Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cambodi-odi-odi-o! Part 2 - Phnom Penh

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When Cait and I arrived in Phnom Phen, we were greeted by the usual suspects – taxi and tuk tuk drivers as well as guesthouse touts offering ‘cheap cheap’ and ‘same same, but different’ accommodations. We settled on ‘OK Guesthouse’ after consulting the Lonely. We sat in the tuk tuk facing the traffic and felt like rock stars (but not really in a good way). People stared at us like we were either monstrosities to society or high royalty – it was really QUITE uncomfortable.

After we arrived at the guesthouse, we walked to the riverside where tourists and locals blanketed the boardwalk awaiting sunset and some respite from the heat. It actually reminded me a little of English Bay in Vancouver, minus the naked children running amok, garbage strewn all over and excessive heat (have I mentioned how HOT it is here?!). We decided to take a breather and sit down near a group of children playing by the river. They were ridiculously cute so I tried to steal a photo. The first was taken of them hanging out on the riverside and I couldn’t have posed them more perfectly for the cover of a pop album for kids!

Soon they were taking photos of us with my camera. I had not had this much fun in a long time. They were so excited to see their faces on my LCD screen and even more so when they got to take the picture themselves. The warmth and happiness that we felt from these children made a special place in my heart for Cambodia.

The next day, we took a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields. Unlike most people, I had heard of the movie but not actually seen it, nor did I bother to ever find out much about it as I was never really into the whole war history thing. On this day, I found out more than my heart could take. Between 1975 - 1979, 30 percent of the Cambodia population (approximately 2 million people) were eradicated by the Khmer Rouge, lead by the Pol Pot regime. Phnom Penh was brimming with hope for the future when on April 19th the Khmer Rouge took over the city to fulfill their plan to create an agrarian society. They abolished the monetary system (all financial institutions closed), markets, schools and parts of Angkor Wat (Cambodian’s source of national pride) were destroyed. People considered intellectuals were immediately killed and those left over were forced into hard labour on collective farms, starved to death or executed. Children between the ages of 10 to 15 years old were turned into soldiers and unfeeling killing machines. The extermination camp called Choeung Ek, now dubbed The Killing Fields, is about 5 km from Phnom Penh. Several prisoners were also taken to S-21, the headquarters for the Khmer Rouge, where they were tortured into admitting crimes (such as treason) that they did not commit. They were barely fed; one prisoner who survived said that he only went to the bathroom twice in 2 months while being held there. The acts of tortures that were practiced are too graphic for me to even begin to describe.

Vietnamese troops finally captured Phnom Penh in 1979 forcing the Pol Pot regime and their followers into the jungle where they were originally established in the 1960’s. Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1985 and never paid for his crimes against the Cambodian people. Cait and I bought both the Killing Fields and S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine to watch because we were so intrigued with the how’s and why’s of this atrocious era in Cambodian history. I am afraid that we still didn’t find any clear answers. How could the rest of the world let this happen? How could we not have helped them? How is it possible that the soldiers can show such little remorse even today for what they did to their people, in some cases their own family and friends?

What I have learned has made me so appreciative to have the opportunity to travel and gain so much knowledge that I wouldn’t have otherwise pursued myself. I have lived a mighty privileged life. Our last night in Phnom Penh was spent with Cas. We met him at our guesthouse and decided to go out for dinner the three of us. Cas is in Cambodia volunteering for a NGO called Bridges Across Borders. He is also working on building an orphanage. Cas is the kind of person that has and will make a difference in the world. He was inspiring to listen to and we thoroughly enjoyed our evening together.

Cait left at 6 AM the next morning and I was NOT well. I had felt nauseous before we went to bed and a couple of hours later I was throwing up. I was supposed to catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh City that morning but had to cancel it. I didn’t want to stay in my guesthouse that not only had a musty stank but even worse, a putrid aroma wafting in through the bathroom window. Luckily for me, Cas said he would stick around an extra day to make sure it was only something I ate that was making me ill and not something more serious.We walked to a place to exchange some money for dong (Vietnamese currency). I stood there watching the lady counting it when I started seeing little dots darting around in front of my eyeballs. The next thing I knew, I was ground level. I didn’t pass out – I just couldn’t stay standing up! From out of nowhere, a little Cambodian angel shoved a small, clear glass bottle of brown liquid into my hand and gestured to rub it on my temples. I did so and za-za-zing! My eyeballs felt like they had been dipped in icy cool water and the world seemed like a much better place. They got me sitting on a chair and Cas went and bought me some water. He suggested that maybe perhaps I was not well enough to be out and about and should think about going back to my guesthouse. I agreed reluctantly and slept away the afternoon and early evening. Cas returned to take me for tea by the river when I started to feel somewhat human....ready for the next leg of my journey.....the ever bustling, horn blowing Ho Chi Minh City!

1 comment:

- said...

Lovely (and not so) to hear about Cambodia, certainly a place I intend to come back to, later in the year, perhaps early next. There, along with northern Thailand and Laos sound like fantastic places that I missed out on this time round.

You do the concise blogging much better than I too!