Seeing the past up close
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 01:09
Textbooks have a way of sucking all the excitement out of history.
They take an event like the politically inspired costume party which vandalized a cargo of tea boxes and boil it down to a bland list of facts and dates. Taking history out of the classroom makes the past more vivid.
In 1979 the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. It told the people that the United States was going to bomb the city and that everyone had to evacuate.
The city was emptied and the people were poured into agricultural communes or prisons where they were tortured and eventually killed.
It is surreal to think about the war as you walk through current- day Phnom Penh. You can’t look in any direction without seeing a crowd, and the traffic is insane. I once crossed the six-lane road not because I wanted to, but because there was a local guy crossing. I was too chicken to try it by myself, so I mimicked his steps through the traffic just in case I wanted to see what was on the other side.
During the rest of my trip I visited museums and saw the sites where many atrocities took place. In Siem Reap I stumbled upon a landmine museum that displays the weapons and mines that were used during the war and spent a month volunteering as a tour guide. I learned the history and what’s more, I felt it.
Before I left the United States, I only had a vague concept of what the Khmer Rouge was and I think more of that came from pop culture than from a classroom. By the time I left Cambodia I could recite the history and throw in some anecdotes I had heard first-hand from people who had been there.
In a classroom my eyes tend to glaze over and my brain wanders off, but when you’re in the place where an event happened you get an echo of the people, and the emotions they experienced there. History books should be looked at more as a guide to places worth checking out; they do not compare to seeing history up close.