Phnom Penh, Cambodia
October 7, 2006 Shannon:
After spending countless hours viewing the splendors of Angkor Wat, Sean and I departed Siem Reap and packed ourselves into a local bus for the trip to the capital, Phnom Penh. Thankfully the rains that had been threatening all day held off just long enough for us to arrive, whereby the skies promptly opened up and a torrent was unleashed just as we were about to disembark from the bus. Naturally, the place that the bus chose to offload it’s human cargo had no protection from the elements whatsoever - just a random curb near the city center - so all of the passengers (us included) looked out the windows weighing our options. Great timing. It wasn’t a cheerful little storm, either. The heavens had loosened, the sky was black and it was coming down with an angry vengeance, with no signs of abating anytime soon. Not surprising, it didn’t look like anyone wanted to get off the bus. After sitting there for a few minutes, Sean took the initiative and headed out. By the time I reached him a minute later, he had already gotten the cargo doors open beneath the bus
Arch enemies to the nagas, garudas are powerful creatures with a wing-span of many miles (so wide, in fact, that they are said to be able to block out the sun).
(the bus driver was as reluctant to leave his dry perch as everyone else) and was completely surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers shouting above the rain and waving laminated hostel brochures in his face. Scrambling into the fray, the rain completely drenching us, I tried to help him locate our backpacks from amongst the piles in the hold while ignoring the hawkers. Unhelpfully crowding into us, making it difficult to maneuver at all, I felt like shouting “Can’t you see we’re trying to find our bags here. There is absolutely no possibility of us going anywhere with you until you back up and give me some damn room to breathe!”
It’s a frustrating situation, but also now a very ordinary one for us.
Wanting to get out of the rain and away from the touts, we headed for a café across the street. Enjoying a cup of tea while drip-drying on the cafe floor, we watched the spectacle across the way as our fellow passengers eventually decided to follow our lead and exit the bus. Watching the ensuing scrum, it’s almost amusing when it’s not happening to you. The shouting, the crowding, the papers shoved in your face -
it’s just so ridiculous, so very contrary to how we drum up business in the west. Annoy the pants off someone…yeah, that’ll bring in business by the heaps. Good plan.
We did eventually make our way to a very nice hostel, run by the friendliest Cambodians we have met to date. That’s the yin-and-yang of traveling: one minute you’re being annoyed by aggressive cabbies, the next you’re being charmed by someone truly genuine. Sean:
Phnom Penh is a more spread out version of the Lao capital, Vientiane, but both are essentially just overgrown towns - not a mirrored glass skyscraper between them. Phnom Penh has some nice French colonial architecture that seems to be centered on the riverside quay and is filled with cafes catering to the contingent of tourists, NGO employees and expats in general. The downside to this congregation of “high end” (coffees are $1 and most entrees around $3-$4) restaurants and shops is the concentration of beggars and touts. It is very, very sad to see the large amount of missing limbed panhandlers hobble up to you constantly and it’s difficult to not want to give them something - not only because the little suckers
OK. So this isn't exactly a typical Cambodian food. But it was a REALLY good eggplant and brie sandwich.
are persistent, but because giving them the equivalent of 13 cents will actually elicit a thankful response.
So we try to have a supply of small note riels
in our pockets to hand out, but when one of them sees you tossing little bits around, you’re sure to attract a crowd. But what do you do when a couple of dirty kids in raggedy clothes (some sporting stumps in places where full appendages were designed to be) asks you for what amounts to a dime? It’s enough to melt even my cold, cheap heart.
As an aside: whereas Panama’s currency was
the US dollar (only with another name - the Balboa) Cambodia actually has its own called the “riel”, but they have adopted the US dollar as their de facto monetary unit. Washingtons, Lincolns, Hamiltons, and of course Jacksons are accepted for all transactions, and required on larger ones (riel bills are worth very little). As a bonus for us, the ATM’s even dispense greenbacks, so at least our bank can’t rook us on the exchange rate.
