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Phnom Penh – An Emotional Journey

I seem to only make rules in my head so I can then go ahead and break them. It seems I enjoy having this internal conversation with myself in which I make a rule – like don’t ever ride a minibus if you can help it – and then proceed to dismiss it with a laugh – its just a minibus and it’s faster than a regular bus anyway…

The Mini Bus

I mentioned that Paul brought along some kind of bus misfortune; unfortunately, this trip did not do anything to quell that notion. Alas, I take the blame for this one as I was the one who ultimately agreed and thought, classically, “would could possibly go wrong” at the suggestion of a mini bus.

At first sight it seemed great. The mini bus arrived at our hostel to pick us up and it was fairly empty. Yet it had enough people in it to give the optimist in me the hope that maybe we would remain at 70 percent capacity. We hopped on the rather large mini van and were stuffed in the back, which I thought was okay because we had a seat next to us that was empty. I looked at Paul, smiled, and might’ve even given myself the liberty to think “hey, this isn’t going to be so bad”. Off we went, five minutes away to the stop that would, when it was done, have me thinking that it couldn’t possibly get any worse.

So we stopped at what was definitely the mini-bus-stop and started filling up to capacity, or rather my idea of capacity at the time. People began piling in until there was only one empty seat available – the one next to me. Sure, someone could sit there and I wouldn’t be too bothered but surely another five people wouldn’t fit inside this toaster. Before I was proven wrong about that an unspoken, if you ask me, public transport rule was ignored. I have been in SEA for a couple of months now and have seen the same sign in every train starting in Singapore. It is a sign that has let me know that I am, in fact, normal and that everyone can smell it. It is a sign that I have laughably played off as obvious and superfluous. It is a sign I wanted to plaster on the side of that van. “No Durians”. The driver stuffed something in the back, seemingly right under our feet, and closed the door after which it took only a minute to hit us. I think we turned to each other at the same time and said “no way” with some colorful language added in the middle. All we could do is laugh. It is times like these that I learn, and thank God for, the wonderful powers of sensory adaptation. A little aside for those who have never smelled Durian before – replace ‘Durian’ with ‘a bag of vomit’.

After this stop you can’t blame me for thinking that this couldn’t get much worse. After the first twenty minutes of the drive we had randomly added around 4 more people and a few packages, since this was also a delivery truck. Paul and I were amazed at how the driver kept fitting people inside the van and even when we were sure there was nowhere for anyone else to sit he went and proved us wrong again. There is nothing wrong with sitting on the floor on top of some packages! It was like the driver was on a mission to destroy any preconceived notions we had about transportation.

Early in the trip the driver quickly stopped to buy everyone what looked like a treat. It was allegedly some sort of banana wrapped in rice; however I had already broken one of my rules and I was not about to break the other one (of not eating something with an unknown filling). Nevertheless, later that day, on the walk to the hostel in Phnom Penh, I ended up taking a bit and instantaneously spitting it back out – one day I’ll listen to myself. The rest of the trip went on rather uneventfully and we got to our destination is how I earnestly wish I could end this paragraph. As our wonderful luck would have it, halfway thru the trip there came a point in which I was scared to simply rest my head on the seat.
Everything was going smoothly until suddenly Paul looks at me and says “so you said you wanted me to tell you things, right?” I should precede this question of his with the fact that some time ago Paul had thought it better not to tell me there was a bee next to me so that I would not freak out. He was under the impression that this would save both of us from getting bit, but I told him that I would much rather run away from the bee. At this moment he had been looking at, or rather around, my head for about a minute. “There are a bunch of cockroaches around your head.” We’ll skip over my reaction and just say that since then I seemed to see these creatures everywhere and would refuse to lay my head back. It was in that body crammed, cockroach infested and Durian reeking bus that we ultimately arrived at Phnom Penh. Oh, and a baby threw up next to me.

The fun things

Phom Penh is where one goes to visit the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields. It is, hopefully, where one becomes a living memory for others that have not experienced the heart wrenching emotion of walking thru those grounds. It is, hopefully, where one learns a dark history and uses it to grow as a person. On the other hand, it is a place full of fascinating, yet subtle, architecture, interesting relics and fun people. Here are some photos of the, much needed, lighthearted times in Phnom Penh.

