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Published: October 27th 2006
Until I get home for Christmas!!!
I was SO happy to have finally reached Phnom Penh, I would have slept in a barn if it meant getting some rest! Luckily I didn't have to though... Through my host organization I arranged to stay with an expat who lived right in the city, named Marylin (from the UK). She picked my tired ass up from the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) and took me back to her place on the back of her motto. I think I've become so used to riding these bikes that I might have to get one when I come home! EK! Streets of Toronto beware!
Marylin lives in a plush apartment building, all gated in and protected from the slums which surround the area. It's such a HUGE contrast of living standards between the expats and Khmers. Compared with Japan, everyone basically lives in the same type of place. I guess it's been almost every country I've visited thus far that has such a big difference in housing (I'm not talking about decoration, just structural housing). So once again I had my own room and bathroom. Marylin was a very helpful host and we toured
the city having dinner and drinks on my first evening. I even met back up with Sarah (from the Mekong trip) at Elsewhere Bar with the friends she was staying with.
As per usual, my first day in a new city doesn't amount to doing much. I was quite content to do a little blog writing and walk around a bit. Just forget about seeing the sites until tomorrow! The only real plan I had was to visit an orphanage that night up by the lake that Sarah had recommended. I had really wanted to visit an orphanage somewhere in Cambodia because of the sheer mass quantity of them (plus it would make me feel good to do something nice...) I found my way to the meeting place that night (not an easy feat when you don't REALLY know where you're going...) and found The Lazy Gecko Cafe.
As I was waiting in line to get the bus to take us to the orphanage (the bus was organized by The Lazy Gecko Cafe), I heard a familiar voice behind me, introducing himself to someone else. I turned around to find one of my friends from Japan standing there!
I was shocked! There was Adam Vaught, fresh off his cycle from Northern to Southern Japan, right in front of me in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Neither of us could believe it, and of course spent the remainder of the night talking about Japan, both our trips, and the people we both knew (you know who you are!) One of the funnier things about bumping into each other here, was that we'd ALSO bumped into each other in Sendai outside the Immigration office the day before we were both leaving. We had both said we'd be in Cambodia at a certain point, but to be honest, it went in one ear and out the other and I had totally forgotten that Cambodia was the country we both had in common on our trips. But little did it matter, because fate had us both at that orphanage that night and we had a great time playing with the kids and watching their dances. We did however get eaten alive by mosquitoes! Who loves Dengue Fever???!!! Yeah!
The Jeannine Children's Orphanage has 80 children at its complex and all the children have lost their parents to AIDS. Through the help of the
Lazy Gecko Cafe, foreigners can come and hang out with the kids and have dinner with them each Saturday night as long as the weather is good! After setting up all the chairs, we watched the kids do three incredible dances (all traditional Khmer dancing) and after dinner, we played games with them until all of US
got tired. And trust me, after 90,000 rounds of London Bridges Falling Down, we were quite ready to stop playing. For the most part, every foreigner gets 'adopted' by a child while they're there, and I was so adopted by a 12 year old girl named Sao who had remarkably great English. We talked about her plans to become a doctor and of course we had a little informal English lesson to boot. She gave me her address at the end of the night and I've promised to write to her.
On Sunday I finally gave in, and went sightseeing. Although it was boiling hot, I visited the National Museum and the Royal Palace. I think maybe I'm going to start laying off the museums, because they're all blending into one now and not impressing me. The National Museum only showcased replicas
of fallen carvings from the Wats around Angkor and the pushy women inside wouldn't leave me alone...they kept wanting me to give money to buddha. So thumbs down to the National Museum. (The courtyard was nice though...)
The Royal Palace was interesting enough, although fairly similar to its counterpart in Bangkok. The most curious part was near the Silver Pagoda: I saw an iron house which REALLY didn't seem to belong there. Turns out it was given to King Norodom by Napoleon III of France. So there ya go! You know it's rude not to display gifts that you've been given!
That night, Marylin and I joined my friend's ex boyfriend Phirun for dinner. Phirun picked us up in an air-conditioned car (that's crazy
cool for Cambodia) and we went across the river for some authentic Khmer food. We stayed there so long that they had cleared the rest of the restaurant before they started hanging around our table with their "please leave" coughs.
Next, we hit up "Miles' Rooftop Bar" (named so because they play a lot of Miles Davis music there) and I got myself lost in conversation with a young Khmer girl named Panya who
insisted I was her new best friend. She herself was in the sex trade industry and gave me quite the lesson on her daily "routine". Once again, I'm so glad to be from Canada...I'm not in the right frame of mind to even start to explain how I felt during this conversation. Another day perhaps.
