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Published: November 10th 2008
Cambodia… why were we going to Cambodia? It’s never really been on my travel hit list before but Brian and I found ourselves with a few weeks off and contemplated seeing our neighboring countries. Now, we really only had about ten days travel time and thought Cambodia’s got the least to offer right? Ankor and the Killing Fields, what else could we possibly want to see? Yes, it sounds rude and elitist but don’t worry this story will progress and the protagonists will mend their evil nationalist ways.
Phnom Penh is in the middle of a bunch of water. A river with expensive lodging on one side of town and a lake with suspiciously cheap lodging. With the promise of great lakeside balconies at these dirty cheap guesthouses, we opted for the lake. The good news was that there were many fabulous guest house balconies that stretch out onto the lake with hammocks and other relaxed seating but the rooms (being the bad news) were all constructed of simple metal framing and lots of linoleum. Mind you Phnom Penh is hot and these guest houses were basically of the same design as an oven. Being five dollars
they of course had no air con, hot water, t.v., sheets and sometimes not even a properly working fan. I very sadly scoured as many rooms as I could while Brian sat with our backpack on a balcony drinking Ankor beer and watching the sun set. We finally found one and the next morning looked for another… The area was also a first glimpse into what to expect in Cambodia: harassing tuk-tuk drivers, over-priced food, aggressive child sellers and many a drug dealers. I did manage to eat the best Khmer dish I had in Cambodia that first night though, a spectacular fish amok.
The next morning we took a forty minute tuk-tuk ride to the Killing Fields. The killing fields were strangely beautiful. It seemed as though we were walking into paradise. Lush emerald fields, huge strong trees that seem to humble you in their presence, butterflies fluttering through sun rays that filtered down through the trees and then, in the middle of it all, a towering monument in the simplest form of the typically ornate Southeast Asian architecture. You could have told me this tall temple was meant to reach up as a gift to the Gods
This is really the only significant marking of the area aside from the signs and few thatch coverings you see.
and I never would have guessed that it was only as tall as needed to be to house the millions of skulls left behind by the murderous Khmer Rouge régime from only thirty years ago. Journeying back into the fields we found more seemingly peaceful retreats that brought us back to reality with their signs asking visitors to please not walk through the mass graves.
We also spoke with our first of many Cambodian children here. He stopped us from behind a fence and with perfect English had many questions for us. What were our names, what did we do for work, where were we from, how many people were in our family and did we want to take his picture. As Brian took his picture I dug into my purse to find a couple of pens to give the boy to share with his school friends (pens we bought specifically to give to begging children. We wanted to be responsible travelers and not promote child exploitation by giving them money which in turn goes into the hands or their adult care taker and does little to help the children). As Brian’s flash went off and I was handing
him the pens, the boys face suddenly dropped and his now ghostly voice begged for only money. “Moneeeey, give me moneeeey, I don’t want pens, I need moneey, give me moneeey…” Totally thrown off guard we gave him a dollar and he of course asked for more. We told him we couldn’t and then he asked for my water. I gave it to him and quickly left the scene.
After the fields we went to the S-21 prison, one of many but probably the main prison where targeted Khmers (and any and all expats that lived in the country too) were taken to be tortured and eventually killed by the Khmer Rouge. The prison was intense. It had been a high-school before the regime and the class rooms were turned into prison cells and torture chambers. The S-21 museum still had many artifacts left by the Khmer Rouge and also housed mug-shots of all the prisoners as well as different historical accounts and artwork that told the many stories of this time period in Cambodia.
This was a long, emotional day so we attempted to end it with a more relaxing night out on the river. The river
area in Phnom Penh is a hip waterfront street with pubs, rooftop restaurants, cafes and shopping. We ate at a restaurant that gave all proceeds to a local orphanage. Sitting there we couldn’t keep the kids selling books away so we decided to invite them to join us. I asked one little girl if she would like to share some food with us. She said yes then quickly flagged the waitress over and asked for a menu… not really my intention. I had thought she could share with us. She ordered an expensive fish dish—to go. As we waited for her dish, her brother kept insisting that he too was hungry, hasn’t eaten for days in fact and needed food but his sister would not share. We didn’t believe him and persisted that the two of them would share. When the little girl’s food came, she ran off and gave it to her keeper who was sitting quietly watching the event from around the corner behind the restaurant. This mother/keeper/whatever inspected the food and put it in her bag as she did with all other gifts bestowed on her children. When our food did arrive, we asked the boy if
he would care for a bite. He nonchalantly said “No, thanks. I already ate…”
Though the days can be hot and grueling on your emotions and patience, peaceful Cambodian mornings will revive any soul. Every morning I woke up early and found the farthest seat out on our shared lake front balcony. I’d sit and gaze upon the bustling lake front villages waking and preparing for their days. It was always so quiet and calm in the early morning sun that you would have to really focus to hear and see all the soft but efficient commotion of beginning another day in Phnom Penh. Our breakfasts were always delicious. Who’d of thought fried rice with a simple addition of lime and chili sauce could be so memorable. My favorite, though, was the traditional Khmer breakfast of pork fried in sugar, garlic and spring onions served over rice with a lime and a sweet chili sauce. With this dish we began our second full day in Cambodia: a nice walk to the city’s largest market. They had all the wacky looking food you see in Thailand's markets but then there was the French influence of a baguette and cheese stand
An adorable child with a great routine in English...then he asks for money like he's going to shoot you if you refuse. Of course he wouldn't accept Cambodian currency! The only person who would not accept Cambodian currency during our whole trip, and it's a boy begging. Oh Cambodia -- you are so confusing....