Our very first day was simply spent exploring the city. Unfortunately, this was cut short by a rather large storm.

We also hit up a museum that was full of Angkor pieces (since we didn’t get enough in Siem Reap). This guy was made for a photo.

A beautiful building built by a Russian architect that houses a very large market.

The inside of that very building.

Oh the Bazuka’s. We did it for out country. This was the night of the Confederations Cup FInal. Everyone decided that USA didn’t count and the competition began between us and Australia. It was a fierce competition and the better country clearly came on top.

This is the infamous Bazuka. You take one shot and the other falls and then you chug that.

After that night we had enough energy to go on a 2 hour self guided architecture tour of the city. These are some 1960’s original apartment buildings.






Gotta love an empty stadium.


A Living Memory

The Khmer Rouge is a period in Cambodian history that is so recent and so horrendous, yet relatively unknown. It was a period of four years, between 1975 and 1979, which resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a nation’s population (equals approximately 2 million).
I’m not here to write an analysis and commentary on the history of Pol Pot and his regime. However, I do believe that after walking through the places where these horrors took place I must at least give some context of the history that might lead to further individual inverstigation. There is not a single mistake that civilizations make that isn’t, to some degree, a replica of a moment in the past. In an ideal world we would learn from that history and strive to never repeat it. That is why it is vital for those in power to have a comprehensive understanding of the history of our world. Vital to have the open-mindedness and intellectual dexterity to use that knowledge to grow as a person and lead justly.
In 1970 General Lon Nol initiated a coup while Cambodia’s leader, Prince Sihanouk, was out of the country. A civil war then broke out in which General Lon Nol had the backing of the United States and Sihanouk allied himself with the Khmer Rouge, a guerilla army/political party led by Pol Pot and based on communist ideals. In addition, over the span of the next 4 years the US ordered a bombing campaign to drive out the Viet Cong that might’ve been in eastern Cambodia. US planes dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia in those years. These bombs resulted in the deaths of up to 150,000 Cambodian peasants and caused many more to flee the countryside into the city of Phnom Penh. The combination of these events was one that proliferated an already unstable atmosphere. This led to the economic and military regression resulting in a swell of popular support for Pol Pot. Pol Pot used this to his advantage and presented his regime as one that would bring peace, both with the civil war and the frightening bombings the people had to endure.
Almost immediately after he took power, Pol Pot declared the year zero and began his “purification” of society with the goal of building his own agrarian utopia. Anything that implied intellectualism was banned (capitalism, city life, religion, embassies, foreign languages, education, etc.) and even if one wore glasses he was suspect to execution. Every city in Cambodia was evacuated at gun point and the city dwellers were forced into slave work in rural areas. The executions began as well. For example, People were executed because they were educated or wealthy and based on their occupation, such as police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. They were sent to special centers to be executed until they finally wrote a confession so that they could be executed. The most notorious being the S-21 Jail in Phnom Penh where only 7 out of 20,000 inhabitants are known to have survived.
The Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh in 1979 and forced Pol Pot to flee into the jungle. However, throughout the 1980 and 1990s the Khmer Rouge received arms from China and political support from the United States, which opposed the Vietnamese occupation. In fact, the Khmer Rouge leaders held their seats at the United Nations, representing Cambodia, until 1993. A large part of the world did nothing to help, and even worse stayed silent. In 1978 only one ambassador at the United Nations stood and spoke against the genocide in Cambodia – Israeli’s Chaim Herzog.
These facts not only barely scrape the tip of the iceberg but it does not compare to walking through these places while hearing the heart wrenching stories of the survivors. To seeing images upon images of the faces of those tortured at S-21. To seeing depictions of the methods used to carry out this genocide.

The first place we visited was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. These were the regulations that were posted in this prison.

One of the many depictions of how the victims were tortured.

What was once a school became a place of horrors. What was once a beautiful campus filled with laughter become one pierced with screams.

The inside of what was once a classroom.

A memorial to the victms.

After a day of recovery we visited the Killing FIelds. Just one of many that existed throughout Cambodia.

The mass graves along with the descriptions of how the killings were executed were absolutely heart wrenching.

At the end of the audio tour of S-21 prison the narrator said this –
“[now you are the] keeper of that memory. Tell others what happened so we may strive for human dignity, compassion, and peace everywhere today and in generations to come.”

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