Backpacking Bonus 7: Functional Chaos in Cambodia

I’ve had a really hard time with this chapter. When talking to some friends who have been checking in with me, I have started referring to my condition regarding this chapter as “writers’ constipation,” as it has literally been holding everything else in the queue back and causing me a certain level of discomfort and anxiety. I had to take myself far far away to a tiny island in the Philippines and book a simple bungalow with no wifi where everyone was “doing their own thing” on the beaches so I could unplug, relax, and finally confront what was making me uncomfortable. (My process went something like this: “I can’t leave this spot on the beach until I complete x number of sections.” It was torture…)

This is a bit of a heavy chapter so I understand why I have been avoiding it. It can be emotionally draining to write about some of the stuff you will read in this chapter. (Consider that a warning.) However, I think it is necessary to shed light on even the unpleasant experiences of the world. That said, just know that there is a lovely fun chapter all about elephants that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside that is already written and will be posted within a few days of this chapter.

A SOCIETY recovering from being FLIPPED on it head.

Cambodia and its history are pretty messed up. I’m just going to start with that. I only spent 9 days total in Cambodia, in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh–the two largest cities, so I cannot speak from of the entire land, but I got a good glimpse of the countryside during bus and minivan rides along the way. Cambodia reminded me of Guatemala in many ways, and as I learned more about Cambodia, I almost felt at times like I was back in Guatemala–only safer here. Some parallels between the two countries are that the physical stature of the people is small/short, the area and population of both countries is similar (Guatemala: 108 square km, 15.5 million people; Cambodia: 181 square km, 15.2 million people), both countries stood as the primary regions of great ancient civilizations and their empires (Maya in Guatemala, Khmer in Cambodia), and both countries are still recovering from their tumultuous recent histories of genocide and brutality at the hands of the governments directed toward their own people.

Guatemala experienced a 30+ year civil war from the 60s through the 90s and the government was aiming to wipe out the indigenous Maya population who lived in rural towns and villages throughout the country; in contrast, in 1975, a dictatorial regime took over the government in Cambodia, led by Cambodian Pol Pot, who intended to turn the country into a self-sustaining Communist state based on agriculture by annihilating the the entire population of intellectuals–and anyone related to them. Recovering from the after-effect of the Vietnam War, Cambodians were in a vulnerable position looking for some relief. Pol Pot, like all typical dictators, recruited the young and uneducated into his army and, in a period of less than 4 years–known as the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmer,” he managed to reduce the population of Cambodia by one third; nearly 3 million people died while he was in power from 1975-79. People who lived in cities, wore glasses, spoke another language, worked as a teacher/doctor/engineer (or any other profession besides farming pretty much), or were educated in any way were dragged off to prisons and concentration camps, forced to endlessly work in fields under terrible living conditions with little food, and ultimately murdered–if they hadn’t died already from starvation, disease, or torture.

It has not even been forty years since Cambodia experienced the devastation of the Khmer Rouge and, in the wake of the living nightmare, Cambodia has struggled to rebuild itself and create a new identity. There isn’t a family in Cambodia who was unaffected by the Khmer Rouge, and the air here is still heavy with traces of the traumatic history. While the population has seen a healthy increase from 5 million to the current 15 million people since the end of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has a deeper history of being in a position as a territory that Thailand, Vietnam, France, and China have all gone back and forth between trying to protect and attempting to infiltrate and conquer. Cambodia is still struggling to find its way and that is evident by the scrappiness of the people and the the culture. It is experiencing a period of critical development right now, and it could go one way or the other: achieving economic prosperity and stability or falling back into a pit of dysfunction and despair.

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which traces back to the ancient Khmer civilization that dominated the region in the 1200s, however, English is being spoken more and more across the country, especially in the larger cities where tourism has been gaining traction. And while the national currency is riel, US dollars are actually used in many places–even the ATMs in the larger cities only dispense US dollars; supposedly the people don’t have much confidence in the value of riel. The funny thing is that in some places, the price will be listed in dollars so the customer pays in dollars, but if the customer needs change back, the merchant will give change in riel, not dollars. This is the prefect example of how what seems like just confusion to outsiders actually makes sense somehow to Cambodians.

Cambodia uses US dollars as their currency in addition to the Cambodian riel. When I went to pull cash from the ATM, it spit out 3 crisp Benji's, just like this one.

Cambodia uses US dollars as their currency in addition to the Cambodian riel. When I went to pull cash from the ATM, it spit out 3 crisp Benji’s, just like this one.

