We are watching the last Cambodian climb into the back of a truck at the other end of the street. He loads slowly, slinging his gun to his back, looking around one last time, then lifting himself into place, keeping one hand always on the gun strap. The truck is loaded with kids of all ages ready for battle. In this makeshift tank, the gunner stands behind the cab, his gun ready to shoot oncoming victims and made to swivel on his left hand, which is made into a fist under the gun. The others in the back of the truck, and there are many, face outward to protect the gunner at all costs.
As the truck comes toward us, we’re not sure wether to stand our ground or take cover. We freeze, unable to come up with a defense. We put our hands in the air in surrender, but they smile, pull their guns up to their shoulders, look us in the eyes, and shoot. We die laughing and the truck speeds away with cheering kids celebrating their victory. One kid shot Taylor right in the mouth and my hair is drenched from the well-aimed bucket of water to my face. Today is Khmer New Year, celebrated in Cambodia with city-wide water wars and we have been caught in the cross-fire.
In Siem Reap, every street is lined with families loaded with artillery. Mothers fill water gun tanks from refill buckets at their storefronts and mercilessly strike open vehicles passing by. Tuk-tuks load up with six or seven people and an artillery of guns, balloons, and 5-gallon buckets of water for drive-by shootings. Motorbikes hold three to five people, each with his/her own gun and backpack-water-tank. Everyone is smiling and we can’t help but laugh with them and enjoy the cool water that hits us from all angles as we pass through on our way to visit the ancient temples of Angkor.
Cambodian people are the kindest, most fun-loving group I’ve ever met. I take heed, though, not to mistake their kindness as an indifference to their troubled past and their uncertain future. In lieu of New Years celebrations 42 years ago, Cambodians witnessed instead the heartache of a different kind of war. A much more real one. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over power in Cambodia, forced everyone out of the cities and into the fields, and commenced to killing intellectuals, resistors, babies, and anyone who was too weak or to work in the fields in their new, agrarian society.
Our tuk-tuk driver, Lee, tells us that his mother and father were killed in front of his eyes when he was only 17 years old. “This is a fun holiday,” he says,” but for me is very sad.”
Lee takes us to visit his friends who are celebrating New years in the shade by the river. With all the hospitality that makes Cambodia such a wonderful place, they offer us a seat on their picnic mat, cold beers, grilled meats, and homemade cheese and hot sauce. The woman next to me wants to try on my sunglasses and we all laugh as she poses to look cool in the fake RayBans. She encourages me to finish my beer by making me cheers with her each time I bring my can away from my face. She gets me another beer and more grilled meat and more smiles.
This woman, too, must be a survivor of the reign of the Khmer Rouge, which ransacked Cambodia’s monuments, history and people in an attempt to make a marxist, rural society without class, religion, or money. There is no destruction behind her eyes, though. She smiles and laughs, as do the children as they come to the group, dripping wet from water fights and dips in the river.
“The New Year now is for restart; everything can start new” Lee says as he pantomimes with his hands open palmed above his head as if they are water falling onto him. Water is used for cleansing in religious rituals in all of recorded history and the Khmer New Year water fight traditions started in much the same way. Traditional cleansing of the head, body, and feet has eventually turned into an all-out water brawl which shuts down whole streets of large cities.
Another tuk-tuk driver, Kem, tells us that he doesn’t want days off. He needs to work because his wife and his children always need money. His kids, ages 10, 8, and 5, cannot go to school because they can’t afford books or uniforms. We hadn’t come to Cambodia in search of history or politics. We’d come to marvel at the temples of Angkor Wat, drink 50 cent draft beers, and seek shade by the hotel pool. The Cambodian people, though, are far too accommodating, too agreeable, and too imperiled for us not to take notice in the real matters of their country. I see the perils of Kem’s family in the eleven-year-old Ella who sold me ten post cards for a dollar and in the seven-year-old Thom who was too distracted by my iPhone to care that I didn’t want to buy a bracelet from him. In Phnom Phen, children get distracted gambling while they are supposed to be selling trinkets to tourists and it seems there are more children on the streets hawking bracelets than heading to school.
Cambodia has come through a horrendous past, but their future is still uncertain. Lee and Kem share their realities in soft voices away from peers because they regularly hear about people being persecuted for speaking out about the government. Lee gives a sideways glance and instructs us not to talk around other drivers when Taylor mentions he did some research on the Prime Minister. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, speaking out against the government or their tactics was instant suicide. People learned to become quiet observers and to trust no one. While there seems to be a carry-over mentality, it is not misplaced. A front-page story of The Phnom Then Post reports “A woman who posted a video on Facebook of herself throwing a shoe at a Cambodian People’s Party sign featuring Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin has been summonsed by prosecutors and has gone into hiding after allegedly receiving threats.
“The younger people, they don’t understand. Many of them support Hun Sen,” explains Kem, speaking about their current Prime Minister, who first came to power as a Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge in 1970. Afraid of the internal workings of the political powers he killed for, Hun Sen fled to Vietnam, switched sides, and became Cambodia’s first leader after the Rouge. Over the past 40 years, he has continued to be elected through less-than-legitimate means.
Most Cambodians are under 30 and the young generation neither remembers the Khmer Rouge, nor has the education to understand the destruction they brought to Cambodia in the past half-century. The Cambodian Genocide has only recently been added to the school curriculum, which is hardly helpful when school is not compulsory and teachers find it dangerous to say too much about politics.
We cannot fix the problems of Cambodia, Taylor and I, with the three dollar mini guns we finally buy in an attempt to join the fight. Our guns leak as soon as we fill them, but they allow us to be part of the action. Our hotel manager’s young son waits outside of our room to ambush us with his much larger super-soaker. His giggle is infectious and it attracts his older sister. Between the two of them, Taylor and I are left with another set of drenched clothes and cheeks sore from grins.
We change again, knowing we’ll drench another outfit before we make it to dinner. Our pea-shooters are met with buckets of water and before we go a block we are dripping as if we’ve just stepped out of a swimming pool. After a family destroys us, we stand shocked and dripping in the middle of the street. The oldest woman in the family slowly approaches us, and with handfuls of baby powder, adorns our faces in white as if she is purifying the dead. She smiles her Cambodian smile and we smile, happy to be drenched and covered in white powder. We move on to combat the next family: generations of smiles happy to share with us this new year, this new start, this new chance for all of the people of Cambodia.