October 7, 2006 Shannon:
Imagine suffering through years of external strife as the Vietnam Conflict spills over the
eastern border of your country, as foreign fighters seek refuge within your neighborhood and the fight moves to your backyard. Imagine surviving the thousands of bombs dropped, avoiding the fighting that is now raging within the borders, and finally learning that peace will now return to your lands as the US-financed government finally surrenders to the Vietnamese-backed efforts of the Khmer Rouge. People cheered in Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge took control of the streets and waved their flags in celebration. Peace at last…right?
The long nightmare for the people of Cambodia was actually just beginning. The new government, led by Pol Pot, immediately (literally within days) began implementing one of the most radical societal restructurings ever attempted: turn the emerging modern nation of Cambodia back 400 years into an agricultural “utopia”. To do this, Khmer Rouge soldiers forced the entire population of the capital (and all other cities) into the countryside to begin a new life on work cooperatives, tilling the rice paddy fields for up to 15 hours per day. Dissention of any sort, of course, led to the inevitable bullet-delivered conversation stopper. Subsisting on practically nothing and worked to death (not an exaggeration), survivors say
Crude cells were built to divide the rooms and doorways knocked out of adjacent walls.
that the worst part was actually living in constant fear. With a system that rewarded turning others in for “crimes” and families forcibly separated, there was no one to trust or confide in; remaining silent meant remaining alive.
In its brutality, the Khmer Rouge would have made Stalin proud. Upon taking control, the immediate targets for execution were the former leaders of the US-sponsored (and failed) government. Next were anyone from the military ranks (including ‘cleansing’ the Khmer Rouge itself), intellectuals, students, monks, and ordinary citizens - anyone at all that might resist the vision of the new regime. Wearing glasses was enough of a ‘crime’ to warrant death, as they were seen as the mark of an education. Learning about these years, you come to understand that ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ really didn’t matter: anyone could be killed at any time and survival was entirely capricious. And it was not simply individuals that were targeted: whole families, babies and children included, were summarily executed. In the roughly three and a half years that the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia, an estimated two million people died (for reference, this is about the same amount of people that died at Auschwitz under
the Nazis). Many of them died in the so-called ‘Killing Fields’, which were nothing more dramatic than large fields used for mass executions, the victims often bludgeoned to death rather than shot to save on ammunition.
We learned about much of this today at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located at a former high-school turned prison. Established just a year after they took power, ‘S-21’ was a security institution designed to interrogate (torture) and eliminate any Angkar
(as the Khmer Rouge referred to themselves) “enemies”.
Visiting the museum today, you get a sense of both its former life as an institution of learning and then later as an instrument of detention, torture and murder. Stepping inside the tall concrete fence topped with barb-wire, you see the expansive yards ringed with palm trees where children once played. From the outside, however, you see the additional barb wire enclosing the balconies and iron bars obscuring the view out the windows. Stepping inside, it’s easy to discern the original classrooms, but in most cases prison cells now crowd the once spacious interiors. And these rooms now tell the story of the horrors that happened within. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous about
record-keeping, photographing the prisoners and writing detailed accounts of their lives up to their arrests. Many of these photos have been put on display, a mind-numbing collection of mug-shots showing the bewildered, resigned and sometimes even determined faces of those who knew their fate: people who went to S-21 never returned. Even more chilling are the photos of those tortured to death and of the remains of those sent to the fields for slaughter.
According to the museum, more than 17,000 prisoners passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng, remaining there for 2-4 months before being sent to the nearby killing fields at Choeung Ek. When the Vietnamese finally liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, there were 7 prisoners found alive here and 14 more were found tortured to death in interrogation cells. All the other prisoners had already been transferred and executed at Choeung Ek.