The western influence doesn’t stop there. With nearly two-thirds of the population being under the age of forty, the country is dominated by a young generation that has easy access to pop culture and worldly trends via the internet and social media. Certain cities in Cambodia are developing a hip vibe to them as the creative and open-minded young generation puts its stamp on the culture, incorporating technology and new business ideas into the ever-shifting economy.

Don’t get me wrong, though–Cambodia is still a crazy place. The driving alone can demonstrate that. The streets, the markets, the systems (or lack thereof), and the confusion is like India meets Guatemala. Businesses open as often as they close as people try their hands at a new idea, being ever resourceful and optimistic–until the business idea stops working of course, then they shut down the operation and try something else. The resilience of the people is impressive, and while many older Cambodians seem very solemn–perhaps still deeply scarred from their recent history, the younger Cambodians demonstrate an un-matchable sense of humor, making light of every possible situation.

There are tuk tuks and motorbikes all over the place, and despite the utter chaos of the streets, it is safe to step right out in the middle of it all as people are so alert that they will go around anyone or anything in their path. It is just as important to them not to crash or injure themselves as it is not to harm another person or vehicle. There isn’t much of a system, but somehow they make it work. I walked pretty much everywhere I went while I was there, but I got used to the constant enquiries from almost every guy on the street saying, “Hello, miss…tuk tuk?” as he held up both of his fists in front of him, motioning one of them as if he were revving a motor, and smiling with hopeful, raised eyebrows. I would point to my legs and say, “This is my transportation.” Some of the guys who saw me regularly started joking with me, and saying that they’ll just have to cut off my legs so I have to take a tuk tuk. I laughed, appreciating the interaction, not at all afraid that they weren’t kidding. I just got a good vibe from the people. Allan also loved interacting with the locals; he would mess with them and say that he would take a tuk tuk ride with them only if they would let him drive it! VIDEO – Tuk Tuk Ride in Siem Reap: http://youtu.be/3S9Ewa30j3Y

Speaking of Allan and transportation, after the 11 days we had spent together in Laos, we decided to continue our journey together in Cambodia for a while. Also, once we crossed the border, although Sheni and Michal headed in a different direction, our Italian friend, Giuseppe, went on to Siem Reap with us. Our journey to Siem Reap from the border was a obvious indicator for what the rest of the country would be like as we bounced along potholes on dirt roads in remote villages, stopped for nearly an hour for what was supposedly a 20-minute lunch stop, then got “kicked out” of the van temporarily on the side of the road somewhere so the driver, who didn’t speak any English, could remove the seat that Giuseppe and I had been sitting on, load a giant round table top into the van with the help of some local men, then put our seat back in on top of the table. (We felt really safe in the minivan after that…NOT!)

Exhibit: Random stop on the side of the road in a Cambodian village. Orange seat removed from van (on the ground). Local men loading table top into van. Okay. We can go now...

Exhibit: Random stop on the side of the road in a Cambodian village. Orange seat removed from van (on the ground). Local men loading table top into van. Okay. We can go now…

During that stop on the side of the road, curious Cambodian women couldn’t stop giggling as they inspected my fair skin and the blond hair on my arms. By now, I am used to being the object of entertainment for women and children who live in remote villages in other countries for these exact reasons; a fun way to engage with them is to pretend to be just as shocked that they don’t have freckles or hair on their arms as they are intrigued by your idiosyncrasies.

Siem Reap was an interesting city. The climate was hot and very dry–drier than anywhere else I had been in Thailand or Laos thus far. However, rainy season was just starting to pick up so we had to be prepared for some afternoon downpours, but the early daytime was clear for the most part while we were there. Most people come to Siem Reap to see the expansive region of the temples at Angkor Wat–which is exactly why we were there–but there is more to the city than that. We were in walking distance of a variety of markets–day markets, night markets, art markets, etc., fresh meat and seafood stalls, restaurants, bars, other lively nightlife venues, and, of course, the typical beauty salons and massage parlors that are a staple to every city in Southeast Asia. Almost every night, we went out as a group to walk around, explore, and be a part of the goings on.

Fresh meat and seafood at a street-side restaurant in Siem Reap.

Fresh meat and seafood at a street-side restaurant in Siem Reap.

