History Lessons in Phnom Penh

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February 25th 2010
Published: March 3rd 2010
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Phnom Penh is the biggest city and capital of Cambodia, a rough and hectic city, and one with some brutal history to go along with it. I arrived with a few of the others I'd been traveling with lately and made our way to the lakeside area where many budget guesthouses could be found. Poverty is abound, and although there is a rising upper class, the divide between rich and poor is astounding. Although not quite as dirty as I was expecting, the city is very dusty and lacking in infrastructure. The humidity during the day was almost unbearable. I walked the city for a while the first day and got my bearings of our part of town. The riverside catered towards an emerging tourist class and decent and expensive cafes and hotels can be found, but a few streets further one finds rundown appt buildings. The touts continued being aggressive here, and I continued ignoring them. Food here was quite expensive by Asian standards and western food, along with Khmer food, can be found all over. We walked in the evening again after dinner and this time got lost. Luckily I spotted the only "skyscraper" in the distance and used it as a beacon to get us home. It was cool walking the city by night.

The following day we visited the S21 Museum also known as Tuol Sleng, which used to be a prison and torture facility used during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It was once used as a high school but was then converted into what it is now famous for and renamed it Security Prison 21. At first most of the inmates were from the old government as well as many academics. Eventually no one was safe as even those within the twisted regime were sent there due to the parties ever increasing paranoia. Prisoners were tortured into making false confessions, implicating others and then were killed. There were four different prison blocks, each showed different things such as torture devices, pictures of countless victims, the tiny cells, testimonials of survivors, etc. About twenty thousand people were held here during its four years of operation.

From there we continued on with a tuk-tuk outside of town to the killing fields or more specifically to Choeung Ek, where multitudes of mass graves were found. About seventeen thousand people were executed at this site, many which came from Tuol Sleng. There was a Buddhist Stupa at the center commemorating the victims. Within were five thousand human skulls as well as loads of other exhumed bones and clothing that were found after the Khmer Rouge fell. Many of these mass graves which were actually quite small in size held hundreds of bodies. There was the "killing tree" that was used to beat children against. Death quite simply littered the area.

Going through the city by tuk-tuk gave us a great opportunity to experience the sites and sounds of this urban sprawl. We got back in the evening and then I went to get a haircut and for the first time in a few months, a shave. My beard at this point resembled a sweeping mane, most of the guys I met were so envious of the fact I could grow such an impressive beard while they had scraggly garbage and many people had even started nicknaming me Leonidis of the movie 300 or Leo for short cuz of it. I liked that nickname. This was the longest I ever grew my beard and it was amazing having a backpackers beard (lots of guys I've met tend to stop shaving on the road), but the problem was it was too thick to deal with this type of heat and sadly something had to give.

On our final day in Phnom Penh a couple of us decided to go to an orphanage and donate some time there. We picked up a large 50kg bag of rice from the market and then got some pencil crayons, paper, and a soccer ball for the kids. The orphanage lacked in proper funding so any donations, gifts of volunteers were welcomed. This particular orphanage housed seventeen kids between seven to fourteen and all of them were HIV positive, their parents all dying of aids. Sadly no anti-retroviral therapy could be afforded for them. The kids were all in good spirits and had loads of energy. We drew with them at first, then played a variety of games, and played lots with the soccer ball which they seemed to love. They were quite savvy in English and able in geography as well. I asked one of them what he wanted to be when he grew up and he responded a tuk-tuk driver. We hung out for a few hours there and

Only one in this city
then headed back to the guest house.

That evening everyone wanted to drink at the guesthouses 24 hour bar to start the night then we went off to a close bar and later to this place called Heart of Darkness. The place was too damn crowded and it like in no time I had a brain of darkness, don't know if it was something I ate or drank, but I felt dizzy and went out for some air. I came back in and then went to the washroom (which turned out to be the women's washroom), locked myself into a stall and then closed my eyes and waited for the spinning to stop. Next thing I knew I was roused from my sleep by one of the employees banging on the door saying "We close, we close!". I stumbled out from there and realized some people I met were still there and heading back so I jumped on to the tuk-tuk with them and went to the guesthouse. When we arrived I fell out of the tuk-tuk, shuffled back to my room and passed out.

Holly came to wake me up in the morning, we had a bus to catch to southern Cambodia, and found me practically naked with my clothes strewn about. Funny sight I'm sure. I found out Maitreya, who was staying in the city, had gotten separated from us after the first bar, had heard to gun shots while eating soup outside of another bar and then saw a guy get a bottle smashed over his head. We couldn't find Rory at all, who was also booked on the bus, and had to leave without him.

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Mini-Mart ShrineMini-Mart Shrine
Mini-Mart Shrine

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