After four previous visits to Cambodia over the past five years, I often get asked what it is that keeps drawing me back.
When people ask me, I do talk about the ancient history, the natural beauty, the lovely people.
These things are also true of many other countries, including neighbouring Vietnam, yet I haven’t felt the same level of connection to those places.
There is something deeper that has impressed me about Cambodia and its people – and it’s related to the national psyche.
As a child in the 1970s, I remember being horrified by snatches of news stories about Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s brutal regime and later, the discovery and exhumation of mass graves.
That innocent me, not understanding what it stood for, also enjoyed the sound as it rolled off the tongue of the name Kampuchea, as the country was known then under Khmer Rouge control.
Despite these relatively recent atrocities – the virtual annihilation of the middle class and large parts of generations – Cambodia feels like an optimistic place.
I’ve never noticed people sitting around making excuses. Somehow they got back up and they seem to be making things happen.
That kind of resilience and positivity really appeals to me, as readers of pinchmyself will understand.
One of my strongest and earliest role models for this is my own mother.
During an era when the Australian Government practiced the removal of children from parents, my mother and several of her siblings were taken from their mum and dad as small children, and put in an orphanage.
My grandparents had separated and neither was deemed capable of supporting all seven kids.
I have great sympathy for those who have been damaged and broken by these sorts of experiences, and worse. I also have great admiration for those who find a way to not only survive but to emerge strong and find happiness.
My Mum stood on her own two feet from a very young age, not looking for excuses or to blame as she went on to pursue the life that she wanted with my Dad and children of her own.
I’m so proud of her for that and I’ve found that kind of attitude to life reflected in people I’ve met in Cambodia.
My first visit to Cambodia in 2008 was a work trip. I knew from that brief glimpse that I would return. The following year I went back for a holiday and did my first half marathon in Siem Reap.
I’ve returned twice since then for holidays, including to celebrate the wedding of the dear friends with whom I will stay on this visit.
It was during my second visit that I visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S21. It’s the former school in Phnom Penh that was converted to a torture chamber and jail by the Kmher Rouge regime.
People were interrogated, tortured and starved there before they were taken to the nearby countryside – now known as the Killing Fields – to be executed en masse.
When I visited, we found a local guide at the gate. This woman had lived through those terrible years and had lost her husband, who was killed by the regime, and her only daughter, who starved to death.
I didn’t make it through the first room with its torture bed before the tears were flowing. By the time I got to the gallery of innocent young faces of people who had lost their lives through this chilling place, I was distraught.
That’s when something remarkable happened. This woman, who had lost so much, reached out to comfort me. She told me how sorry she was that I was so upset by the horrors that had been perpetrated there.
I found myself apologizing back for all that she had been through and we hugged.
Can you begin to imagine the courage it must take for her to relive that era day after day?
Somehow she does, she gets on with life and makes an honest living. Most importantly for humanity, she helps us bear witness to what was done.
I think every visitor to Phnom Penh should visit these places, to understand the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on each other, to understand how these things can happen and how we might guard against them.
That’s also related to the reason I’m headed to Cambodia for my fifth visit. I want to contribute in some way to the important work that’s being done to support and protect the women and children who are subjected to present-day horrors such as abuse and exploitation.