Firstly, I must describe our trip to Phnom Penh. We booked a minibus to take us there, and were charged 8$ a person. Somewhere else we could get a ticket for 7$, but it would take one extra hour. For us, the 6$ were worth it. And now we know how they managed an hour less than all other tour agencies. Simply step on the gas. All driving rules (like driving on a side of the road, not in the middle) and all sensible speeds (115 km/hr in 40 km/hr areas?) flew out the window as we tore through the countryside, narrowly missing everything from tuk tuks to huge coach buses to a couple of cows trying to cross the highway (we almost hit one). We arrived windswept and with weak knees – and then we started our stay in Phnom Penh.
Over the course of this trip we have visited many historical places. It’s part of every country’s culture and self-identity, and of course, history. And so, we could not visit Phnom Penh without seeing S-21 and the Killing Fields, a large and tragic part of Cambodian history. For those who do not know what happened in Cambodia during the 1970s, a crazy man named Pol Pot took over with his Khmer Rouge regime. His goal was to make a land of farmers, or “equals”, creating a country completely self-sufficient. There was no currency or education, and all people were forced work the land, to slave away in the “prison without walls”. He called it “Year Zero”. The regime reminded me of crazy Sci-fi books, but to know this was reality is much worse. He was an awfully paranoid man as well, killing people with glasses or the slightest bit of intelligence, like lawyers, doctors, and teachers in his Killing Fields. S-21 was a torture / interrogation center for his enemies. Needless to say, Cambodia is still reeling from this awful time, not so long ago.
We walked into the prison cells in the S-21 and, to use a fairly juvenile word, it was really creepy. The air was heavy with memories and knowledge. Memories that weren’t mine, but were made there all the same. The weight of knowing what happened seemed to penetrate the room, haunting you and hanging there like, “Yes, this is where all of that happened. Right here.”
The walls inside the prison show faces, of the victims and of the instigators, young men and women brainwashed, scared, and threatened into killing their own people. And, as my mother aptly put it, the tragic thing is that you couldn’t tell them apart.
The Killing Fields were next. Since this was not long ago, so much is still there – the tree where they hung loudspeakers to muffle the dying, the mass graves, and the pieces of the victim’s clothing half-buried in the ground, revealed by the last rainfall. You can see the depressions in the earth where mass graves were excavated. You can pray in the stupa where they house the skulls, though not nearly large enough for the 17,000 victims. You can listen to a remembrance song while walking around a quiet lake – and it’s peaceful. The complete opposite of what it was 35 years ago.
The entire atmosphere is sad and lost in the remembering of the dead and the tragedies – but the birds still chirp, the chickens continue to run around, and the grass still grows that vibrant shade of green. And it is with this in mind that Cambodia is rebuilding itself. Phnom Penh is busily growing, sustaining a new generation as they test out life without war.
Dining for a cause
At first I thought it was just us and our “oh look, it’s for a good cause!”, but we found it to be true that Cambodia has more charity businesses, such as “training restaurants” where the food is cooked and served by former street youth, or boutiques such as Daughters of Cambodia, which rescues women from the sex-trade and gives them a job making accessories upstairs. With the Lonely Planet “Lend a helping hand” section’s help, we dined at what felt like as many charity restaurants as we could possibly find, feeling very good about ourselves. “It’s for a good cause” – truly the best excuse possible when the bill comes (although the food was never exorbitantly expensive).
I was too wrapped up in Angkor Wat to squeeze in anything else, so here is a description of the market in Siem Reap – one of the more crazy ones! We explored it early in the morning, always the best time because the fish haven’t started to stink and there is always a lot going on. The middle strip is dominated by women sitting on the ground, wielding cleavers as they descale and hack away at either the fish or the lettuce. Many fish/turtles/eels/etc are still alive, wriggling and making their way across the aisles until they are thrown back into the pile. You can get any type of food, from snails (they love them with chili flavoring) to pastries to durian. It’s mass chaos and there’s no rhyme or reason to anything, which is part of the fun. Oh, and next door you can get your pedicure. Or buy a ring!
Our time in Phnom Penh came to a close really quickly and we found we enjoyed Cambodia more than we thought we would. The people were always so friendly, the markets were amazingly crazy, and the streets and architecture were so similar to Paris. And the baguettes!
Exploring this country further will have to wait for another trip!