Monday, September 10, 2012

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This is Post #4 of the Vietnam & Cambodia section.

 • Cambodia •
• Kingdom of Wonder 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Royal Palace
First day in Cambodia!  Our first excursion off the ship in Phnom Penh (pronounced peh-NAHM pen) was to the Royal Palace and the National Museum.  The palace was unlike anything I'd ever seen before.  The architecture is patterned and detailed with elephants and snakes and swirls and winged structures everywhere.  It's hard to imagine how a country so stricken by poverty and tragedy is able to turn around and churn out such beautiful structures.  One of the fun things Viking Tours planned for us was to take a city tour of Phnom Penh by cyclo, which is a mix between a stroller and a bicycle.
Cyclo Tour

So, all 61 of us climbed into individual cyclos and were driven to the palace, the National Museum, and around the beautiful Wat Phnom park.  Traffic here, like in Saigon, is nuts.  Bikes, motorbikes, cars, and anything else that moves comes at you from every direction all at once.  Everyone goes about the same speed, and somehow people don't seem to crash.  In general, people seem at ease with riding extremely close to others and trusting that they won't crash.  Street lanes and stop lights, when present, are merely suggestions.  To cross the street, you just start walking slowly, trust that they won't hit you, and weave your way through the chaos.
Royal Palace

For our afternoon excursion, we toured the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields.  Under the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime which crippled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, and whose effects are still felt, the country suffered the murder of most of its educated people.  Since all but about 25 doctors, 10% of the teachers, and a few of the other professionals and intellectuals were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, the country regressed back to a very primitive lifestyle.  Wanting absolute
S21 Prison
power, the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot wiped our about a third of the Cambodian population, leaving only rice farmers who could not read, write, or organize to rebel.  The communist regime stopped all market business and destroyed the Cambodian currency in favor of their own, new currency, which was never distributed.  In this system, there was no money to buy things, there were no markets at which to shop, and there was nothing to buy.  In order to get by, everyone left became a rice farmer and traded for rice.  All universities were closed, education for the youth was stopped, and children were taken from their parents and considered children of the state at a young age.

The Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge came to power by tricking the population.  Since the US had previously been bombing Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge's lie, that everyone had to leave Phnom Penh because the US was going to bomb it, was easily convincing.  Immediately after taking power, they announced that the US was going to bomb Phnom Penh and that all the people needed to evacuate to the rice fields.  The city became a ghost town.  The bomb never came.  Instead, the people were tricked, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Khmer Rouge.  Touring the S21 prison and the Killing Fields is on par with touring Auschwitz outside of Krakow.  In both cases, such heinous cruelty is hard to comprehend.

S21 Prison
At S21, you see the cells where prisoners were stored and tortured.  Most prisoners were chained down, convicted of others' crimes, hung upside down with their heads in waste, and later beaten to death.  At the Killing Fields, you see the mass graves along with a memorial monument filled with shelves and shelves of skulls fractured from the beatings.  I believe what was then North Vietnam, also communist, was responsible for the liberation of the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge.  That's what the guides told us happened.

Before traveling on this trip, I really didn't know much about the Khmer Rouge.  Learning about Cambodia's history helps tremendously in understanding why the country is how it is today.  After a few days here, I sense that people in general are actively striving for better living conditions, more education, advancement, and higher salaries.  I think that many people, knowing how life was before the Khmer Rouge decimated the country, want to get back to that lifestyle.

The Killing Fields - The Killing Tree
After spending more days in the villages in Cambodia, the country's charm really started to shine.  The charm is the people's ambition to progress and make a better life for themselves.  Recovery from genocide is a long road, but I believe that Cambodia is on the right track.  We visited several schools, donated school supplies, and spoke with some of the students, who speak a surprisingly large amount of English.  They always seemed curious about us, friendly, and wanting to learn.  I'm hoping that all of that was genuine and not just an act to get us to spend money in their villages.  Increasing tourism is one major way the country has chosen to bring money in, and it's working.  The people are welcoming, and the country has fantastic and exotic attractions like the palace in Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat in Siem Riep, so I believe (and hope) that it will make it as a tourist country.  The down side is that actually managing to transport yourself all the way to Cambodia isn't cheap.
Memorial at The Killing Fields

The interesting part about Cambodia's recovery is that the people matter-of-factly embrace what happened. There's no sugar-coating and no tip-toeing on egg shells, even around tourists.  Our local guides openly told us about family members they lost during the Khmer Rouge regime and one explained how he survived by eating bugs and anything he could find in order to stay alive.  Later, someone advised him to learn English since Cambodia was turning into a tourist country, and he went to school for the first time ever and began his formal education.  The people want you to know what has happened there and what they're doing to move forwards.  Many developing countries take life more or less as it is, but I found Cambodia different because all the people I met there were actively striving to create better lives for themselves and their families.  You can't help rooting for them when you hear their dreams.
Sunset over the Mekong River

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