Next, even though we were quite sick of the Khmer children at this point, we still carried on with our plans to visit an orphanage. We came across a wonderful tuk-tuk driver who approached us as if he were on a job interview. Instead of following us down the street shouting, “where are you going? I take you to Killing Fields, I take you on tour. Hey lady, where are you going?!?” he simply asked us if we could be so kind as to give him a job for the day. We did and off we went through Phnom Penh to the outskirts of the city where the numerous orphanages lie. I witnessed my second favorite site of Cambodia on this ride (for my first favorite, you’ll have to check out the pics). On a road just past the palace, hairdresser stations—with mirrors, chairs and all---were lined up along a brick wall right there on the sidewalk, right there off the main highway. Now in Thailand I have gotten use to three walled establishments but this was the first one walled beauty salon I had ever seen--complete with young and trendy Khmer barbers.
The orphanage was
an amazing experience. The children were so happy to see us and showed us nothing but love, trust and affection from the moment we drove through the gate. Many had brilliant English and the others were brilliantly trying. They had games for us to play and were elated at any effort we put forth into remembering a game from our childhood to show them. We spent the best part of our time in Phnom Penh at this orphanage and sadly had to leave that afternoon even though they had offered to have us stay for dinner (those sweet angels… offering us
dinner!). Unfortunately though, we had a tuk-tuk driver that was being paid by the hour to wait for us.
From the orphanage, Brian and I were dropped off at a park just behind the palace. We watched the Khmer’s come out as the heat of the day died off and play football, volley ball or whatever they could do to use up their good energy with friends and family. We walked along the river back to the pubs and cafes we had been to the night before. We ate another delicious meal and smiled and politely nodded a
Room used for torture.
simple ‘no’ to the child sellers. The girl we had seen the night before asked us to buy from her again, not even recognizing us. I caught her brother’s eye, though, and he so coolly said, “Hey, I know you!” and extended his hand for a well executed slick slap of a handshake that most boys don’t even begin to practice until they are twice his age.
You begin to realize that you have to love the children for what they are. You cannot constantly harbor feelings of pity (or annoyance) for them. Sometimes you just have to look for the beauty behind it all. If you focus on the Khmer people’s insistent demands of money from foreigners then you will hate or pity them and what good does that do? What you have to do is remain polite and ride through their demands, after they have tried and tried they will eventually show you that genuine and contagious smile of theirs, maybe crack a joke or playful comment and open up to you. And of course they will end every meeting (whether they got what they wanted from you or not) with “Good luck to you!” Alright,
wrap it up Claire... and to those of you skimming: STOP AND READ THIS!
So yes, I recommend Phnom Penh and Cambodia to any traveler. If you can't make it there, please quickly find your local Cambodian restaurant and order a plate of fish amok and a plate of beef lok lak... Once you have savored their fabulous cuisine, or better yet--before, check out this website http://www.lighthouseorphanage.co.uk/ This is the home of some of the most beautiful children I have ever met. They have had a hard life, the people taking care of them have had a hard life and so have the people in their community but they are still happy, loving, and hopeful. If you can help them in even the smallest amount (if the average 80 people who read our blog give $10 they will have $800), I guarantee they will be grateful for it and if they could (or when they can), I know they would (will) be just as generous with their community. I will always remember the boy whose left arm was paralyzed because of the poor medical treatment he received before coming to Lighthouse Orphanage yet still played a mean game of rock
paper scissors (for a good half hour at that). And the sweet angel of eight years old who never left my side from the moment we entered the gate. She showed me the entire orphanage and waited patiently for my attention again when I spoke with the other children. She jumped on me for the biggest bear hug good bye as she wished me good luck in my life. She is the beautiful lazy eyed love of my life from the pictures. These children need food and they need doctors and they need to know that they are loved, safe and cared for. Please take a moment to help them and then go and rejoice with that amok and lok lak! And for those of you who want to know more, here is Brian's brief but relatively accurate summary of Cambodia's history:
From about the 11th to 14th centuries the Khmers (Ethnic Khmers make up a large percentage of Cambodians) ruled a lot of Southeast Asia. This is when they built the fabulous temples of Angkor Wat and others. They had quite a society going. Around the 14th century the empire weakened. I believe the Thais were the
ones to take Angkor in 14 something. After this the Capital was moved to Phnom Penh. The next centuries saw invasions and rule from the Thais and Vietnamese.