One really fun night was when Allan, Giuseppe, Yuito (a Japanese guy), and I went for a shared meal. (I’m pretty sure it was Cambodian BBQ.) This was Yuito’s last night in Cambodia and he was about to leave on an overnight bus back to Thailand, I think. He was traveling around just like the rest of us, however, this was his first solo trip, he was only about 20 years old, and he didn’t speak English very well. Talk about brave!! He was nearing the end of his trip and was on the same bus as the rest of us coming from the border. Upon arrival in Siem Reap, Giuseppe took him under his wing and they were glued at the hip until Yuito had to leave. Yuito had expressed to us that he had often felt lonely traveling by himself, but we could see that meeting Giuseppe completely changed the tone of his trip. Giuseppe, a confident, gentle, and charming Italian, stood in as a the perfect big brother/guide/translator for Yuito. One of the neatest things about traveling is seeing how people from all over the world can connect and relate to each other, sharing a bond that may never be repeated in a lifetime. We ended our evening letting loose with our dance moves at a nearby club. Not the usual scene for any of us, but we all embraced the moment and even Allan busted out a couple moves! Yuito was grinning from ear to ear, completely euphoric as he left to catch his overnight bus. (Giuseppe left a day later as he was nearing the end of his holiday and had to return to Italy soon.)

Top: Family style Cambodian BBQ; bottom: Giuseppe, me, Allan, and Yuito at dinner together.

Top: Family style Cambodian BBQ; bottom: Giuseppe, me, Allan, and Yuito at dinner together.

I am so glad I captured this moment! The euphoric Yuito is capturing a selfie with Allan at dinner.

I am so glad I captured this moment! The euphoric Yuito is capturing a selfie with Allan at dinner.

Now for the temples at Angkor Wat–the network of places of worship that were the city centers of the ancient Khmer civilization that spans an area the size of a small city; it’s the largest draw for tourism in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is one of the few temple sites that remains in Cambodia as many temples were destroyed during wars as well as in the Khmer Rouge. Exploring the entire span of temple areas can take several days; giving it only part of a day would be an injustice to the sheer majesty of the place. The park will issue a 1-day, 3-day, or 7-day pass. Unless someone is there doing an in-depth study of the place, the 3-day pass is usually the best option. And while the temples can be explored on one’s own, it is wise to get a local tour guide as they are chock full of history and other cool information about each temple and the entire city network.

Allan and I each bought a 3-day pass, and while he spent his first day riding a bicycle to and through the temple sites, I was bumming around Siem Reap at the lodge writing, so my first day was actually his second day; he suggested sharing a tuk tuk and a guide for the day which was a great idea so we could split the costs. It was also more fun to explore a place like Angkor Wat with a companion as it was immense and interesting. Allan and I shared our thoughts and experiences with each other and also learned from the different questions that each of us asked our tour guide during the day. So with Sami as our tuk tuk driver for the day and “Lucky” as our guide, we ventured out.

Here I am in the tuk tuk at the Angkor Wat complex with our driver, Sami, and out tour guide, Lucky. (I asked Allan to take this pic which is why he's not in it. Thanks, Allan!)

Here I am in the tuk tuk at the Angkor Wat complex with our driver, Sami, and out tour guide, Lucky. (I asked Allan to take this pic which is why he’s not in it. Thanks, Allan!)

We followed the “small circuit” route, visiting four of the most popular temples that day so unfortunately we ran into a lot of crowds, especially at the main Angkor Wat temple, but that was only a minor distraction. We were so grateful to have Lucky with us because he educated us beyond what we expected to learn that day. Some of the general things we learned about the area that day include the following: some temples were constructed to honor Buddhist divinity while others were built as a shrine for Hindu gods–it depended on the religious beliefs of the ruler at the time who commissioned the project; also, each and every ruler (a.k.a. “god king”) intended to build his temple bigger and better than the prior king’s so the Angkor Wat region proceeded to grow larger and more grandiose with every new leader. Most of the doorways to temples and gates have a statue of a god on one side and a statue of a demon on the other side; the demons are there to scare away the bad spirits. Lastly, in many of the temples are altars and shrines that are still used to this day; people light candles and burn incense around these altars in order to “burn away” bad luck.

The first major temple we stopped at was Bayon. This temple was so cool-looking as its towers jutted upward with the sky as its backdrop. Every time we passed this one, I was awe-inspired no matter what time of the day it was. With 216 giant carvings of stone heads as the dominant feature of Bayon, I felt as if I were being watched at every turn. It was as if the temple had come alive! In all three days I spent temple-hopping, I’d say that this temple was my favorite one. I’m not sure if it was because I could interact with the temple (see photos) or because of the overall character of the temple in general. Whatever it was, it didn’t fail to make an impression.

Here I am standing on the steps of Bayon, my favorite temple in the Angkor Wat complex.

Here I am standing on the steps of Bayon, my favorite temple in the Angkor Wat complex.

The architecture of the Bayon temple and its 216 stone face carvings was so cool--we had a lot of fun taking photos with this one!

The architecture of the Bayon temple and its 216 stone face carvings was so cool–we had a lot of fun taking photos with this one!

