Mike Bernhardt

Editor • Poet • Travel Writer

January 13, 2020

Hope for Cambodia

 “Rule 6. Screaming not allowed when being whipped or shocked with electricity.” —Posted sign at Tuol Sleng Prison

Our river cruise was anchored for the night in the Tonle Sap River. The crew, mostly young Cambodian men with poor English skills, were anxious to show off their substantial musical talents. After a multi-course dinner including fish curry, fried rice, and beef salad, the twenty-three passengers gathered in the outdoor lounge on the upper deck.

We listened as they sang their hearts out. Western songs by Elvis Presley, Bette Midler, and Kris Kristofferson. A few Cambodian pop hits. They sang in harmony as well as solo. One played guitar, another was a perfect showman—chin tilted up, smiling, eyes closed as he held a long, soaring note; our tour guide joked that he was going to win Cambodian Idol.

I couldn’t help thinking about how fortunate they were. A few decades earlier, singing those songs would have cost not only their own lives, but the lives of their families and friends. …