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Amanda Prom and Andy Ben, owners of the China Garden in Lander, are returning to Cambodia for the first time in 20 years. They fled when the Khmer Rouge fell from power in 1979 after enduring almost four years of horrid conditions in work camps.
Photo by Wayne Nicholls
Back to CAMBODIA - A Family's Pilgrimage
Given to Andy, Amanda and family in honor of their courageous journey through their homeland and their hearts.
On a typical Friday night, the China Garden in Lander is hopping. As customers talk between bites of moo goo gai pan and cashew chicken, Amanda Prom hurries back and forth between the dining room and kitchen, bringing out hot food, waiting on tables or slicing vegetables for her husband, Andy Ben, the cook, the couple owns the restaurant and usually logs 12- to 14- hour days, Monday through Saturday. But Prom and Ben don't mind the long hours. They feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work hard, to make a living and provide for their children, 8-year-old Alisa and 3- year-old Brandon. Forever imprinted in their minds are memories of what it's like to be hungry and exhausted, terrified and alone, and not knowing or caring when they went to sleep at night if they'd be alive to see the sun rise. They take nothing for granted, "You never know," Prom said. "You make it today; you're not going to make it tomorrow." Though Prom and Ben call Lander home, their story does not begin here or elsewhere in the U.S. It began, however, like the lives of many Americans, in a loving family with the promise of a bright future. Ben, 36, grew up in Phnom Penh with two brothers and a sister. He wanted to be a doctor in the Cambodian army, following in the footsteps of his father, a high-ranking army officer. Prom had 11 siblings. She remembers as a young girl running naked through the rain in Palin, where diamonds, rubies and sapphires washed down from the mountains during the monsoon season. Her family had a good life in the village on the Thailand border. They lived in a brick house and sold food to Cambodian movie stars. But any future Prom and Ben had in Cambodia vanished when on April 17, 1975, the Communist guerrilla group Khmer Rouge took control of the country, forcing all city residents into the countryside and to work camps. Prom was a 5- year-old girl named Ponluethidachansomaly, or "Maly" for short. Ben, whose birth name is Puthearith, was 17. "They took everybody's dream away," Ben said. In the labor camps, children were separated from parents to work in mobile groups or as soldiers. The people toiled 12 to 14 hours a day, often fed little more than a watery bowl of soup with a few grains of rice. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, was in power for nearly four years. During its rule, an estimated 2 million Cambodians â€” or about 30 percent of the population â€” died from starvation, torture or execution. In January 1979, the Khmer Rouge was forced out by the Vietnamese. After the Vietnamese liberated the Cambodian people, more than half a million Cambodians poured into Thailand border camps. Prom and Ben were among those refugees fleeing. When they stepped foot in Thailand, they didn't care to look back. But 20 years later, they're ready to return and face their demons. Prom and Ben will touch down in Phnom Penh on Monday, Oct. 11. They flew out of Denver on Saturday. Family members making the three-week trip with them are their two children, Prom's mother and father and a sister and brother, Tom Prom, who owns the China Panda in Riverton with his wife Sophat. In recent years, Cambodia has become more politically stable, and Prom doesn't want to miss the opportunity to show her kids where she was born in the event the political climate turns volatile again. Prom also has family in the country whom she either doesn't remember or has never met. Ben has a more focused mission: he wants to find out what happened to his father. Douk Ben disappeared in the days leading up to 1 the Khmer Rouges seizure of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Ben said his aunt, who now lives in the Denver area, has returned to Cambodia three times ' since 1979 and has asked about him. "They say they killed him," Ben said of his father. But he wants to hear the words himself. Because Ben's father was an army officer, it's likely the Khmer Rouge killed him if he was found. "They kill 'em all," Ben said. "If you're high class, teacher, in the army." If Ben's father survived the Khmer Rouge years, Ben thinks he would have returned to his birth place, Svay Rieng, to look for family there. That's one of the places the Proms and Ben hope to visit. Looking at a map of the country triggers memories in, the northwest sits Palin, with a gem symbol next to it, reminding Prom of the stones that used to sparkle in the roads after a rain. Prom can still visualize Battambang, the place she was born. She remembers a river in which she and her siblings used to play. Unfortunately, especially for Prom, now 28, who only had five "good" years in her country, the bad mem6ries of Cambodia are more vivid. Family members of both Prom and Ben died during the Khmer's campaign of terror and destruction. Prom and Ben can't talk about that part of their past without tears. ........ While relaxing in their living room on a recent Sunday, the couple's one day off a week, Ben described the father he hasn't seen in 24 years. "I miss him every day," he said quietly, his eyes welling up. When Prom lets her mind wander back to the work camps and the siblings who didn't make it out alive, it's not long before the tears begin to flow. "Before my sister died, she wanted to eat a half-moon cake," Prom said, referring to a Cambodian dish made of flour and egg. "She got to eat it. The next day, we bury her in water." Neang Om, Prom's mother, sat on the floor, listening to Prom and Ben, sometimes interjecting her recollections in either English or Khmer. Now 59, Om lives with her daughter and son-in-law and helps them at the restaurant. "My son die the next week," Om said. She then spoke in Khmer to Prom. "He died, but we buried him with other bodies in a hole," Prom translated. The body of another sister, just a baby, was tossed into the jungle. Om thought her youngest daughter had been buried until she found shreds of her clothes in the sugar cane field she was working, Prom said. Wild animals had apparently found the body first. In all, Prom lost six brothers and sisters during the Khmer Rouge years. Ben's story is equally heart wrenching. Two brothers and an aunt of Ben's died on the same day from malnourishment. One uncle was killed by a Khmer Rouge soldier for picking up leftover food that had been thrown out. In all, 13 or 14 family members perished â€” it's hard to keep count. The only relatives Ben has left are a sister who lives in Longmont, Colo., and an aunt and uncle on his mother's side in Denver. Ben's mother was the last in the Ben family to perish in Cambodia. She died during the night, apparently of starvation. In one work camp, Ben and his sister slept on the ground with their mother in between them. The morning after she died, Ben said â€œI was still hugging her. I didn't know she died. My sister teUrne." Though his mother wasn't much more than a skeleton, Ben could only find two or three people ' strong enough to help him carry her body to a place she could be put to rest. "They all sick, mostly starving," Ben said. "Everybody so skinny or tired. We covered her." Prom and Ben remember working in rice fields, in the labor camps and hauling dirt to build dams. "They beat you if you don't wake up (in the morning)," Prom said of Khmer soldiers. "If you don't stand in straight line, they beat you. They just beat you, that's all." When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, Prom and her family fled to the Thai border. Prom remembers that Khmer soldiers didn't want to relinquish control of the people even as the Vietnamese were closing in. "They told us 'donâ€™t believe them â€” you're going to die,'" she said. "We don't care by then, we I just go where everybody go." Prom's family had to cross a river to get away from the Khmer. It was terrifying for Prom, she recalled, because she couldn't swim. They cut some limbs from a banana tree and filled pillows with debris so they could float across to the other side. The whole time Khmer soldiers were "shooting at everybody that was crossing the river," Prom said. The Proms didn't trust anyone. Om was pregnant with Prom's brother, John, during the march to Thailand. When Vietnamese soldiers asked the family where they were going, Prom's father, Sokun Prom, lied and said he had to take his wife to her mother's village so she could have her baby. In reality, Om didn't know, where her mother was and never saw her again. They walked all day and night. "We see people dead on streetâ€ Omsaid. "(We) walked all day and night." Prom said they had to walk in single file, behind other people, because land mines were scattered all over the countryside. "Bodies were floating in the water," Prom said. "We sleep in mud to cover ourselves or sleep, among the bodies. We pretend we were dead too â€” we don't know who's who." Hunger followed them to die refugee camps, where the Prom family of eight lived on one Ramen noodle package, a day. Some days, they ate boiled spinach or soup with no meat, and some days, they didn't eat anything. The family lived in the camps for more than a year. The Promsâ€™ ticket to the U.S. came in the form of an old friend of the family Prom's father knew a policeman when the family lived in Battambang. In the refugee camp in Thailand, the Proms bumped into the man's son, who told them his father was in the U.S. They were able to contact the policeman, and he found a family to sponsor their entry into the U.S. The' Proms came to Denver in September 1981. Ben came to Colorado about the same time. He was also sponsored by a family. Prom and Ben later met in Denver at a New Year's Eve dance. In 1993, they moved to Lander and bought the China Garden. - For Prom, the return to her homeland is a pilgrimage to purge the bad memories of Cambodia. "I want to see the good side of my country," she said. "I want to see the beauty of it, the people, how it is different from then.â€It was so good back then," she said. "I want to know if it's still as good as it was before the war." Prom' also wants to show her daughter what it's like to be born and raised in Cambodia. At 8 years of age, Alisa wouldn't be too young to cook and clean in Cambodia. "She doesn't know any of these things," Prom said. "I want her to know where I'm from." Aside from finding out what happened to his father, Ben allows that he has little interest in returning to his native country. There's nothing left for him, in Cambodia, he said, as all of his relatives who once lived there are gone. He thinks the trip will dredge up the bad memories he has tried so hard to bury. "I don't want to go through it again," he said. "So hard." Prom and Ben are taking suitcases of second-hand clothes donated to them, as well as boxes of toothbrushes and dental floss. Some in the community also donated money for the Proms to take over to Cambodia. Most people after the Khmer Rouge years started their lives over with nothing but the clothes on their backs and are still poor by American standards. "People in my country, they work so hard but lucky if they make 50 cents a day," Prom said. "We want to be able to give back." When asked what she misses the most about Cambodia, Prom said fruit, and "I want to see," pointing to her skin. In other words, it will be refreshing to be among people of like skin color for a short while. The memories of her childhood before the Khmer Rouge are what Prom will carry with her on the long flight overseas. "When I go, I want to climb a tree," she said, "like I used to. There were trees everywhere."