The next major temple we visited was Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple since Angelina Jolie’s character, Lara Croft, was filmed entering this temple via tree in the movie. People flock to this temple just to take a picture with the “Angelina” tree. (We jumped on the bandwagon and got a photo with it as well!) The amazing thing about this temple is that it was built in the middle of the jungle over 800 years ago so it has been gradually succumbing to the forces of nature for hundreds of years as trees have literally sets their roots on top of this stone fortress and grown. The roots drape like giant snakes slithering over the roofs and walls down to the forest floor in search of nutrients, and the resulting weight of the ever-growing trees has caused some of the stone structures to cave in, crumbling beneath the hand of the jungle. It was sort of magical to be exploring the abandoned, entangled ancient temples. It was like our own Indiana Jones adventure–all that was missing were the props: a jeep, a whip, and the trademark hat!

Allan and I at the

Allan and I at the “Angelina Jolie tree” at Ta Prohm. 🙂

The unique feature of Ta Prohm is that it has become entagled with jungle trees growing from the rooftops of the temple and stretching out their roots down to the forest floor.

The unique feature of Ta Prohm is that it has become entagled with jungle trees growing from the rooftops of the temple and stretching out their roots down to the forest floor.

We saved the biggest one for last that day: the Angkor Wat, the grandiose temple that the entire complex is named for. Erected in the early 1100s, around the same time that Westminster Abbey was built, Angkor Wat is massive–it is actually the largest religious building in the world. Protected by a wide moat that circles it, this used to be a city center for the Khmer people, and a symbol of their national pride. It still remains a sacred place of worship and now a heavy-hitter as a tourist attraction. To think that such a sturdy, ornate, and majestic place was constructed almost a thousand years ago is mind-boggling and impressive. Granted, there have been some restoration efforts made to preserve the site, but much of the authenticity in the structures, carvings, and artwork on the walls remains. Lucky took us in and around the different buildings, translating the history on the walls into stories for us. Then we climbed the tallest tower that is at the center of the temple for an exploration of the architecture and set-up as well as a panoramic view of the grounds. A great way to wrap up our day.

Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world is stunningly grand.

Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world is stunningly grand.

Bottom: The bridge crossing the moat over to the entrance gate of Angkor Wat. Top left: the pathway leading up to the main temple. Top right: one of towers in the center fortress at Angkor Wat.

Bottom: The bridge crossing the moat over to the entrance gate of Angkor Wat. Top left: the pathway leading up to the main temple. Top right: one of towers in the center fortress at Angkor Wat.

Here is a young Biuddhist monk monitoring the altars at the main Angkor Wat temple.

Here is a young Buddhist monk monitoring the altars at the main Angkor Wat temple.

The next time we went back to the temple complex (Allan’s third day, my second), we decided to take a tuk tuk again because the temples on our radar were on the large circuit, well beyond reasonable walking or even bicycling distance, however, we opted to go without a tour guide. This was such an enjoyable day because we visited places where there weren’t crowds so it was peaceful and we could move along at our own pace, without feeling pushed or like we had to look at something really fast and move on so the next person could see.

The highlight temple of the day was Banteay Srei, which translates to “Citadel of the Women.” Other translations call it “Citadel of Beauty,” so it seems that women and beauty must be one and the same! This temple is unlike many of the others in the Angkor complex for several reasons including that it was NOT commissioned to be built by a king, it is made from a pinkish stone, and the carvings are unique from anything seen in Angkor–or in the world, for that matter. The elaborate carvings adorn every wall and doorway of the structure and are so delicate that rumor has it the citadel was created by the hands of women because men’s hands wouldn’t be able to make something so intricate. (Not sure how true that is, but some people believe it.) Just as we were finishing our stroll around the temple grounds, we actually ran into a large group from the Cambodian military (with over a hundred cadets) that was on a “field trip” to Angkor Wat to learn about Cambodia’s history and the Khmer culture so we chatted it up with them for a bit; it was neat to see the importance they place on interactive experiences for learning.

A few shots of the ornate Banteay Srei temple, the

A few shots of the ornate Banteay Srei temple, the “Citadel of the Women.”

The doorways at the Angkor Wat temples made for some good entertainment: At Banteay Srei, I had to stretch to reach the corners, but at Angkor Wat, Allan had trouble getting through the narrow doorway! (Until he went sideways, of course...)

The doorways at the Angkor Wat temples made for some good entertainment: At Banteay Srei, I had to stretch to reach the corners, but at Angkor Wat, Allan had trouble getting through the narrow doorway! (Until he went sideways, of course…)

Another temple we made a brief stop at was Preah Neak Poan, called “the water temple” as it is situated like an island surrounded by large pools (so we couldn’t access it). We pretty much just snapped a few photos and walked away. It was a leisurely day overall, and being away from the throngs of tourists allowed us more interaction with locals, which we both love.

