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Published: June 13th 2017
Geo: 11.5588, 104.917DAY FOURTEEN (1/16/13) — Phnom Penh
This morning we tour Cambodia's Grand Palace. This afternoon we tour one of Cambodia's documented 83 Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. How could Cambodia be so lovely and so damned awful at the same time?
Health update: Dianna spent 3 hours in the emergency room. She has officially been diagnosed with bronchitis, given an inhaler and other drugs and should be on her way to recovery soon. Before that, she was having trouble breathing. She went to an S.O.S. doc in a box where her doctor has an undergraduate degree from Purdue (Boiler up!) and a med school degree from Indiana. She feels understood and less frightened by her symptoms.
Following breakfast, the rest of us take cyclo rides through town to the Grand Palace. OK, the cyclos were entertaining the first time but, by the third time, not so much.
The palace and grounds are beautiful. The Royal Palace is inaccessible to us because Sihanouk's body is lying in state. But we visit the Silver Pagoda (WOW!) which houses many national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues. Most notable is
the Emerald Buddha, made of baccarat crystal, and a life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds. The pagoda is inlaid with sterling silver floor tiles. It's the official temple of the King of Cambodia.
The architecture in this city, and especially on the palace grounds, is simply fascinating. We learn a lot about the design and construction, as well as the function, of the buildings. A stupa, for instance, is a burial ground, usually a monument located where someone's remains are. Nagas, a common decoration resembling a serpent, are designed to ward off evil spirits.
We learn a lot about Sihanouk and the more modern history of Cambodia. Sihanouk came and went from power several times as king, as prime minister, etc. He was exiled, he abdicated and he organized his own forces against Pol Pot, head of the Khmer Rouge.
We visit the National Museum where a docent takes us on a tour of Khmer art, mostly Buddha sculpture … a very important part of Cambodian culture, not unlike the role Jesus, Mary and the saints played in Renaissance art. Several ladies buy silk scarves from a vendor near the end.
We lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club,
a breezy restaurant overlooking the Grand Palace grounds. The views are very nice and the food is acceptable but not noteworthy.
We pile back on the bus for a quick transfer to Tuol Sleng, the prison where many of the top Cambodian "criminals" were imprisoned and tortured by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Later they were shot and killed at one of Cambodia's Killing Fields, not far away. We visit one of the fields, Choeung Ek, after our prison tour.
This is genocide just as much as the Holocaust was; and visiting here was just as distressing as visiting Dachau and Theresienstadt concentration camps. Two million people, mostly ranking government and military officials, along with intellectuals (doctors, lawyers, teachers), were executed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Effectively, they killed off the top quadrant of their population in terms of IQ.
I remember seeing “The Killing Fields,” a 1984 film about the Khmer Rouge and the experiences of two journalists: Cambodian Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) and American Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston). Hang S Ngor, who played Pran, was himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and the labor camps. I remember at the time how
difficult it was to watch (harder than “The Pawnbroker” and “Schindler's List”😉 but at the same time I knew it was important for me to see it. Its saving grace was a scene at the end where the two finally reunite and John Lennon's “Imagine” song play prominently as the two men hug.
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world ...
Seeing the prison where men and women were kept; seeing photos of people who were tortured here; seeing the actual instruments of torture and artists' depictions of same, proves to be just as painful and stressful as the movie was. Imagine what it was like for them.
What is most incredible is that no one really did anything about it. In 1979, the Vietnamese came in and defeated the Khmer Rouge and the prisoners were set free. But Pot and the KR continued their reign of terror for almost 20 years. In
1997, the Khmer Rouge had their own tribunal and found Pot guilty, but mostly because he had had a high ranking Khmer Rouge officer executed. Supposedly he died in prison, but most feel he was executed by his own men.
We ask our guide, who grew up in an orphanage as a result of the Khmer Rouge reign, about his personal feelings. Because he is a Buddhist, he feels that in order for him to be happy, he had to let go of the anger he once felt and forgive the Khmer Rouge for their transgressions. Amazing.
Tonight is a fancy dinner in a fancy restaurant in the hotel: Le Royal. We have crystal candelabra and a three-course meal. We dine with Adorjans, Morleys and Gundlachs.
Tomorrow: the big gun – Angkor Wat.
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