One of the more interesting parts of visiting the museum (for me) was seeing a video that they show on the life of two Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime. Eventually both were convicted (and executed) for a very simple crime: loving each other. Under Angkar, only the regime mattered, and allegiance to
When the Vietminh army rolled in there were recently killed victims still strapped to these beds.
anything else was a crime, be it to your family, your spouse or your community. You were taught to think of nothing else, to work for nothing else, and for your life to be nothing else. The story was horrific in its content, but what really interested me were the video clips of one of the guards who once worked at the prison. With his smiling demeanor, he explained his role in transferring prisoners to the killing fields. Most of the time, he explained, he just helped to load the prisoners and then drive the truck the short 15 kilometers between the sites. On at least one occasion, however, he was instructed to execute some of the prisoners. He related this story without a trace of emotion, smiling even, as he described bludgeoning them to death. It was understood that these were the orders he was given. But to tell this story in retrospect, without a hint of empathy or regret, reminded me so much of the phrase I now associate so vividly with the Nazi regime: the banality of evil. How ordinary people can do unspeakable things given the right set of circumstances, and how those circumstances warp the
Waterboarding...A Still Controversial Technique
The torturee is placed on his back with his feet in the elevated position while water is poured over his face. Feeling like they're going to drown, most people break down in around 15 seconds.
mind into accepting that behavior, to rationalize it somehow. It’s chilling to look at someone - an ordinary man or woman with an ordinary face - and accept that they are capable of truly heinous acts, to know that any face in any crowd could
be the face of evil. Even children. The accompanying pamphlet that they give you with your admission ticket notes that there were several units of workers at Tuol Sleng.
Within each unit, there were several sub-units composed of male and female children ranging from 10 to 15 years of age. These young children were trained and selected by the KR regime to work as guards at S-21. Most of them started out as normal before growing increasingly evil. They were exceptionally cruel and disrespectful toward the prisoners and their elders.
Children were the future of the regime; the preferred soldier as their minds were more moldable into killing machines. Something that I found interesting is that the Khmer Rouge was actually its own worst enemy. Like Joey Stalin, Pol Pot’s paranoia led him to suspect loyalists and friends, so as the years progressed, the purges grew increasingly nepotistic. Like a cancer, the regime’s hatred and fear fed on itself until finally culminating in their eventual demise at the hands of the well-trained and well-rested (by that point) Vietnamese (remember too that the Vietnamese originally backed the Khmer Rouge, but after our ignominious regional pullout in 1975, both sides then began having a go at each other).
October 9, 2006 Shannon:
Today we decided to rent some bicycles to go out to Choeung Ek, site of the nearest ‘killing field’ to Phnom Penh and the final resting place for the prisoners of Tuol Sleng.
No one actually knows how many people are interred here; remains of 8,985 people have been exhumed from the mass-burial pits while another 43 pits have been left undisturbed. It is estimated that 20,000 people were murdered here; their bodies left to rot in poorly covered piles. Unfortunately, is not the only site like this in the country: the Documentation Center of Cambodia (an organization formed solely to record the crimes of the Khmer Rouge for future generations) has located 19,471 mass burial pits at 348 different locations since its inception in 1995.
Signs around Choeung Ek told us that prisoners would normally arrive and be executed immediately; first led over to the burial pit, forced to kneel and then bludgeoned or shot to death. However, when the executions increased during the heights of insanity in 1977, when over 300 people would arrive in a single day, they could no longer keep up with the demand and many prisoners were forced to spend the
night in a wood shack to await their fate the next day. Forced to listen to the demise of others and already knowing your fate, I’m really not sure which is worse.
The area itself is rather modest in size and dominated by the large memorial stupa that holds the skulls of 8,000 victims. These are arranged by gender and age on huge wooden shelves in the center of the glass-walled memorial. It’s a profoundly sobering experience to be confronted with the magnitude of the tragedy; much like seeing the piles of personal belongings at Auschwitz, there is no escaping the truth told by the numbers.