Around 1863 the Cambodians arranged to become a French protectorate. This lasted until 1953. Oh Cambodia has a king. I think the Thais installed a royal family during their rule. Anyways, in 1953 Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. Then this whole communist thing happened.
The Cambodian government had a policy of neutrality during the cold war. Their people began to take sides though, and then the Vietnam War took off. The king was ousted in a coup in 1970 while he was abroad. He realigned himself while in Beijing with a countryside rebel group called the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge had been gaining territory in the remote mountain regions of Cambodia. The King urged his followers to go with the Khmer Rouge. Civil war ensued while at the same time America was doing some bombing (maybe a lot, I don’t really know) because the Veit Cong (is that spelled right?) had some bases going on there (or whatever).
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge won out and
Elephants to use the streets too...
P.S. my favorite sight in Phnom Penh!
took the capital city of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, was a communist thing. They sought to turn the country into an 11th century, self-sustaining agrarian society. This was to be accomplished by virtually emptying all of the cities and assigning the population to work on fields in the countryside. Furthermore, class and seemingly individuality was to be erased. This meant that families were separated (including young children)…I think torn apart is really the more appropriate description, and love even seem to be banned.
At the time of the Khmer Rouge’s takeover, the country was already suffering to a shortage of food from civil war and crop failures. An already severely malnourished population was put to work in the fields. The people were told they were serving Angkar (not Angkor as in Angkor Wat; I still don’t understand). This appeared to be an almost mystical figure and seems to be how Pol Pot controlled things.
So during the next four years things were very bad for the Cambodian people (understatement). The Khmer Rouge was very paranoid and they sought to erase all traces of Western influence. Anyone with a western education, or any type
of education for that matter, was targeted, locked up, interrogated, tortured and eventually executed.
It got crazy. People with glasses were targeting because they looked smart. Western medicine was shunned, and there was a time when there were virtually no drugs/medicines in the country.
I don’t know the exact number that were executed but the Khmer Rouge, for some odd reason, did a pretty meticulous job of record keeping. All in all around 2 million people perished during this time. That’s about 20-25% of the population. Oh, and for the record Pol Pot was educated in France where he became a communist. He did not feel the need to eliminate himself. Funny…
During 1975-79 the Khmer Rouge messed with Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. Vietnam eventually took Phnom Penh in 1979. The 1980’s saw more chaos and insecurity and the Khmer Rouge continued its fight from the countryside. Finally in the early 90’s things got a little better. Peace was brokered in Paris and U.N. sponsored elections were held in 1993. Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders continued to live until the late 90’s. Pol Pot died in 1998. He was never brought to justice.
Jazzersize on the river
They do this in Thailand too. All the ladies get together at sunrise or sunset for aerobics, right in the middle of town.
king came back. Yeah, the one who encouraged the Khmer Rouge. I think the people kind of have mixed feelings about him.
So now half of Cambodia’s population is under 25 years old. They are the 3rd most landmined country in the world (predominantly in rural areas; the mines are from the civil war). The government is run by Hun Sen for the last 23 years. They have elections but…well there’s still problems and the government appears to be pretty corrupt.
The scale of suffering, destruction and loss of human life is hard to comprehend. I still can’t get my head around it. Even as I stared at thousands of skulls stacked eight stories tall; smelled the lingering stench the skulls gave off; walked around the 129 mass graves with bones fragments still scattered in the grass and looked at jars full of teeth and piles of clothes stripped off victims just before they were killed—I still couldn’t comprehend just what the F happened. In the end I don’t think many people have the capacity to understand, and that’s a positive thing.
So there’s the background. Cambodia has seen a huge upsurge in tourism since the turn
of the century. Most go to Angkor Wat. Mines are still problem. There are a lot of amputees who have to resort to begging for survival. Hopefully the tourist dollars help. Textiles is actually their number one industry (tourism is 2nd) and they’re doing a decent job there. The country is still recovering. Things will likely remain messed up for a long time, but I suppose genocide has that effect.
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