This winter, we went to Cambodia and Thailand. With only three weeks in total, we ended up visiting Cambodia for only a little more than a week. Barely long enough to appreciate the beauty of the temples and the tropical countryside, and far too short to understand the miracle of traveling through a country that was shook by such violence in recent history. I read Under the Banyan tree while we were there, hoping that it would help me to understand the country a little better.
Our first stop was Siem Reap and when we arrived, greeted by the warm sun and the Palmyra palm trees that are so abundant there, the country felt much more peaceful and serene than the history chapters of our guide book suggested.
50% of Cambodia’s population today are under 25 . Those who are 40 today, not that much older than we are, have lived through the terror of the Red Khmer regime, under whose reign from 1975 to 1979 an estimated 25% of the country’s population were killed and many more starved to death.
Under the Banyan tree by Vaddey Ratner is a novel, inspired by the author’s memory of her childhood under the Red Khmer, enriched by historical facts and simplified were necessary. It’s the story of 7-year old Raami, whose family is driven out of the capital Phnom Penh immediately after the Khmer Rouge take over – a regime that considered city people inferior to peasants, abolished machines and education, and forced everyone into manual labour.
Seeing Phnom Penh today, where senior citizens take dance classes on the streets like in China, and where teenagers showcase their dancing skills on the streets like in South Korea, it was difficult to imagine deserted streets.
As Vaddey Ratner’s book continues, Raami, like most Cambodians at the time, looses members of her family. Her mother’s grieve upon loosing Raami’s younger sister seemed, if possible, even worse in contrast with the affection for their children young mothers and fathers show in Phnom Penh today. Everytime we passed by the ballon vendors on the street, a parent was buying one for their child.
The book isn’t perfect. Raami’s reflections often sound very advanced for her age. And even though the author tries, especially at the beginning of the book, she doesn’t evoke the same magic that the best of her trade conjure up in their tales. Plus, it is of course hard to read about this part of Cambodia’s history through the eyes of a child. But it is still a gentler introduction than the mandatory visit to the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh.