Sunday, January 25, 2015

To Cambodia

After Singapore it was off to Cambodia for a few days. Cambodia was one one of those countries that we had skirted around on our prior SE Asian travels. It had never been high on my list, but I also felt like I'd really missed something by never making it to Angkor Wat.

The flight to Phnom Penh was pretty amusing because I was sitting beside a guy who was a living breathing 419 scam. He started chatting with me about 20 minutes into the flight, eager to tell me about his work with a "grey-market" bank in Singapore that handles money for the world's mafia and questionable governments. He was on his way to Cambodia to deal with a major North Korean money transfer. To prove this he decided to show me an unending series of photos of stacks of cash on his phone, which were "clear evidence" of his work. I never sorted out what his angle was in talking up a stranger on a plane like this, perhaps just practice for him, but he ended up providing me with his address, in the event that I needed any advice in Cambodia. It's very strange to meet a Nigerian email scam in person.

In Phnom Penh I was staying at the TeaHouse hotel. Not overly central, but a very nice option. They had a pool with a bar that would serve meals and drinks. It filled up around happy hour, particularly if you were looking to avoid the sun, which can be punishing, and get a seat under cover. Their staff were very helpful in planning and the room was terrific.

I only spent one full day in Phnom Penh, and that was more than enough for me. My day started with me catching a tuk-tuk through the chaos of Phnom Penh to the Killing Fields memorial, aka the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. I was never under any illusion that this was going to be anything other than a terrible experience, but I also can't see visiting a country like this without acknowledging its history. So off I went.

My tuk-tuk. They'll drive you out and wait for you to finish.
My driver kindly pulled over to pick me up a face mask. Very necessary, but doesn't block out the smell.

It's a fair bit outside of town. You pull up with all the other tourist tuk-tuks, pay a reasonable entrance fee, and get an audio guide that walks you through an exploration of the centre. It's not a big space, but it takes a few hours to make your way through it, and the audio tour is very good, so you want to go through every stage and really get a good understanding of what took place here, and across the country.

Frankly, it's an awful way to spend the day, and I get emotional again a couple of months later just writing about it, but I'm glad I did it. If you're not familiar with what happened in Cambodia in the late '70s, between 1.7 to 2.5 million people out of a population of 8 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge, with 1.3 million of those being executed in what were called the Killing Fields. At Choeung Ek 17,000 people were executed after their detention at the S-21 detention centre in Phnom Penh. I'm not going to go into detail here, because my blog isn't sufficient to give credit to what happened, but if you aren't familiar with it then Wikipedia it.

At the Choeung Ek centre you tour the grounds. Many of the buildings are no longer there, because they were torn down when the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, but you are guided through the small spaces where the buildings once stood. You see where people were brought, stored, executed and buried. The ground is uneven from where the mass graves were placed. And there is a large memorial in the middle of the space full of skeletons excavated from the grounds, with the skulls marked with stickers identifying how each person was executed and their gender. Awful.

Indentations in the ground are mass graves.
Most awful sign.
Temple remembering the dead.
Victims. Marked with how they were killed and gender.
Almost equally upsetting for me was the lack of resolution. After the Khmer Rouge were ousted their leadership hid out in the north of the country, living out their lives in relative peace. Pol Pot, their leader, died of old age in 1998. They weren't held to account for their awful crimes. Only one person was tried and convicted for his role in the S-21 detention centre. So you leave with only more questions about who was responsible and how they weren't held accountable. This is never truly resolved, and one has to do much further research, including talking to locals, to understand Cambodian politics over the last three decades and start to get a grip on how this happened and continues to happen in the country. I don't dare write about my conclusions here because I'm sure that  I've only scratched the surface, suffice to say that it's frustrating and I'm disappointed (to the extreme) that this sort of thing happens in our modern world.

So, in short, visit this place. It's a good slap in the face. A reminder of how evil humanity can actually be. And how we can absolutely fail to deal with the issues right in front of us.

After the Killing Fields tour many people carry on to the S-21 centre. I chose to pass, and took my tuk-tuk back to my hotel. On the way the stench from the various canals of Phnom Penh got stuck up my nose and blended nicely with my miserable mood. No amount of showering would make it go away for a few days after, nicely searing those nasty thoughts and images into my brain.

After regrouping I headed out again to visit the Royal Palace, which was supposed to be one of the more impressive sights in town. It wouldn't have hurt to miss this one. It's a complex with an array of various buildings, most of fairly recent vintage. More interesting than any of the buildings were the people who were there to see the place. In addition, some of the more interesting buildings were closed off to visitors, as they were to be used in the King's birthday celebrations the following day. I could peak in to a few of those though, and could tell that I wasn't missing much.

Royal Palace. Open to visitors, but not much to see.
Lovely, but fairly modern.
The other visitors were more interesting than the buildings.

After leaving the Palace compound I walked over to the Foreign Correspondents club. This, I suppose, is a bit of an effort to capture that neo-Colonialist vibe that we both reject and seek out. The FCC overlooks the Tonle Sap river, which was a bit of a disappointment, and the whole area feels just a little chaotic. After a beer and a bite to eat I was happy to retreat to my hotel and get ready to leave town the following day.

Rowers on the Tonle Sap, which flows into the Mekong. View from the FCC.

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