome history. A small pile of bones sat in the shade of a giant tree. Next to the tree was a wooden sign: Killing tree against which executioners beat children. Khmer Rogue soldiers at Cheoung Ek swung the children of political prisoners by their ankles, cracking their skulls against the sturdy trunk.
Katie and I said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Silently we left the Killing Fields and drove towards the airport. On the way we passed a park, a wide field of green grass with a fountain in the center. Children chased soccer balls kicked by their parents or tussled with pet dogs. Vendors circulated, selling balloons and cotton candy. Stalls along the sidewalk sold freshly sliced fruit and cans of pop. Young couples played badminton, or sat on benches gently nudging each other’s shoulders. Elderly pairs used walkers and canes to keep pace with their partners.
Stopped at a traffic light, I saw all of this and I began to cry. I cried for everything: the dead and their children, the ancient temples and the anonymous bones still jutting from the ground, and for my own callous heart. I wept so profoundly I was reduced to shuddering gasps. Our driver waved over a young boy with a cooler of beverages and bought me a bottle of water.
“Hush, miss,” the boy said, pressing the bottle into my hands. “Hush. It’s okay.”

About the Author

Tristan Durst

Tristan Durst is a graduate of the MFA program at Butler University, where she served as the fiction editor for Booth. She will, no lie, step on your baby's face if there's even an 11% chance it gets her off an airplane half a minute faster.

Read more work by Tristan Durst.