By Bethany Wells
For some of us it is the halfway point of our trip, others are nearing the end, and there is much to process. We have just arrived in the southernmost region of Cambodia, an incredibly lush, serene, tropical and rural area near Kep. A stark contrast to the bustling city of Phnom Penh where we spent the last week. I am grateful for this moment to reflect as I feel full to overflowing with stories, information, connections, beauty, sadness, confusion, helplessness, and guilt… the weight of it all.
Some of our original plans in Phnom Penh had fallen through and I was nervous about the lack of direct “client contact” hours, as I am eager for experience in the field of cross-cultural art therapy. However, in the way that life and adventures like these unfold, I was reminded of the importance of trusting the unknown; trusting what needs to arrive.It turned out to be a wildly educational and deeply impactful week. With the wide range of experiences I was in a constant dance- contracting and expanding, expanding and contracting, feeling my heart break open with stories of suffering and tragedy, and then watching it soar with every inspirational person who crossed our path, bravely speaking their truth, helping others to grieve and heal, and actively working to change things. We have met many people who despite what they have lived through, and what they hear about and witness on a daily basis, haven’t lost their light, joy or humor. These are my heroes, my guides.
We visited Choeng Ek, or “The Killing Fields”, where over 20,000 men, women and children were brutally executed. We walked through Tuol Sleng, or “S-21”, the largest security prison in Cambodia, which was used for detaining and torturing people. Visiting the National Museum and the Royal Palace revealed more information about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, as well as Cambodia’s current political system, the significance of spirituality, relevance of ritual, and connection to the past. It is fascinating to be in a place where every single individual is so presently affected by war.
While exploring this energetic city and eating on the river front we were confronted with the deeply disturbing and largely enigmatic industry of sex tourism, and intense poverty. To further our research several of us went to a “girly bar” on a strip that men frequent in search of Cambodian prostitutes. We sat at the corner of the bar and shared a pitcher of beer, knowing we would be uncomfortable which is okay; it is after all why we’re here. After many young, heavily made-up women scoped us out and determined we were not their usual customers, they offered us board games like Connect Four and Jenga, and proceeded to mercilessly beat us at them. They also laughingly taught us Khmer dance moves and made fun of us because our hands didn’t bend the way theirs did. Most of the girls actually seemed to be enjoying themselves, though this appearance could be well trained. There was one girl however that I felt especially curious about. It was her first night there and she looked miserable. She tried to fake flirtation and enthusiasm but her eyes just kept looking off, her thoughts far, far away. I wanted so badly to hear her story but the language barrier kept us from sharing in words. All the girls were touching us, asking if we wanted massage, playing little games like “I got your nose”, but this particular woman just took my hand and held it to her heart for what seemed like hours. Her face was so sad. All my wonderful Naropa mindfulness techniques came to the surface and I was able to just be there with her, even though I felt rage, felt sick, felt so lost and helpless, felt guilty, felt all kinds of things, but with her heart in my hand I had a surreal calmness and strength which is why I believe we shared a quiet connection throughout the night.
We have seen lots of men, old and young, wealthy and not, mostly from the states and Europe, expressions of power, excitement, hunger, arousal, entitlement on their faces. It’s maddening. Knowing what we know of the trafficking and prostitution industry here, the connections we made with the women at CWCC, my emotions range from compassion to outrage and everything in between. I am constantly recognizing my privilege, how different my life has been, how different the roles offered and expected of me, and how important it is to not only be a witness, but to connect deeply to what I am seeing, and use my privilege through whatever methods or outlets I have to help facilitate lasting and effective change.
In addition to seeing the dark and grim realities of many Cambodians, we had several fascinating and inspirational visits with people who are actively involved in making things better, and are enthusiastic about collaboration with NCAS-I. Arn Chorn-Pond was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970’s. I just finished reading Never Fall Down, a book about his life, upon arriving to his rural hut on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. His experiences are utterly unfathomable, and his story is one of profound courage, intelligence, generosity and resilience. He is perhaps the single most beautiful person I have ever met. To be in the presence of someone who has lived through unthinkable inhumanity and witness his ability to suspend judgment, his capacity for forgiveness, and his seemingly inexhaustible positivity inspires me to never ever complain about my life again.
In addition to Arn, we had the great fortune of meeting Carrie Herbert, who runs Ragamuffin International, a mental health center in Phnom Penh. Carrie has a perspective, vibrancy, and way of being in the world that is captivating and restorative. We met with her for a morning of professional supervision and art making after our time spent at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center and some of these more difficult activities. With care and grace she offered support for the grief we are experiencing for those who cannot hold their lives with choice, for those who had no say in the time or the way they died, and for those who don’t have the privilege of making meaning of it. Always reminding us to live with intention, and incorporating ritual, honor and connection to everything we are witnessing and learning about. I would love to come back here and work with her for the invaluable wisdom she has to offer.
No matter what horrors I learn about in this country, with the women at CWCC, with Arn, at the Killing Fields, with the poverty and injustice I see all around me—I still see smiling, happy faces everywhere I look. After learning about the multiple layers of trauma, I expect to see hardened, hurting, angry faces. Instead, in the cities I have visited, in the people I have encountered, there is brightness, openness, contentment and laughter. Generosity, sweetness, bravery, and vitality. I am floored and inspired by the human capacity for resilience. With every story of pain and suffering there is one of courage and survival. I am constantly striving to employ a larger perspective, not denying the shadow, but recognizing the depth and complexity of trauma and holding the darkness alongside the light.
In order to work with survivors of severe trauma, we must go to very deep places within ourselves. Carrie posed these questions which I am continuing to think about: What is this information, this visceral experience of witnessing the horrifying inhumanity of others bringing up in my own history? How can I let it connect to that place in myself? She reminded us of the importance of always remembering our lineage and the generations we are connected to, our country’s presence here. The importance of using art to give voice to the skulls and teeth rising up to the earth’s surface, and the bodies of women who are forcibly used for men’s pleasure. As an emerging therapist I will continue exploring the space between dissociation and over-identification; diving into the depths of the ugliness while not forgetting the strengths in myself, the support of those who are alongside me, and those who have gone before me.
Please note that while individual members have varying views on topics discussed in our blog, NCAS-I as a whole honors multiple perspectives, within respectful reason, and does not aim to censor material shared in our blog writings. So please keep this in mind while reading our blogs. And please feel free to add your perspective too.