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Published: October 4th 2011
We haven’t written anything new since our arrival in Cambodia for a 3 month volunteering stint, mostly due to the fact that we’ve been extremely busy. We’ve been here for over a month now so naturally, we have quite a bit to talk about...
Our arrival into Cambodia, or should I say the arrival that almost never was, was easily one of the more frustrating experiences we have had thus far. All the relaxation and rest accumulated on Don Det swiftly evaporated in a cloud of disbelief and annoyance. We crossed the border into Cambodia at Voeng Kham, a crossing point literally in the middle of nowhere, and more to the point, a perfect point for border authorities on both sides to take advantage of any crossing foreigners.
This was the perfect setting for the odd bit corruption, ideal in its isolation, given the fact that foreigners who do not want to pay “administration fees” will be stranded until either a suitable bus with a willing driver comes to take you away or the border authorities eventually concede in a battle of wits.
It began on departing Laos, when we were waiting for our exit stamp, which we were
charged the fee of $2 – hardly a departure tax and I sincerely doubt anyone other than the guys in the processing office would benefit from this ‘donation.’ Next up was a quarantine area – a very basic stall in no man’s land where we were charged $1 for our temperature to be taken (and then not even looked at or checked on the thermometer). The feelings of irritation were already starting to build when we approached the visa issuance shack – a hut with three officials who have the responsibility of issuing visas. “Business Visa $28” was the demand. Amy had had enough by that point and informed the kind sir we would only be paying $25, since that is the actually cost of the visa and she would not be contributing a dollar each to these official’s back pockets! Taking offense to this insinuation of corruption, a slight against his honour, the leading official told us to take a seat and then told us he would not give us a visa. The argument continued since our bus was waiting to leave and we clearly didn’t want to be left at this border. About 20 minutes later, he finally
said he would give us a business visa but we owed $28, clearly realising our situation and lack of leverage. After paying the fee, our visas were then pasted into our passport with a small ink mark in the top left corner, stating this visa cost $25! After spitting feathers for a few seconds, we approached the final hut for our visa to be processed, for which we were asked for $2! We got onto the bus thoroughly annoyed and light $8 each...
In our experience of Cambodia thus far, it is a country a huge contradictions, the good and the bad. Speaking of the bad, there aren’t many things on this earth that have manifested the worst of the human race as much as the Pol Pot ruled Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 – 1979. In particular, those four years represented a reign of such evil that it has taken this country decades to even begin to recover.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh under the guise of salvation for the peasant classes of Cambodia and furthermore, its middle and upper classes. People celebrated their arrival the same way the Cuban’s had celebrated the
coup of Fidel Castro. However, joy quickly turned to confusion when Nuon Chea (Brother Number 2) ordered the evacuation of the city, with the lie that the US Air Force where on their way to bomb Phnom Penh.
In the ensuing days, weeks and months, the middle and upper classes of Cambodia were rounded up virtually without exception and either arrested and detained at Tuol Sleng Prison (also known as S-21) or they were cast out into the countryside to work in the rice fields in terrible conditions, where no single person was allowed to be alone or in small groups and all meals were communal.
For those who found themselves at S-21, they were greeted with far more terrifying prospects. Here, prisoners were presented with a list of rules to which they must obey, some specific to the times when they were being questioned. Failure to adhere to the rules resulted in severe torture and ultimately, execution, after which the body was tossed into a mass grave around 20km out of the city centre. now known as the infamous ‘Killing Fields.’
Walking around S-21 was one of the most upsetting and disturbing things we have ever
experienced – from the blood stains still on the tiled floors 36 years after the drops fell, to the photographs of many of the victims on display in some of the rooms on the tour, including numerous photos of very young children and even babies. Indeed, at the Killing Fields themselves, there is a tree known as the ‘Killing Tree,’ against which Khmer Rouge soldiers would swing children by the ankles in order to save bullets.
Commonly accepted estimates indicate the Pol Pot regime murdered around two million people, a number which included most of the educated classes of the country, a decision which set the country back years in its development and progression.
But it is progressing now, although it still has huge problems of a different nature; child prostitution, corruption and HIV not least among them. Since being in Cambodia, we’ve found the people to be perhaps the friendliest of all the nationalities we have met to date, and while they acknowledge their past, they rarely bring it up and try to look to their future.
However, one festival in particular which we have experience during our stay has particular significance for the past. During
the Phchum Ben fesitival, Buddhist Cambodians take food with them to as many temples and pagodas as they feel is necessary and present this food to the local monks as an offering for their ancestors. The thinking goes that in giving food to the monks they will pray at the tombs of the deceased and Yama, God of the Underworld, will allow the souls of the dead to visit their families and eat the food. A traditional offering of ben (special cakes made of rice, coconut milk and other ingredients), is the general food of choice and tradition dictates that it be offered in small pieces, since the souls of the dead have small mouths with which to eat!
Whatever you think of religious traditions, we were afforded the chance to take part in a very special day for those dedicated to this faith. We were taken by some of our Khmer co-workers in tuk tuks to Oudong Mountain, where we arrived at a large complex of temples perched on top of this peak. After offering food to the monks, by way of distributing rice into numerous rice pots, we took up some incense and raised our hands in
prayer mimicking the locals. After lunch, we ventured to the peak of Oudong, where we encountered numerous Stupas, a Dragon Temple and a panoramic view of surrounding Cambodia, a country which I must say is astonishingly flat.
Thus far, a truly interesting, enjoyable and sometimes shocking start to our time here in Cambodia. We can only hope that the final two months continue as the first has begun... Again, we have lost some of our photographs due to unknown reasons, photos which included S-21 Prison and The Killing Fields.
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