Cambodian girls playing simple hand games at the temple grounds near Banteay Srei.

Cambodian girls playing simple hand games at the temple grounds near Banteay Srei.

The area where we were that day meant that we would pass the Cambodia Landmine Museum which Allan was very interested in checking out. Since he is always chock full of good ideas, I was totally on board so we stopped there on our way back and spent about an hour and a half inside taking the self-guided audio tour. Similar to how Laos was affected by the bombs and landmines from wartime activity in the past several decades, Cambodia has suffered the issue as well. This museum is full of landmines and other metal weaponry that a local man named Aki Ra has retrieved from all over the country. As a boy, he was trained by Pol Pot’s army to fight as a child-soldier during the Khmer Rouge; during his time in the military, he planted thousands of explosive devices, but upon realizing what kind of damage landmines can cause to the local people, he has taken his expertise with landmines and made it his life’s work (with some assistance from the government and donations) to return to villages where he had planted them so he could defuse them by hand then locate and deactivate land mines that plague the entire country. The museum holds the collection of what he has found and explains each device, how it works, and what damage it could effect. It is honorable work and Aki Ra has even gone on to start a Relief Facility for victims of landmine explosions. There is still so much more to be done.

A collection of deactivated explosive devices from all over Cambodia at the Landmine Museum.

A collection of deactivated explosive devices from all over Cambodia at the Landmine Museum.

Explosive devices and other remnants from war are so common across Laos and Cambodia that they have become a part of the locals' daily lives--whether someone lost a limb or was blinded by an explosion (seen on right) or the devices are used for practical purposes such as makeshift canoes (seen on left) or as scrap metal to be sold.

Explosive devices and other remnants from war are so common across Laos and Cambodia that they have become a part of the locals’ daily lives–whether someone lost a limb or was blinded by an explosion (seen on right) or the devices are used for practical purposes such as makeshift canoes (seen on left) or as scrap metal to be sold.

That evening, Allan and I attended a show in Siem Reap called Phare, The Cambodia Circus. This was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook with the suggestion, “Not to be missed.” Not knowing what to expect, we headed to the big top and settled in with popcorn and drinks. We learned that Phare started as an organization to give opportunity to young people coming from underprivileged areas. In addition to ensuring a solid academic education, the institution also provides training in the arts, especially music, dance, and acrobatics. After years of training, the performers form “circus troupes” and put on shows in the major cities in Cambodia; Phare has received so much praise that they are now touring internationally. After witnessing the talent and originality of the troupe, I was not surprised that they have gained worldwide acclaim: the performers displayed just as much passion as they did purpose while they danced, flipped, stood on each other, balanced on small or moving objects, and played with fire in order to tell a story and convey a social message. The athleticism of the performers was superb and their energy contagious. Here is a 1-minute video from the show: http://youtu.be/0P_7__QXS-I

These are some of the impressive acts that the performers of Phare, The Cambodia Circus demonstrated.

These are some of the impressive acts that the performers of Phare, The Cambodia Circus demonstrated.

Post-show posing with the Phare performers.

Post-show posing with the Phare performers.

While we were in Siem Reap, our other travel friends, Cris and Camila, the Chilean couple whom we had met en route to Laos, showed up. We had been in touch and coordinated it somewhat as their route was similar to ours. It is common while traveling to cross paths with people you have met before because oftentimes travel routes that “make sense” are taken by many. For example, it doesn’t make sense to leave a country and cross back in multiple times if there is a visa fee so the idea to visit all parts of that country that seem interesting the one time you enter. Also, a west to east or north to south route is usually chosen by travelers as opposed to zig-zagging back and forth all over a country. Travel routes usually “make sense” because they minimize both travel time and costs. We spent some time with Cris and Camila during those handful of days, either sharing meals or exploring markets, and, as it usually is with good companions, it was fun to reunite and swap travel stories of what we had all been through since we had last seen each other.

The morning after the circus, Allan left Siem Reap for the capital city, Phnom Penh. I stayed behind with Cris and Camila, knowing that we would only be a day behind Allan. I still had one more day left on my pass for Angkor Wat so in the early afternoon I rented a bicycle for the day and just went around to a couple of favorite (and devoid of big crowds) spots I had seen during my prior visits. It was a great way to take in the sheer beauty of the Angkor Wat complex and reflect on the magnitude and spirituality of the place. The risk of being out on a bicycle, of course, was that there was a high likelihood that the skies would open up and dump out buckets of water as they had almost every afternoon while we were there. Allan got caught in the rain the day he took a bike to the temples, Cris and Camila had a similar experience when they went on bikes, so now it was my turn.