The grounds around the memorial are pockmarked with huge craters, the empty remains of burial pits, some of which are covered and noted with signs detailing the numbers of bodies found in each. Others have been left open to the weather, many with only a foot or two separating them. Sean:
In a very short amount of time this country rocketed to the top of the infamous list of places where unspeakable brutalities have occurred. Where Hitler had roughly 12 years to enact his vision, Pol Pot secured his notorious role
in history in just 3 years, 8 months and 21 days (everywhere you go, the exact dates of his autonomous rule are displayed).
After the Vietnamese rolled in, the Khmer Rouge took to the hills and were active for the next twenty years in Cambodian politics both legitimately (as part of a broader parliamentary coalition) and illegitimately (as roadside bombers), but it wasn’t until 1998 when Pol Pot decided to “off” his defense minister and the minister’s family that his cadre finally mutinied and hastily tried him. The speedy verdict came back as being guiltier than Judas but there’s some contention as to how he died, either at the hands of his judges or just naturally.
October 10, 2006 Sean:
With all that negativity, I’d hate to give the impression that our time in Phnom Penh was depressing (even if the last days weren’t the most uplifting), but there is more to see than bones and prisons.
One of the main attractions is the National Museum and we had to go there, if only to see the better Angkor-era pieces moved here from Siem Reap. I have to admit, though, that the museum is only
slightly interesting compared to our three day foray at the temples. True, some of the more intact bas-reliefs are here, but there isn’t much description (at least in English) compared to the volumes that have been written and are available at Angkor (in every imaginable language, too). But it was worthwhile to witness the chronological ascension of the ancient artistry - from simple “cave man” type works to intricate masonry carved by gifted artisans.
We also made it to the Royal Palace, a must see while in the city. Shannon:
One of the highlights of the palace is of course the throne room - an opulent hall decked out with the requisite gilt objects and fancy furnishings. Nice to see (alas, no photography allowed) but the real objects of treasure were found in the Silver Pagoda. Complete with silver flooring (5,000 tiles, each weighing 1 kg.) and decorated with many jewel-encrusted figures (one of which, a life-size gold Buddha, is decorated with 9,584 diamonds, the largest stone being a modest 25 carats), it certainly would win the prize for its ostentatious display of wealth. It was reported in the guidebook that the Pol Pot regime plundered many of
the riches of the palace during their reign, but left this room somewhat intact to show to the world how attentive they were with preserving the historic legacy of Cambodia. Too bad their concern didn’t spill over to the actual inhabitants of this country, eh?
We did a bit of clothes shopping while in Phnom Penh, too. Though we’ve picked up the odd piece of clothing in our travels, our wardrobe has remained fairly unchanged since we embarked on this adventure again after Christmas last year. Not surprisingly, it was starting to show… and after seeing the prices in the local marketplace, we could hardly afford NOT to buy some new duds.
In 1999 the US and Cambodia signed a Textile Agreement, which gave a much-needed boost to this fledgling economy by guaranteeing them a quota of US textile imports, with a bonus for improving working conditions and enforcing labor laws and international labor standards. This, coupled with the first full-year of peace in the country for more than 30 years and an upswing in tourism, led to an average 6.4% growth in their economy during 2001-2004. In January 2005, a World Trade Organization agreement forced the Cambodians
Angkor Wat in Miniature
This was the final product of the gentleman we met in Siem Reap (see him posing next to it in our last blog) who did the scale models of Angkor Wat. This one was installed on the Royal Palace grounds.
to compete with other low-cost producers (namely China and India), but the tenacious garment industry has hung on, and the government - attempting to capitalize on its newfound reputation with buyers - has committed itself to maintaining high labor standards. Watch out for the ‘Made in Cambodia’ tag on your next purchase.
Not really knowing that Cambodia was the new epicenter of western-clothing factories, we were pleasantly surprised by the offerings in the local market. Judging by the selection - every vendor had roughly the same Gap tee-shirts and Columbia pants - we have a pretty good idea of what will be stocked on the future shelves of a department store near you. How these clothes made it to the local market - and selling at rock-bottom prices - is still a mystery. Our theory is that, after fulfilling the initial order, these factories continued to churn out a few extra thousand pieces for sale to the locals. After all, once you’ve made a million, why stop there? The machines are all set up, why not produce a few more?
As nice as the prices were ($1-3 for a shirt, $2-4 for pants), I fear the memory of
Part of the Road Leading up to Bokor Station
This was the muddiest part, but not the most challenging.
this will only serve to haunt me in the future as I fork over 10 times that amount in the US for something I now know cost pennies to make.
October 13, 2006 Sean:
I hate to say this about any of the places we visit, but today’s trip up to the Bokor Hill Station was kind of lame. The principal reason that tourists visit Kampot is to travel out of town and up to the former French R&R villa 3,000 or so feet above sea level; a great place for the colonists to escape the heat of the flatlands below. It was eventually abandoned and left to time, ages and a multitude of freedom fighters, Khmer forces, and the Vietnamese army (the small mountain has a commanding position). This place was one of the last to have been liberated and now the locals are showing it off to tourists like us.
The problem with this little town is that the “road” leading up to it, isn’t much of one. Rutted, washed out, rocky and just plain horrible is how I would describe it. We rented a motorcycle (a semi-respectable one, in my snooty
King Sihanouk's Black Palace
This is on the road to Bokor Hill Station and commands a phenomenal view of the Gulf of Thailand. But according to the park's literature, he never actually lived here.
opinion) and went up on our own disorganized tour much to the chagrin of the unyielding Bokor Hill tour touts that plague you at every corner of Kampot.
It was a challenging trip up the mountain road (lots of balancing and working the clutch), but that was the highlight of the day for me. When we finally arrived at the station I was a little let down. It really was just a ghost town. You can walk through the vacant, colonial era grand hotel and wonder what it must have been like, but other than that, not much of interest awaits you after 3 hours of punishing roadway (only 2 and a half hours on the way down…yippee). The tour groups that ascend the hill pile into the bed of a mini-pickup, which has to be so much more uncomfortable than our option, because they must’ve hit every
pothole and rut, whereas we could navigate around the more egregious obstacles. Shannon:
I would have to concur with Sean’s opinion on the worthiness of spending 5+ hours on a miserable, spine-crunching road just to see some abandoned concrete buildings rising out of the mist at the top of a
The Grand Ballroom of the French Colonial Hotel at Bokor Station
Just as we got here the clouds rolled in and the vacant hallways were made that much eerier. We'd seen too many Scooby Doo episodes to split up, so stuck together in preparation for the inevitable (but never materialized) zombie attack.
mountain. For someone like me, who has a bit of a thing for abandoned buildings, it was interesting. So I got a bit out of it. And Sean got the challenge of transporting us up the hill on a motorcycle, using all of his considerable skill and concentration to maneuver up a road that nature has virtually reclaimed. But is it worth it for the average tourist, especially those with limited vacation time? Probably not.
Not everyone has the skill to take a dirt bike up the mountain, so agencies in town arrange tours in pickups outfitted with bench seats in the bed of the truck. As bumpy and uncomfortable sitting on a dirt bike is for the 41 kilometer drive (about 25 miles) up the hill, it seemed much preferable to making the journey in the back of one of those. At least with the motorcycle we could pick our way through the worst sections of wash-outs, gaping potholes and muddy quagmires. The driver of a pickup has very little choice in most sections, as the roadway is pretty narrow (and getting narrower by the year, it appears, as the jungle attempts to regain a foothold). On our
way back down the hill we encountered one of these tour groups stopped in the middle of the road, the front end jacked up and being repaired. It seems that a bolt that attached the steering linkage to the right wheel had completely sheared off and we came upon them after they had chopped down a nearby tree to help jack up the truck. With unfortunate timing, a modest storm soon began to heap rain down upon us, so Sean and I quickly squeezed around the impaired vehicle to continue our way down. It was not until the next morning, after talking to a fellow traveler over breakfast, that we learned that more bad luck befell the poor group. After finally fixing the bolt problem, their relief at getting underway again was short lived; barely 100 feet later the truck slid into a wash-out and got stuck for the night. The people on board luckily were picked up a bit later by the other tour (we saw only two small groups on the hill the whole day) and that group of 7 swelled to 14 for the remainder of the miserable ride down the hill. Sean:
To add a
All 250cc's of Internal Combustion Fury
The bike did really well considering the punishing terrain and demanding driver.
