A Cambodia I Didn’t Know

After two days sightseeing the Temples of Angkor, we hopped on a 6 hour bus ride south to Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia.

The bus ride was long bumpy and hot despite the air conditioning; the seats were this heat multiplying foam crap, ugh. It was largely uneventful other than it was treated like a plane ride. There was an attendant who passed out snacks and drinks, there was an “in-flight” movie, and there was the obligatory seat belt sign. We stopped about halfway through the trip and got a Lychee flavored Fanta, which I had never seen before and as we were reboarding the bus we saw a host of fried bugs for sale.

We pulled into Phnom Penh as it was getting dark and hopped a tuk tuk to the hotel: The Blue Lime. The tuk tuk drivers kept wanting us to book them for rides to the killing fields the next day, one of the sites of the atrocities of the Pol Pot reign. We only had a night and an afternoon here before flying to Bangkok so we weren’t that keen on going 30km out of the city.

We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and went out for a dinner at a place called Friends. This restaurant is run and staffed by members of an organization by the same name whose goal is to eliminate poverty through skills training for kids who would otherwise be on the street. Among those skills are customer service and culinary arts. The food was good, and after learning about the cause we ordered dessert.

We left the restaurant and walked down to the river front area which is where nightlife and activity seem to be taking root in this otherwise sleepy capitol. We had drinks at Foreign Correspondent Club on the waterfront and saw some harrowing photographs taken during the Cambodian civil war and the ensuing period of Khmer Rouge.

So I’ve been dancing around it for a while. Cambodia is a country with a very recent history of atrocities, and a present of very real social issues including extreme poverty and sex trafficking and trade. The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot was something I’d heard of, but never really knew about. I’m certainly not an expert now and will not pretend to be, but for those as clueless as I was here is the story as I understand it in a bit of a nutshell.

When US (and ally) forces withdrew from Vietnam and Cambodia in the 70s, Pol Pot seized control of the government. In the following 4 years he instituted a forced labor campaign across the country that overnight sent the population into the rice fields. Over the next 5 years he would be responsible for the murder and genocide of over a quarter of the country’s population, or around 2 million people.

The killing fields mentioned before we’re out of the question for our visit (as was the exhibit where you could apparently fire one the AK47s used by Pol Pot’s forces) because it was both too far away and really too heavy for any of us to comprehend. Intrigued though, we went to visit one of the prisons where the Cambodian people were held/tortured/executed. The prison was called Tuol Sleng, or #21 ad was converted from a school under the pretense that “education is not important, only work and revolution”. Of the 17,000 people who passed through these walls only 8 are known to have survived. As for the rest, there photographs are posted along the corridors of two of the main buildings; a humbling site indeed.

As we left we considered this: the Khmer Rouge were ousted just before we were born, in the late 70s, so anyone that we saw who looked older than us must have endured some pretty tough times in their life and anyone our age or younger must constantly hear about it. It really changes your perspective on the people you see sleeping in the streets, begging for food, or in one case, missing half of their face.

In effort to lighten our moods, we decided to go shopping (great segue right?). First to the standard endless stall Central Market similar to those in Siem Reap (in every annoying way) and then to a couple of streets outlined in our Lonely Planet guide book. Erin bought a shirt from an organization called Daughters of Cambodia that, similar to the restaurant we ate at, gives and teaches women a way out of street life. We finished up our stay with a lunch at a good, but not all that impressive French fusion restaurant called Le Wok on the river front and headed to the airport.

I wish we had more time here. There is a heart breaking charm to everything. Alas, off to Bangkok….

If you are interested here the websites for the organizations that I talked some about:
http://www.friends-international.org
http://www.daughtersofcambodia.org

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Pictures
1- inside central market, this woman bare hands a fish and guts it with a cleaver…yum
2- #21, the wooden structure in the courtyard was where students would climb ropes for exercise…it was coveted into an apparatus to string prisoners up by their arms, which were tied around their backs, until they went unconscious…they would then be plunged head first into putrid water to snap back and interrogation would continue…
3- Erin and I in a tuk tuk
4- the Central Market

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