Lesson #16: Fill your noggin with something useful


My skin is warm, my mind deliciously relaxed. I am in Nha Trang, Vietnam, coming back from a full day of coconuts and crashing waves. My eyes glance down and connect with those of a man. He is limbless, a nearly unrecognizable torso of flesh, he asks for money. I am not sure of the reason for his deformation. I assume he is a victim of agent orange, the deadly chemical that Americans poured over Vietnam killing 400,000 and deforming another 500,000.

Angkor Wat engulfs you. Monkeys scuttle around the ruins, the heat threatens to set the dusty ruins ablaze, the jungle hisses wildly adding to the tranquil music that permeates the temple walls. At the entrance to some of the temples sits Khmer men softly playing traditional Cambodian instruments, most are missing legs, some arms, but they play despite their disability. They are victims of the estimated 6 million land mines that are still killing and disabling innocent citizens all around the country.

Traveling in Southeast Asia means plenty of late nights, we are in Siem Reap, the sun has set, and passing up the .50 cent beers would just be plain silly. From one bar we mosey to another. A gaggle of 4 children swarm us, they beg for milk powder. One girl a mere eight years old holds her sick brother, the babies body is limp, its eyes partially open visibly rolling around in it’s swollen head. It has clearly been drugged to give the illusion that it is sick, ironically the drugs have made the rouse a reality.

The night market in Luang Prabang is a languid meandering maze of artisan crafts. Heaven. We spend the night shopping, bending low to more clearly glance the wares spread out on blankets that cover the cobble stone streets. A display of silver bracelets catches my eye, a small handwritten sign explaining the material use to make each bracelet. Bombs. The remnants of a secret war waged on Laos by America that left it the most bombed country in the entire world.

In 1965 the United States entered Vietnam fighting a supposed war against communism. Four million innocent civilians became statistics, their endings brutal and unethical. Quickly the war spread crossing borders into Laos and Cambodia. Laos suffered tremendously, indigenous Hmong were brutally exploited and killed. The country was devastated as 580,000 secret bombing missions were carried out. Things in Cambodia escalated as well, as the country came under threat locals saw an opportunity to rebel while the country was weak, they formed a guerrilla group today know as the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge worked to create a “pure” culture within Cambodia, one that would liberate the peasant farmers and eliminate “inequality”. The means was genocide, brutal murder, that ended up wiping out  25% of the countries population.

The reality of the recent history of Southeast Asia is hard to swallow. The privilege and power that I experience as an American is a direct result of the atrocities that my country has inflicted on less forceful nations. I can not change what has happened and I would be foolish to believe that the devastation that America caused Southeast Asia is any sort of reflection on my own character. I personally have done nothing, feeling guilty is of no use to anyone. What I do see as my responsibility is to be informed, to travel as an educated and aware individual. Why? Because when you are aware you see more. You understand the unbelievable forgiveness that people are capable of. You act with a touch more patience. You see the beauty that exists among a community and it’s ability to rebuild. You listen to stories with a more sensitive ear taking the time to think about what has not been said, what details have been spared for your comfort. You share what you have seen, what you learned, because you realize that as an individual your greatest power lies in spreading the truth, honestly sharing what you have witnessed, and inspiring someone else to learn a little more.

To better understand the atrocities that have come to pass in Southeast Asia check out these great reads:

Cambodia- First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

Cambodia- When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him

Vietnam-  The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong

Laos- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman