So last time I left you I was preparing for my flight to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, via Bangkok. That was last Monday and it was a full day of travelling. Tuk tuk to airport, flight to Bangkok (where I dropped off a bunch of gear at left luggage with my trekking bag), flight to Phnom Penh and tuk tuk (Cambodia style….same same, but different) to many different guest houses until deciding on a half decent one by the river. I should explain “same same, but different”. It is a phrase that one hears with extreme regularity from the locals whenever they want to express that something is similar to something else, or, more likely, that they have no idea how to explain the differences/qualities of something else in English. Therefore, it is used to describe another dish at a restaurant, a tour costing 30 bucks more, another room at a guest house…you get the idea. So, in that spirit, I describe Cambodia as just a little bit same same, but different.
On arrival in Phnom Penh, I obtained my visa for $20 and hopped into a tuk tuk (which is a 3 wheel taxi pulled along by a motorbike) with a French guy named Nelson, who kindly obliged letting me accompany him into town. It was ridiculously hot and I cursed my decision to wear jeans because it was a travel day. The traffic here was thick and the noise and crowds of the big city hit me pretty hard. In a very short time, I just wanted to get into a shower: jeans and all! We tried to find a decent hotel room, and I was quite surprised by the prices (all in US dollars, by the way…you only get Cambodian Real as change for something costing under a dollar) which were all over $20. I settled on a guest house on the mighty Tonle sap river, in what appeared to be a very touristy part of town…though I was too tired to care. Nelson was here to volunteer for an NGO designing a UV water purification system in Battambong and was only in Phnom Penh one night. After freshening up, we set out for some dinner. As I was still feeling under the weather, we settled on a place close by overlooking the water. My first impression here was the sheer number of tuk tuk drivers who bombard you with “Lady, tuk tuk? Lady, tuk tuk?” (I once counted 26 of these identical piercing queries during only a five minute stroll…which would test any one’s polite travel demeanor. I was so tempted to say…”Oh, yeah! I’ve changed my mind in the past TWO STEPS that I’ve taken since the last guy asked me, you annoying, screeching idiot!!! If I need a tuk, tuk, I’ll let you know!) Of course, men have it easy- they only hear “”Tuk, tuk?” In fact, I can honestly say that if I am never called “lady!!!!” again, it would be too soon…and I’ve only been in this country for 6 days.
I ordered Lemongrass chicken soup and was enjoying our conversation when we were joined by a rather strange Canadian man who appeared to be in his late fifties. He asked if he could join us, and began telling us that he was hear celebrating his engagement to a Cambodian woman whom he’d met here a few years ago, and that he’d just got back from her village where he stayed with her family on their farm along the Mekong River. That was all OK- I’ve gotten used to seeing old North American and European men with giant bellies prancing around with their trophy tiny young and lithe Asian women. But when he mentioned that she was all of 19 years of age…I was completely grossed out. He could probably read my expression, because he innocently asked, “What? Don’t you think we’ll be happy together?”, to which I responded, “You don’t want to hear my answer to that”. “No, no…I do” he insisted. So, I let him have it. I explained, which Nelson squirmed in his seat, very politely but firmly that he disgusted me, and that taking a young innocent girl, who doesn’t speak English, away from everything she holds dear, and taking her to the snowy north of Alberta and marrying her will only result in her extreme misery. However, with any luck, I said that I sincerely hoped that she used him to get a fine education, after which she’d figure out the mistake she’d made, and then take him for half of his money in a divorce and use the proceeds to give her family here a good life. He said he appreciated my honesty. I sincerely doubted him.
After wishing Nelson all the best for his volunteer work…I headed to my dark but air conditioned room and passed out.
The next day, I spent a solitary day sightseeing around the city…but having lots of small and wonderful interactions with various people. After breakfast of the smallest shake on earth for $2 I took a Tuk Tuk to the Tuol Sleng Prison museum, a gruesome reminder of the torturous occupation of Phnom Penh in the late seventies, during which a genocide of 2 million Khmer citizens took place. For those of you who don’t know, Cambodia suffered a horrendous civil war in the early 70’s, which culminated in the taking of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge army, led by the insane and crazed Marxist, Pol Pot, on April 17, 1975. Every single citizen, man woman and child was forcibly removed from their homes, year zero was declared, money was abolished, and an agrarian class-less commune society was established which involved the mass production of food through forced hard labor in large “concentration camp-like” communes scattered throughout the countryside. What’s worse, families were separated, including children taken from their mothers. It was nearly 4 years of sheer terror for the people, while the military shot, and bludgeoned to death any persons failing to comply with their new gruelling life, suspected of siding with the old regime, intellectuals, professionals, teachers, and their children. Tuol Sleng used to be a high school but it was turned into a prison of torture where the KR could interrogate suspected rebels of the new order.
Of the 20,000 or so estimated inmates of the prison, none made it out alive.
The museum is a chilling collection of implements of torture, first hand accounts from the soldiers, holding cells, and of course, thousands of photos and documents that tell the story of crimes that few in the world realized the enormity of when it was going on.
It was so hard to believe that this was happening during my first few years of my life: in fact, I distinctly remember hearing about the situation in Cambodia while I was in the hospital at age 3 recovering from my burn accident. It is one of my first memories…
After that gruesome few hours, I walked over to a cafe that a friend in Chiang Mai had recommended that I try out. It was an incredibly delicious deli that served amazing paninis and cakes. It was just what I needed…a little taste of home. There, I met with Clare, an American from San Francisco who was also in Phnom Penh working on a clean drinking water project, but this time for her non-profit employer back home. It was interesting getting her perspective on life here in the city, and on how much the people struggle. We talked about the prevalence of PTSD, and how there was literally no-one in this country who didn’t have family who were murdered by the regime in the 70’s. By all accounts, Phnom penh is still a “new-ish” city that is trying to re-build and recover, mostly psychologically.
In the afternoon, I wandered over to the grounds of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. I must have inadvertently found a sort of “secret entrance”, because there was no-one around and no ticket booth. I wandered around, happy to have the place to myself and standing underneath sprinklers that were working on the flowers. After an hour the place began to fill up and I realized that the grounds had been closed before! oops. Oh well. It was beautiful just wandering around the decadent gold and green buildings and going inside some of the silver laden temples to contemplate.
The heat was getting to me. I needed to head back to my hotel for a siesta- but before I did, I ran into and struck up a conversation with another single traveller named Andrea. We both had noticed one another because we shared a striking resemblance to one another. After sharing a tuk tuk back to town, we arranged to meet up for dinner that evening.
Later I tried to get on a boat for a sunset sail, but just missed it. Instead, I walked along the riverfront, calmly shaking my head at every “Lady!!! Lady!! you want….?” request for tuk-tuks, rooms, books, souvenirs etc. and tried to enjoy the sunset. I met Andrea at 7 and she convinced me to join her on the afternoon bus the next day heading to Siem Reap (a day earlier than I had originally planned) I agreed, deciding to visit the “Killing Fields” in the early morning, before the heat set in, at which point leaving this giant, loud metropolis would be just fine.
It was a 14km tuk tuk ride out to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields the next day at 6:45am – just one of the more famous areas of uncovered mass graves that were found after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The most chilling site greets visitors as you walk through the main gate- a tall shrine eight stories high that is literally filled with thousands of human skulls. It is quite a sight.
As suggested, I bought some flowers and incense and paid my respects to these souls last “resting place”, before exploring more of the site. Human bone fragments could still be seen just below the surface of the ground in many places and there were at least 16 distinct marked graves, that were discovered with hundreds of naked rotting corpses in them. Extensive forensics have been performed to try to establish sex, age, and cause of death. In the majority of cases, the victims were bludgeoned in the head and then had their throats slit. Difficult to comprehend was that babies and children’s skulls were often smashed against a tree before being tossed in next to their mothers. The museum again did a good job of interpreting the series of events that led up to this atrocity in history, and there was also a 30 min documentary in English, which just happened to be showing in an AC auditorium (which was extremely welcome). After 2 hours or so, I returned to the driver who was waiting for me.
I had the chance to observe a lot of the suburbs and surrounding towns on the drive to and from the Killing Fields, and here, in no particular order, are some of my observations:
– Cambodia is developing very fast. There was a tremendous amount of construction.
– Lots of women seem to enjoy wearing pajamas as their day wear. Curious?
– There was a lot of pollution in the rivers….plumes of grey and purple chemical froth pools clogging up the area.
– Most people and families get around on their moto (motorbike). It was very common to see 4 people and children seated on one bike dodging the traffic.
– I saw several babies “attached” and sitting behind their moto driving mothers simply by a too large cardigan that forced their little arms out straight like ram rods and their mothers then took the long sleeves and tied them around their own bellies!
– Most businesses are open air and simply line the main street.
– Stray dogs are everywhere as well as lots of water buffalo.
– People of all ages were hard at work in the fields.
Anyhow, I’ll end it there. I got the six hour bus to Siem Reap that afternoon (nearly forgetting
my passport at the hotel!!) and funnily enough, Andrea wasn’t on the bus! Oh well….adventure at Angkor Wat lay ahead.
Will write Part II tomorrow from Bangkok as Tuesday I fly to Nepal for my Everest Adventure!