little post script to this section: In 2002 Matt Dillon wrote and starred in a movie set entirely in Cambodia called “City of Ghosts”. I understand that the climax takes place at the Bokor Hill Station, so if you’re interested in getting a glimpse of the place (without the horrible journey up and down the mountain), then check it out. As a caveat, having never seen (nor even heard) of this particular piece of celluloid, I can’t vouch for the quality.
October 14, 2006 Sean:
Today’s underpowered trip was out to Kep, just a scant 15 miles from Kampot, to see the coast and possibly spend some time on the beach. Off on another small scooter I must say that the trip out there was quite pleasurable. Mainly because the road was very smooth and minimally trafficked - be it other motorcycles, cars, cows or goats (a rare experience, let me tell you). Our sojourn out there also coincided with a couple of schools letting out along the way and the kids were heartily attempting to be the first to jubilantly dislocate their shoulder sockets, as if they just waved harder, we’d wave back to only…just…them. We
Not the Prettiest Beach...
But a quiet spot to relax for an afternoon.
tried to give each the attention they deserved, but there were too many. Probably fresh from the day’s English lesson each one wanted to know “How are you?” as we zipped by. Very cute.
The weather was a little rough and the beach is a bit too rocky to lounge around, so we didn’t stay long, but we did get to see a bit more of the countryside so it wasn’t a wasted day (can any day on this trip really be considered a waste?) And the scenery along the highway (still a loose term) on the way back, with the sunset washing all the rice paddies, thatched roof huts and palms in a brilliant glow, augmented the beauty and serenity of the vista.
October 18, 2006 Shannon:
We’ve moved on again, this time to our final destination in Cambodia: the small seaside “resort” town of Sihanoukville. Much like Kampot, this quiet little town suffered greatly during the years of civil war. The Khmer Rouge remained firmly entrenched in this area and the ensuing skirmishes between their supporters and the government forces served to do quite a number on the fledgling tourism industry. Not
surprisingly, most people don’t want to vacation in a war zone… Sean:
The strife of Cambodia long gone and the opportunities of capitalism filling the void, Sihanoukville is still at the relatively early stages of development. The town definitely doesn’t have the most picturesque beaches in the world, but its got ‘em and with Cambodia being a fairly inexpensive travel destination, Sihanoukville is the premier seaside town in the country.
October 18, 2006 Sean:
So we spent the last few days bumming around the beaches, renting scooters to motor around and just lazed about. You really could do worse than come here for a week’s holiday, too. English is widely spoken (many of the guest houses and restaurants are owned by foreigners) and the seafood and accommodations are cheap ($1.00 for a heap of grilled calamari and $10 for decent room with hot water, A/C and cable TV).
We even managed, in this town devoted to relaxation, to accomplish a little “official business” by obtaining our visas for Vietnam (we heard the consulate here was a good place to get them). Shannon:
Hands down, Vietnam wins the prize for fastest visa services EVER. Pulling
ourselves away from the sandy beach for a few minutes, we took advantage of the foreign consulate here in Sihanoukville and dropped by this little slice of Vietnam to get our visa. We had heard that this was a good spot to secure that much-needed sticker in our passports, and previous traveler’s reports were spot-on. Precisely (Sean actually timed it) 10 minutes and 31 seconds after handing over our paperwork, the kind gentleman who received our documents handed them back with visas inside. Sean:
So we frolicked in the surf and soaked up the languid ambience, but are rested and ready for the next adventure as we head back to Thailand and to meet up with Shan’s mom, who’s embarked on her own south-east Asian voyage.
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