On an overcast morning at Wat Kampong Tralach, Chin Sen walked up from behind me while I was peeking at the bones. I tried not to gape rudely when his face came up to mine, but I couldn’t help being momentarily hypnotized by the two beady, bloodshot eyes looking at me, or the two very, long grey hairs sprouting from the mole on his chin. (I had flashbacks of the hairy moles prominently sported by fictional characters like pensive emperors in Mandarin dramas on television, or non-fictional characters like my Vietnamese grandfather.) Chin Sen didn’t seem to detect the thoughts in my head. He took the keys in his hands and unlocked the dirty glass door that led me into the genocide memorial at Kampong Tralach, located down the road from a roundabout with the statue of a white horse, between Kampot and Kep along Cambodia’s southern coast.
The memorials I had seen before also contained the remains of genocide victims, but this one was the first I had been to that had a clear, open space to stand in and traverse. In hindsight, I realize I was in the deconstructed version of an exposed, mass crypt. But that reality did not faze me at the time. After I asked Chin Sen if I could enter and he gestured an affirmative nod, I just strolled right in, camera in hand, without hesitation. Did I ruminate on the fact that there were arm and leg bones arranged like a box of Q-tips to my left, and skulls stacked like a display of apples to my right? No. Did I meditate on how I was in the presence of genocide victims? No. During the one second it took for me to cross the memorial’s threshold, these questions did not cross my mind. Does this concern me? No. I do not believe I am acting ignorant, lacking sympathy, or being disrespectful. I just believe I am learning how to be in a Khmer relationship with Death these days. Chin Sen seemed to be in one, and it looked something like this:
- Hang out with Death
- Sleep next to Death
- Look after Death
Like many other genocide memorials, the remains at Wat Kampong Tralach were discovered and exhumed from mass graves found nearby. The mass graves here were located some meters directly in front of the memorial. The area was filled with dirt, lumpy and concaved, overgrown with grass, sprinkled with debris. Chin Sen raised his arms over it as he answered my questions. He knew the area well. He hung out with Death frequently.
We walked back to the memorial, a small purple building around which saffron-frocked young monks were huddled. The colors stood boldly against the backdrop of the overcast Cambodian coastal sky. As we approached Chin Sen pointed to the memorial’s door and said he spent nights there sometimes, sleeping on a mat. So he slept next to Death too. We then wrapped up our conversation and he took out his collection of keys and locked the memorial back up again. These were the keys to all of the buildings on the site of the temple. He was the caretaker. It was his responsibility to look after Death as well.
I asked him if he was scared, being so close to the graves and the memorial, breathing and dreaming next to the bones at night. He said no, Cambodians are not afraid of those kinds of things. I wasn’t surprised. I was thinking about how my family back in Phnom Penh related to Aunt Sumpha’s body after she died. They did not shirk away or get spooked. They drew close to her and tenderly respected her just as much as if she was living, if not even more. Death in the Cambodian Buddhist paradigm is not something as dark and mysterious and fearful as it is in modern popular Western culture. I can’t think of many Americans I know who would be nonchalant and comfortable with cuddling up atop a tombstone in a cemetery, but Chin Sen had absolutely no problem with it. This is the memorialization process that had taken place for him: he drew close to Death, it became ingrained in his daily reality, membered into the normalcy of his mundane routines. The history of the genocide was not a spectacle for him to gawk at, something with which to be distant and socially awkward. He had broken it in, settled into it. He had become Death’s companion and guardian.