When the rain first started, I curled up on a stone block under some trees writing with my umbrella propped in such a way that I could stay dry and continue writing despite the rain. I thought I was pretty clever because I was still completely dry when the water stopped falling from the sky. And then fifteen minutes later, Storm #2–the BIG one–rolled in. The skies went completely dark as the gray clouds covered everything and a complete downpour was unleashed. I was on my way out anyway and still dry, but I knew what was coming. The giant stone faces on the gates of the city looked epic against the sky so I paused long enough to capture a photo, but after that, I knew what I had to do: ditch the umbrella, secure all electronics in a waterproof place in my bag, strip down to as few clothing layers as possible, and ride. Waiting that storm out wasn’t an option by the look of the sky, and I didn’t want to be riding in the dark, so I just went for it. It only took seconds to be soaking wet, but it felt nice. It was an awesome ride.

This is the epic moment I HAD to capture as I was about to exit the gates of Angkor Wat on my bicycle in the middle of a thunderstorm. You can't really tell how hard it was raining from the photo, but the stone head against the sky still looks awesome!!

This is the epic moment I HAD to capture as I was about to exit the gates of Angkor Wat on my bicycle in the middle of a thunderstorm. You can’t really tell how hard it was raining from the photo, but the stone head against the sky still looks awesome!!

When Camila, Cris, and I settled into a place in Phnom Penh, it ended up being on the same street where Allan was staying at a boutique hotel. (It was his last couple days of vacation before returning to Australia so it was time for him to splurge a little bit!) Some daytime activities we would do together, but we almost always met up in the evenings for dinner and hanging out. It was fun to spend these last few days together as we knew we were all about to disperse to different places from there. Allan to Australia, Cris and Camila to Vietnam, and me to Indonesia.

Phnom Penh is a neat city. It’s big with a lot to do, and while it was still very hot, it was not dry like Siem Reap because it is situated along the Mekong River. (The Mekong River originates in China and runs all the way down through Laos and Cambodia which is why it keeps showing up on my travel route! It is one of the longest rivers in the world.) There are markets and historic buildings, shopping centers and coffee shops, cool restaurants, massage parlors, and a Royal Palace. During the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh essentially became a ghost town so the hustle and bustle of the city now with a lot of young people is an indicator of how the entire country is bouncing back from the devastation that occurred in the late 70s.

Two very funny things about Cambodia that were prevalent in Phnom Penh are 1) the crazy driving and 2) names of people and their shops/businesses. Allan said to me once, “I know it looks scary, but just ride into the middle of the traffic–they’ll go around you.” Sounds like great advice, right?? Only in Cambodia would that be safe despite how messy the streets are. But whatever system they all abide by, it works. In regard to names, we met so many people along the way–tour guides, tuk tuk drivers, shop owners, etc.–who called themselves “Happy,” “Lucky,” or “Smiley.” There is a cultural obsession with “good luck” across the country (I think this is along the lines of the societal belief in fatalism) which may be why they label everything with positive connotation, but I couldn’t help but wonder when I was going to run into Dopey and Doc.

Typical chaotic driving scene on the streets of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I vote that Cambodians are the best defensive drivers in the world!

Typical chaotic driving scene on the streets of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I vote that Cambodians are the best defensive drivers in the world!

Two very important things to do for any visitor to Phnom Penh are take a trip to S21 and then go to the Killing Fields. While they are not exactly “feel good” activities, I believe it is necessary in order to both understand Cambodia’s history and pay respect to the people and the land. On the day we planned to visit these places, our group consisted of Camila, Sofia–an Italian girl whom we had met the night before, and me. Allan had gone the day before and Cris had seen these places several years ago when he was in Cambodia and had no interest in going back. So the guys had a relax day, and the three of us ladies–thank goodness we were together–shared the emotional experience of S21 and the Killing Fields.

From right, Camlia, Sofia, and I in a tuk tuk heading out for the day's activities. Little did we know when we were starting out that we would all be borderline-depressed on the way back...

From right, Camlia, Sofia, and I in a tuk tuk heading out for the day’s activities. Little did we know when we were starting out that we would all be borderline-depressed on the way back…

S21 is in town and used to be a school before the Khmer Rouge. However, when Pol Pot’s army infiltrated Phnom Penh, they converted the school into a concentration camp, a holding ground for prisoners (a.k.a. educated civilians). They took everything away from these people and stripped them down to hardly any clothing, if any. People were kept in tiny cells and would be punished if they made a sound unless they were being asked something directly. People were forced to go out and work in the rice fields day after day doing an insane amount of agricultural production while receiving almost no food–and what little food they received was in the form of a watery porridge. Pol Pot wanted to turn the nation into a self-sustaining agricultural communist society, but the amount of rice he was aiming to harvest was impossible to achieve. He demanded the back-breaking toil nonetheless.

