This post originated as a whirlwind of emotion that I typed out quickly on my Facebook account. We had just spent 3 day with Mr. Nok, running around the temples and the surrounding areas. Not only did he teach us the amazing history of the Khmer people, but also wove his own personal story amongst the modern day history of Angkor Wat. From how he used to run around the sacred temples as a child, joyfully playing as his parents prayed, to harrowing details of how the Khmer Rouge used Angkor as a strong hold, cutting access off for locals, and shelling the nearby villages with artillery. Mr. Nok’s story touched us deeply, as his story of survival during war, famine, and disease put our own lives into a new perspective.
Read below as I recount his truly inspirational story:
Mr. Nok, our tour guide for our first week in Siem Reap, had his grandfather, a village leader, his father, a professor, and mother taken away from their home and killed. Two of his younger siblings as children were killed by an American door gunner on a helicopter in the middle of the night. His childhood friends were killed during school from Khmer Rouge shelling from their position at Angkor. He and his remaining siblings fought off famine, disease, and vermin to survive. He barely spoke for 5 years because they would kill those that were suspected of being educated. He knew how to make palm juice (and wine), and scale up a palm tree at 17 and that’s how he fed his family – with sugar. He was enlisted as an army nurse at 20 during active modern warfare until the end of the war in 1998.
Once the war ended? He met the people, who he knew, people they loved, who killed his parents. He told us that when he went to meet with them for the first time since the end of the war, they were shaking, they didn’t know what he would do. He took their hands and told them not to worry, that he forgives them, and that all they can all do is move forward and try to forget the horror they all went through.
This reminded me of the Voices of Reconciliation project by Jeremy Cowart where he photographed those involved in the Rwandan genocide with the surviving members of families that they killed. It also reminded me of Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” All of this felt very far away until I met Mr. Nok. He was very cheerful, happy, and frank with life and his unique perspective has changed my outlook. I didn’t expect any of this, since I genuinely knew so little about Cambodian history.
This has been in my head for the past week, bouncing around. There are reasons I wrote this out tonight, but I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet because I’m not quite sure about it myself. Anyway here’s a picture of Jonathan and Mr. Nok because he’s awesome. His 3 daughters are university educated, so, that’s pretty incredible.
It was an absolute pleasure and honor to meet him. One of the first things he said to us when we first met was “Thank for you for hiring a tour guide.” When we consider how we can make a difference in the communities that we visit, it’s always simple to overlook how important tourism dollars can be. For $35USD you can hire a tour guide through any hotel and you’ll have access to a reputable guide who’ll show you amazing sights, as well as give you insightful details about the architecture, art and ancient legends that were so crucial to the ancient Khmer people. These are trained and educated professionals and I 100% recommend it!