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Published: January 14th 2019
It was now time to head back to the frenetic city of Phnom Penh. Once again, I arrived at that swelteringly hot bus station, but this time I had available funds and cash to burn. The tuk tuk whizzed through the city streets. Well actually, it mostly sat stalled in the midst of belching traffic. I realized that I was no longer in the peaceful side of Cambodia. I hoped my body and mind had recovered enough for what lay ahead.
I was staying at the Vacation Boutique Hotel in downtown Phnom Penh. After stocking up at the local convince store for snacks and supplies I retired to my room to rest up for the night. At around 9pm I decided it was time to venture out into the awaiting darkness. The first bar I stopped at was quite large with a great open space inside. However, it was practically devoid of customers. I wound up playing connect four with one of the bar maids. After 2 or 3 games I felt it was time to move on.
I was walking along when I felt a couple of raindrops on my head. I ducked inside a bar and all
of a sudden, the sky opened up into a torrential downpour. I knew then that I would be at this bar for a while. Lucky for me, the place was pretty busy and seemed to have a lively atmosphere. Unfortunately, they were blasting some pretty loud hip-hop music so after ordering a beer I headed upstairs to the large open-air balcony. There I discovered a fellow Yank from California who was also escaping the rain. The balcony afforded a great view of the street scene below, which at that moment consisted of a lot of wet Cambodians trying to dodge the rapidly expanding puddles.
As we were talking a couple of Cambodian girls came up to sit on the balcony too. I’m not sure who made the first move, but after a while we all got to talking. The girls’ names were Chivy and Sreymom. They were fun. The rain thundered down even harder. The guy from California realized that if he didn’t leave now he might never leave. Last time we saw him he was back down on the street running through the lashing rain towards the safety of a good night’s sleep. I stayed drinking with the
girls for hours afterwards. Eventually, I had to go too. I had mentioned that I was planning on seeing the Grand Palace the next day. Chivy said she would be happy to meet me tomorrow and show it to me. Sounded like a pretty good plan to me.
We arranged to meet at noon the next day and head over to the palace together. It was very hot out and I was feeling a little worse for wear from the previous night’s drinking, but because Chivy was there I felt reinvigorated. The Grand Palace complex was of course beautiful and ornate. Chivy had promised to be my tour guide, but I seemed to know more about it than she did. Doing your research before you travel does have its benefits. She did however tell me that since the current king had no children that he would be Cambodia’s final monarch. Now that was something I did not know! After a day of touring I had Chivy pick out a local restaurant. This meal consisted of us happily talking and her, not being that hungry, watching me eat dish after dish of delicious Khmer food.
This relationship was too
good to last for only one palace tour. So almost everyday we would meet up together and see somewhere new. On my own I had been to the Central Market, but I suggested that we try out the Russia Market. Before we got underway, I thought that the tuk tuk driver was trying to screw us on the fare price so I really haggled hard, at one point even walking away. As a result, I got this crazy low price, however when I found out how far the Russia Market actually was, I felt bad and wound up giving him extra money.
During the week they closed off my street to traffic and constructed an entire enclosed wedding pavilion right smack in the middle of it. I don’t think I have seen that done anywhere else. I guess you’d have to have a lot of money to get that arranged, but again if you had all that money why would you want to get married in the middle of a downtown city street?
I was becoming aware of just how normal Phnom Penh now felt to me. I had been in Cambodia for almost a month now and
this last week really locked in the experience fully for me. Even the never stopping traffic was no longer a problem. I had figured out the trick. Sure, there were no traffic lights or stop signs, but if I just started walking across the street all the vehicles would just slowly maneuver around me.
The site that I was most interested in seeing in PP and what turned out to be the most meaningful day was when we went to Toul Sleng Prison and the killing fields. Unlike, the previous days when she wore jaunty modern clothes, on this day Chivy came dressed very traditionally and respectfully. I had wanted to see the prison before the killing fields because this would be the correct order that the victims would have experienced. They would be held at the prison and then they would eventually be transported out to fields for execution when the Khmer Rouge no longer had any use for them.
Toul Sleng Prison had once been a school. What was really depressing was that what had once been a space of hopeful learning had been transformed into rooms of unspeakable torture. Some rooms still had the metal
beds that the people would be splayed out on. Underneath them the floors still displayed the stains of despicable cruelty.
Another large room displayed the pictures taken of the prisoners upon entering Toul Sleng. The faces bore a harrowing mix of fear and defiance. While I gazed from face to face, Chivy sidled up to me and whispered that growing up she had heard a rumor that the Vietnamese government stood aside and let Pol Pot destroy the Cambodian people. And that they only stepped in and stopped the carnage when they knew Cambodia was weak enough for them to control. Outside the main building there was a list of ten rules posted for the prisoners to follow. The most disturbing being, “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”
From this somber place we made our way to the Killing Fields, the final resting place of many of the prisoners of Toul Sleng. Here, in a beautifully bucolic setting they would be killed. Most times they would be told they were being moved to someplace new, but they were never to be seen again. While walking contemplatively around the sunny green yard Chivy mentioned
that in her childhood memory she could dimly remember villagers being chopped down and pushed into ditches. This was quite remarkable since she was born in 1990. It goes to show though that once violence is visited upon a generation it can take decades before all traces of it fade away, if ever. The final stop along the tour was a simple tree where the Khmer Rouge hung a loudspeaker which played happy songs to drown out the moans of the dying.
I had now checked off everything on my Phnom Penh must-see list. Chivy however told me that there was a tiny island, Koh Dach, in the middle of the Mekong River that was famous for its silk making. We made a final plan to meet up the next day for yet another outing. I felt kind of adventurous as we boarded a local ferry bound for the island, with me as the only foreigner on board. We made our way to the top deck where we found ourselves on our own as all the other passengers stayed in the cargo hold below. We too would eventually move below as Chivy feared getting too tan.
itself was pleasant enough. And it was fascinating to see the local craftspeople producing their wares and to see the large number of silk cocoons. I was also able to buy some silk scarves as presents for friends and family. After we returned, Chivy and I stopped for a meal at a perfect riverside restaurant that specialized in honey barbeque chicken. The food, the company, the soft Mekong breezes, it was one of those moments in life that felt too good to be real. One of those moments that you try to hold on to because you know it cannot last forever.
The day I was leaving I arranged to meet Chivy for lunch. Since she had shown me so much of Cambodia, I wanted to show her a little bit of America. During some of my solo wanderings I had discovered an American bar and grill called, Lone Star Saloon. I found it to be quite authentic, so I took her there to show how us barangs eat. We ordered a couple of cheeseburgers with onion rings. Once she saw the portion size and grease content, she said no wonder we were all so big. She tried to
eat it, but could barely manage more than a couple bites. I guess some foreign foods are just too strange for consumption.
It was sad saying goodbye. I had come to count on her sunny smile and spontaneous laugh. But it was time to go. Life back in America awaited and my time in Cambodia had already started to fade into sepia. With a history well known by the world
The Cambodian soul lives on
Under the pride of Angkor
You continue to live on
Under the pride of Angkor, Oh
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