This is S21, once a school, but turned into a sort of concentration camp druing the Khmer Rouge where prisoners weld kept, interrogated, tortured, and, in some cases, killed at the hands of Pol Pot and his army.

This is S21, once a school, but turned into a sort of concentration camp druing the Khmer Rouge where prisoners weld kept, interrogated, tortured, and, in some cases, killed at the hands of Pol Pot and his army.

S21 is a museum now. During our tour, we were shown interrogation cells with blood stains on the floor. There were photos up of the many people who came there and died there. (Pol Pot’s army was meticulous about tracking who came in and out so as not to lose anyone who tried to escape which is why there were photos available.) We saw the conditions under which people lived and how emaciated they had become during that time. When S21 was finally taken back from Pol Pot’s regime, the rescuers took more photos of the place–and all the dead civilians they found there–for evidence. We saw all of this.

At S21, these were the rules posted for all the prisoners to see and obey while they were being held here during the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79.

At S21, these were the rules posted for all the prisoners to see and obey while they were being held here during the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79.

All the different methods torture were described to us as well and there were still tools and props around for visitors to see. There were shackles and bars where the army would stretch people out or hang them upside down, then lower them headfirst into barrels of contaminated water or sometimes buckets of excrement. Electrical shock was another common form of torture. Inside one of the rooms, there was a “special” bath tub that had cuffs at the bottom of it–they would lock people in and then fill up the tub, often resulting in drowning. Whipping, yanking out people’s fingernails, and, for women, cutting off their nipples were some other methods that were used at S21 and other concentration camps.

From S21 and other concentration camp holding areas, the prisoners would be loaded into big trucks and told they were being moved to another place, but they were actually being taken to killing fields, never to be seen again. Blindfolded and lined up one-by-one, the prisoners would be led by Pol Pot’s guys out to the fields where the army had dug enormous holes in the ground. At night time, they would play music over the loudspeaker so no one in the surrounding town could hear the screams, and then they would kill the prisoners, usually by some form of bludgeoning as bullets were too expensive and Pol Pot wouldn’t allow bullets to be wasted. Shovels swung against people’s heads usually did the job, but other methods were used as well which included machetes, axes, crow bars, hooks, and the like. Oh, and there was a special tree for babies–a sturdy one; they would take the babies by their feet/legs and swing them toward the tree, smashing their skulls against it before throwing the babies into a pit with their dead mothers, whom had likely been raped and mutilated before they were killed (unless they were forced to watch their babies be murdered first). When Pol Pot’s regime ended and these mass grave sites were recovered, pieces of brain and children’s skulls were found all over the bark of that particular blood-stained tree.

Top: Mass graves on site at the Killing Fields. Bottom middle: The Hanging Tree. Bottom left and right: A sign requesting,

Top: Mass graves on site at the Killing Fields. Bottom middle: The Hanging Tree. Bottom left and right: A sign requesting, “Don’t step on bone” next to pieces of bone and articles of clothing that are still set in the earth. Occasionally, bad rains will wash away some of the land, exposing more remainders of the horror that took place at the Killing Fields during the Khmer Rouge.

At the Killing Fields, Camila, Sofia, and I each picked up a headset and had our own audio tour (in our native languages). We spent about an hour and a half there, going at our own paces, but staying close to each other. We listened to survivors’ stories and heard all the details about those four years and the history of the Killing Fields. At first, there weren’t so many deaths, but toward the end of his regime when he started getting paranoid about losing his control, Pol Pot order truckloads upon truckloads of people to be killed night after night. Around 1.7 million people were murdered at the concentration camps or killing fields in those four years, not to mention those who were taken or killed outside of these places. It was so hard to imagine the degree of inhumanity associated with Pol Pot and his army. From the perspective of his followers, it was “kill of die” with no other option so they had to kill in order to survive and if they showed any sign of weakness, hesitation, or questioning, they would be the next to go.

We completed the tour by stopping into the memorial building, where they keep the skulls and some bones of the victims of the Killing Fields. All three of us were shaken up from everything we had just seen. This all started happening only forty years ago, when most of our parents were teenagers or young adults. That is fresh. And it is unbelievable how people could do this to one another. Living, breathing human beings inflicting harsh measures of torture onto other humans. I don’t think any of us expected to be affected the way we were as several things that day drew quiet tears from all of us and the overall impact left us feeling sad and depressed.