Tuol Sleng Museum was what I had been dreading the most in visiting Cambodia. Formerly known as Security Prison 21 (S-21), Tuol Sleng was once a high school in the heart of the city but under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, was mercifullessly turned into the most gruesome of all slaughtering grounds. Those who I spoke to who had visited Auschwitz, said there was no comparison. The Khmer Rouge didn't waste time, they just murdered. Between 1975 and 1978, more then 17,000 people were held there and then murdered either at Tuol Sleng or in the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek). Only 7 people survived.
Walking through the old high school, the first thing you see is a list of rules, which you can see in one of the pictures below. Once you enter the first school building, there's a cartoon picture of a
Sao adopted me for the night
and I've promised to write to her from Canada
Khmer man smiling with a large red circle and bar over it (meaning: no smiling or laughing in the hall). Why this sign was even required, I didn't know at the time. Learning afterwards that all Khmers respond to situations of discomfort (in all situations) with a stereotypical 'giggle'. Sign understood. The first rooms were detention centers with a single bed and instruments of restraint and torture on display. This...was a warm up.
The next building held row upon row of moveable walls with small pictures all over them. Just like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous about recording their prisoners and photographing them. Room after room, I looked into the eyes of all these helpless men, women and children, who I knew had all suffered their own disgustingly unfair fates. Each picture the same in pose, but different in emotion. I saw fear and hope in varying degrees in each picture. Some people wounded, some deformed, some almost smiling, wanting to appear optimistic. It's been 3 weeks now since I saw their pictures, and I still see them in my mind. And for the first few nights afterwards they were in my dreams. But the 2nd building
us foreigners joining in on the dancing
and yeah...we all sucked compared to the kids!
was not the end. It continued.
In the 3rd high school building, (which eerily resembled the high school I had just spent three years teaching at), held individual cells, all formed from brick or wood. All having the look of hastily being put together. Peering into a couple cells, you can't stop the chills running through you. You come to understand the horror of the situation, that humans were kept there like animals and only found their relief in death. After the 3rd building, I climbed the stairs into the exhibition hall where there were featured 'personal stories' all over the wall. Told from relatives who survived the Khmer Rouge, there were short biographies of those who either disappeared into the 're-education' camps or of those whose picture were found among the walls of Tuol Sleng, too late to be saved or known about.
Twice a day, at 10am and 3pm, the museum shows a French-Cambodian film, bophana
which tells the true story of Hout Bophana ( a young Cambodian woman) and Ly Sitha (a Khmer Rouge leader) who fell in love and ended up paying with their lives for their crime. The documentary gave my Tuol Sleng
visit an even more human touch, and it also included an interview with one of the 7 survivors from the prison. He had escaped death because of his profession as a painter. All other 'intellectuals' or 'artists' were wiped out.
I had planned on continuing my journey that day out to the Killings Fields of Choeung Ek but ended up being sick to my stomach and decided I'd seen enough.
Such a huge part of my trip is about discovering the history and culture of each place I go, trying to understand it, and bring to life what I have previously learned from text books in school. Visiting Tuol Sleng became the most real experience of my trip. Much like the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, I was physically ill and affected by it. I find it amazing how the brave Cambodians today have put so much behind them to look to the future. 25 years later, the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders have still yet to be punished for their crimes against humanity and mass genocide, and you can see (and understand) how so many people are still fighting for justice to be served.
After my day at
Tuol Sleng I was ready to leave Phnom Penh, if just to get a change of atmosphere, but I stuck around one more day to get myself organized, clear my head, try to sort out my passport issues at the Canadian embassy and catch up with Adam once more before I made my way to Siem Reap.
My "issues" with the Canadian Embassy (that has become a huge obstacle to my trip plan, and why I'm writing this blog from Bangkok, Thailand) is that when I went to the Canadian Embassy in Phnom Penh to ask for new pages for my passport, they informed me that the law had changed as of last year and that you now must get a completely NEW passport when you run out of space. GOHD! (This was all settled this past Wednesday here in Bangkok, and my new passport will be ready to bepicked up November 14th) Fine.
So with that frustration to deal with, Marylin and I had dinner at "Friends" that night which is a charitable restaurant that teaches street kids English and how to cook, so we ate for a good cause! Adam then joined us and we went
for a few beers at Monsoon and then a few more drinks around the corner. It was nice to catch up with someone from Japan where I could talk about Japanesey stuff that would be understood without an explanation! And it was the perfect ending to an otherwise, emotional
The following morning, I took a 7 hour bus North along the Tonle Sap and arrived in Siem Reap just before dusk...but to know more...you'll have to wait for the next installment!
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