This monument was erected at the site of the Killing Fields in order to honor the hundreds of thousands who were murdered here during the Khmer Rouge. The skulls on the right are those that were dug up on site at the Killing Fields.

This monument was erected at the site of the Killing Fields in order to honor the hundreds of thousands who were murdered here during the Khmer Rouge. The skulls on the right are those that were dug up on site at the Killing Fields.

One of the most idiotic things a ruler can do is wipe out the educated population. But of course that is how he gains control because then people don’t think for themselves and are easily influenced by a charismatic leader with radical ideas. Taking a look through history, some famous dictators including Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini attained complete power by taking control of the education systems and monitoring what their followers were exposed to. Even today, when journalists and other media publicly share an idea that could influence people’s way of thinking, radical leaders feel threatened and target those sources. (No wonder the media is regulated so much–it’s a security measure.) This fear-based way of operating has had devastating effects on populations and cultures. While it may be more comfortable to assume that we are well beyond dictatorships, radical leaders, and genocides, that is not the case. Just take a look at what is going on in the Middle East now. That is our world, too. And the more “global” our interactions and economy become, the closer to home the radical ideas and terrorism of the Middle East get. We are not isolated from it. And to think that certain governments or human rights organizations are able to prevent others from implementing acts of inhumanity would be naïve–otherwise what’s been showing up in the news lately would be different.

Despite Pol Pot’s responsibility for the Khmer Rouge, he was never indicted for any of it. He was taken to court over all this, but the trial was postponed for years and years so he lived out the rest of his life pretty happily with his wife and kids until he died while the trial was still lingering. Similar situation with two of his leading generals. What he left in his wake is a Cambodia that struggles in poverty–the lack of education resulting in short-sightedness and corruption among the people. Supposedly some of the current government officials were a part of Pol Pot’s regime while he was in power–perhaps that is why the trials never materialized. In any case, Cambodia is in re-boot mode and has a lot of room for trial and error right now.

I didn’t want to leave Cambodia on that note, so I stayed one day longer in order to walk around exploring the city more while I decompressed from the heavy experience. Also, all my travel buddies were now well on their ways to their next destinations. It was the first time I had really been by myself in almost three weeks so I had to get used to what that felt like again. This was the symbolic end to the first phase of my journey–six weeks of Southeast Asia mainland, lots of contact with friends and family from home, and building lasting relationships with travel companions. I knew the upcoming phase would be significantly different, but necessary. It was starting to look like the next six weeks were going to consist of island-hopping, solo travel, less contact with home, and lots more writing. But I’ll save those details for later…

This is Allan's photo--I borrowed it from Facebook. (Thanks, Allan!) On our last night together in Phnom Penh, Allan made sure we all took some pictures together. From left: Allan, me, Camila, and Cris. Gosh, I miss them!

This is Allan’s photo–I borrowed it from Facebook. (Thanks, Allan!) On our last night together in Phnom Penh, Allan made sure we all took some pictures together. From left: Allan, me, Camila, and Cris. Gosh, I miss them!

TRAVEL TIP: If you find great travel buddies, stick with them. No matter where you are traveling, you are bound to meet many people along the way. It is rare to find someone whose travel style, tastes, interests, and budget are compatible with your own. And then there is the question of personality compatibility! So if you do click with someone and you’re going along the same route, be open and flexible if it means you can stay with a great travel buddy for a little longer. Having travel companions can have many benefits including having someone to share meals or experiences with, having a little extra security (especially in the cases of solo travelers), and having a resource for wisdom, travel tips, and decision-making. At first I was hesitant to collect a travel buddy so early on, but meeting Allan was one of the best things that could have happened. He has so much more travel experience than I do so he was a wealth of knowledge, plus he was patient, independent, and funny. He now holds the record for length of time I have stayed with any travel companion!! (He was also very supportive of my writing habits!) I know we will remain friends forever. I also picked up some great tips from Cris and Camila and they were loads of fun to travel with as well (but the dynamic of a couple is different from that of a solo traveler). Conversely, if you meet people along the way with whom you clash or with whom communication seems particularly difficult, ditch them–no matter how nice they seem or how interested they are in doing activities together. It’s not worth it. You don’t owe them anything. Just keep moving. Knowing your boundaries is key to quality of experience, great adventures, and fabulous relationships.

Your [very relieved] friend and storyteller,

Alexandra

Advertisements

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. karl
    Oct 15, 2015 @ 23:31:48

    Alex, that was indeed hard to write. Pain and horror. And yet, a new hope. Thank you.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 781 other followers

Calendar of Posts

October 2015
S M T W T F S
« Sep   Nov »
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
%d bloggers like this: