Thursday, 13 September 2012

Mekong and Murder, Beauty and Brutality in Phnom Phen, Cambodia


Aug 21, 2012 - Aug 26, 2012

With my general understanding and unexpected interest in Vietnams history gained over the previous few weeks, I arrived in Cambodias' capital eager to learn about a recent history apparently even more shocking than that of its neighbour.  Sitting on the banks where the TonlĂ© Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers meet, Phnom Phen offers sights of extreme contrast.  From the striking Khmer architecture of the Royal Palace and multiple spiritual places of worship along the shores of the Mekong to the now peaceful grounds of the Killing Fields which are still littered with fragments of human bones;  a humbling reminder of the terrors of genocide which occurred here less than 40 years ago.  The Khmers have been through hell and back and its only within the last 30 years that this country has become once again known as Cambodia.  



At dawns first light we step out into the streets and are immediately offered tuk tuk services.  Eager drivers line the street and upon refusal of one we are immediately offering another, and another.  Every five to ten meters we are called to despite them having seen us turn down previous offers.  I find it difficult to turn away and ignore them as most other tourists do and I find myself smiling and politely declining each and every one, with Julians comical remark thrown in here and there for good measure.  It is certain that at this time of year tuk tuks' outnumber the tourists and securing a job becomes a far more urgent and pressing matter for them which I quickly found overwhelming. 

The Royal Palace (formally known as Preah Barum Reachea Veang Nei Preah Reacheanachak Kampuchea) was our first stop that day.  Admiring the palace the King occupied prior to the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge regime from the banks where the TonlĂ©  Sap River and the Mekong River meet a tuk tuk driver used our period of stillness to ask if he could drive us to our next destination.  "How much to the Royal Palace?" Julian asks with a cheeky smile.  
"For you, Sir? Free!"  he declares, hunching over.  Immediately taking advantage of the humour this man returned Julian quickly jumped on his back for the ride, piggyback, across the street.  Once on the other side he informed us that the palace was not yet due to open for another hour, perhaps we would like a city tour?  Very cheap! 
All smiles, we declined his offer and went to visit a neighbouring Wat to pass time.  He was quickly at our heels. 

Inside the gates of Wat Ounalom he took a good half hour talking to us about his life in Cambodia and his family.  Similar to neighbouring countries, he seemed to have no concept of 'middle classes' and he viewed himself as a very poor man.  Still, he had a roof over his head, food on the table, wore a watch, had a cellphone in his pocket and was able to keep his three children attending school regularly.  To me, his poor life sounds nothing like the many families I see sleeping in heavily littered streets, resting upon bamboo mats with their babies beside them shielded with a small mosquito net often used in the west to cover food left outdoors.  In Cambodia we were exposed to the most heart wrenching situations of poverty in our travels so far and this man here appeared a class or two above that.

We entered the quiet, empty temple and a monk quickly rose to greet us.  Standing before a statue of Buddha he told us a bit about the different branches of Buddhism and happily answered our questions.  In turn, we told him about the Buddhist temples and traditions we had seen in his neighbouring country, Thailand, which he knows nothing about and looks forward to taking a pilgrimage to at some point; I sincerely hope he gets there. 

We noticed that the compound appeared to be housing families and there were young children playing within the grounds, seemingly unattended.  It's always a strange to me seeing such young children roaming the street unsupervised and we came to learn from the monk that the Wat is home to many orphaned children and people in desperate homeless situations. Here they are offered food, shelter and the option to change their life by joining the monastery as a practicing monk should they wish.  This is the first place in the peninsular we have noticed offerings of these types of services to its people; the extensive grounds here in the heart of the city were filled with buildings housing goodness knows how many families, perhaps 200 or more. It was refreshing to see the donations collected by the temple going to a humanity project rather than the typical uses of adding more gold to the already ornate facades or commissioning yet another golden buddha image to line up against a wall. All in all we found the monks in Cambodia generally to be a lot less aloof (perhaps that is not the right word) maybe more approachable, than their counterparts in Thailand.  Cambodian monks all would greet us with eye contact and a 'hello' when we passed them in the streets and if we initiated. In fact, it was here in Wat Ounalom that the monk approached us, the first time this has happened in the peninsula.

At the entrance of the Royal Palace we were disheartened to see the entry prices were more than double what our outdated Lonely Planet suggest.  At $8 a head for a foreigner that was more than our daily budget could handle and were unfortunately forced to walk away.  The cheerful tuk tuk driver had apparently kept a close eye on us and sensing a weakening resolve (maybe) he soon found us again, offering his services for the following day to take us out to the Killing Fields.  Upon our insistence at leaving for the dawn light and the peace and quiet we find in it, he was discouraged; but not haggling his suggested rate ($5 more then we might have paid) brought him around and he was waiting outside our hotel at 6AM the next morning. 


He drove us through the dusty suburbs of the waking city, swerving to avoid traffic and the constant pot holes which riddled the unpaved roads.  Road etiquette in Cambodia seems much the same as Vietnam with only a slight lessening in the constant blaring of horns but people still using whichever side of the road they find appropriate no matter what the direction of travel.  We arrived at the gates of the Killing Fields half an hour prior to opening and chatted with out driver whist eating the sweet egg pastries we had paused to purchase on the way.  His parents had both died during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule, a solemn look clouded his eyes as we spent the time hearing his stories and memories from that sorry time as well as talking of his hopes and dreams for his children.  




Upon entering the grounds a memorial stupa reached skyward. Glass sided, displaying platforms of human skulls, bones and clothing which had been found at this site as the mass graves were excavated and the ground has eroded away with the rains in the intervening years.  We were asked to make a donation to receive an offering of flowers and incense in memory of the souls lost here.  I felt it to be a strange way to enter the site at the moment. I had little idea of the horrors that occurred here and felt it would be much more appropriate to be approached with this upon parting.  Still, incense and fresh cut flowers in hand we stood before the piles of bones in silence and payed our dutiful respects. 















Our audio guide showed us our way around the site filling our ears with information on how the compound had appeared during the brutal regime along with testimonials from some of the survivors.  Immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War in 1975 the Cambodian people embraced their new leaders, the Khmer Rouge, looking forward to a new life free of a civil war that had lasted five years.  Instead, mass evacuations drove the people from their homes, emptying the cities into the countryside.  Here they were forced to start their lives anew by building huts in the jungle and forced into labour camps where they worked 12 - 14 hours per day on one or two bowls of watery rice soup per day, all for the benefit of Angka - The Organization.  The Khmer Rouge arrested anyone suspected of connections with the former government as well as professionals, intellects and those wearing glasses. They were driven to more than 350 "Killing Fields" across Cambodia for mass executions. Families in work camps died of starvation, exhaustion and disease whilst dealing with the daily terrors of brutal beatings and rape.  The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot has been described as 'the Hitler of Cambodia'.  Killing Fields such as the this one are found all over the country amounting to approximately 20,000 mass graves sites where an estimated 1.7 million people (almost 30% of the population) lost their lives.  

If it was not for the chilling audio guide this would have felt more like a walk in the park as we meandered around a small pond, the banks lush with trees, butterflies and birds skirting the vegetation. The buildings which stood here are long gone, pilfered for materials as people started returning to their homes after the regime was toppled by the Vietnamese. Rice paddies flourish in the distance, fishermen hauled in a catch just outside the boundaries of the site, a farmer watched over a pair of oxen as they grazed the scrubland on the banks in the rapidly warming sun. Perhaps the fragments of bones and scraps of clothing not yet fully unearthed in the pathway under our very feet would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the stories of the prisoners horrors, told by those few that survived, bringing new meaning to the mass gravesite. Specific points in the audio guide brought to attention by fencing and disturbing tales most notable for the barbarism here.  A single tree.  Here, by guards own admission, babies were torn from mothers arms and swung by their ankles into the trunk; smashing they tiny heads and extinguishing the young lives before the corpses were tossed into the pit alongside. The bark was impregnated with blood, brain and skull fragments from those innocents who were killed, purely to prevent revenge attacks for the wrongs inflicted upon their families, should they be left to reach maturity.  I felt myself consumed with their heartache and the loss inflicted upon a nation by its own. 

In case this day was not heavy enough, the final stop on this tour was the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21), now the Tuol Sleng (meaning Hill of the Poisonous Tree) Genocide Museum.  We were greeted by disfigured beggars holding out their hats; severe scars from burns blinding one man, another with limbs missing, presumably from UXO (unexploded ordinance) since he was far too young to have been involved in the conflicts directly. Cambodia is still suffering the legacies of both the Vietnam war, civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime.  During the war with America, to avoid American troops and infiltrate large numbers of Viet Cong into southern Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh trail ran through parts of both Laos and Cambodia.  America, never officially at war with these two nations, then conducted the 'Secret War' carpet bombing regions of both countries dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of ordinance on both nations in an effort to halt the Viet Cong forces.  Some reports I have read suggest that up to 30% of the ordinance failed to explode over the years of bombing. In the late 1960's and early 70's over 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia alone. More in fact, than the two million tons of bombs dropped in the whole of WWII and not bad going for a country that was never at war.  In addition to this, in the west of the country lies an area known as the K5 belt where in a 12 year period from 1979 to 1991 the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments, and the surviving forces of the Khmer Rouge laid approximately 10 million anti-tank and antipersonnel mines in fear of each other.  The location of these minefields were never recorded by either side but the area stretches some 700km along the Thai border and even today the effects are being felt all to often by the (average) 800 victims per year.

The Khmer Rouge converted the five building high school into a prison and interrogation centre known as S-21. Inside they crudely erected tiny cells and torture chambers and enclosed it in electrified barbed wire.  Some 17, 000 people were imprisoned, tortured and killed here.  Much like the Nazis did during the holocaust, extensive records were kept of each prisoner and on display now are thousands of the photos and detailed autobiographies recorded by the Khmer Rouge.  Some faces are empty of emotion, others portray furious anger, others still were not photographed until after their demise but perhaps the oddest of expressions to behold were the smiles.  Each room is full of plaques and thousands of photographs on huge boards fill the rooms but I left that place feeling rather detached from the experience and I could not help thinking the Cambodians may benefit from seeing how such places are presented in Europe; the effect that Aushwitz concentration camp had on us was deeply personal when we visited in 2011 but here I was left as if from a school lesson. The facts are there, but there is no personalization, no atmosphere recreation; just row upon row of photographs, all in the same aspect, all the same B&W, face on, mugshot style. Although the dehumanization and torture of the poor souls that were incarcerated here was every bit as methodical and horrific as the Nazis treatment of their victims, the efforts to preserve the memory as a lesson have resulted in a three dimensional text book and is just as emotive as one.  As we left books were laid out for sale on tables along the pathway.  Behind one such table an elderly man sat, patiently.  We learned that he was a survivor of this prison and it was seeing him sitting there, the emotion of the place finally hit home in my heart. 


As we walked 'home' that afternoon a "free wine tasting" sign caught my attention and I couldn't help but drag Julian inside.  I have not had wine for about four month at this point; decent wine is usually far to expensive for our budget and local wine not worth drinking.  It was strange to see prices were cheaper than similar bottles I have purchased in countries where the wine is produced and I couldn't understand how they did it.  After three generous samples of nice Bordeaux wine it was only then that I realized how much I missed a nice glass and it wasn't long before I had convinced the proprietor (and Julian) to allow us to sit at the back of his shop with a bottle of South African pinotage.

We would have left Phnom Penh the following day however were contacted by a host on Couch Surfing who offered his home to us for three nights and it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up the chance of spending time with somebody who actually lives here.  Meeting him outside a bakery on the main street alongside the Mekong he lead us towards the back and up three flights of stairs.  A striking set of carved double wood doors led us into a spacious Japanese style, open concept living room and kitchen.  He lead us up another flight us stairs to our room which felt more like a five star hotel suite; a huge bathroom with multiple shower heads and glass walls looked upon a large room with king size bed which in turn opened up onto a large balcony (one of three) overlooking the Mekong.  I hope he didn't notice my jaw drop when we dropped out bags and joined him downstairs for a cup of tea.  We learned that this three story, seven bedroom and eight bathroom overshot apartment (complete with personal elevator) was frequented by he and his wife alone.  His Japanese wife, working as as tax adviser for the Cambodian government, had this place entirely paid for and this English ex-pat, retired investment banker could could bask in the beauty of his surroundings at the expense of the Japanese government.  





Evenings were spent with cans of beer or glasses of wine and nice food on his balcony.  It was a strange perspective and very difficult for me to get my head around. The disparity between the beggars and street vendors was so marked there was a certain amount of guilt in accepting his offer.  Only one night ago we were in a tiny closet hotel room.  The widow of our neighbours were so close we could have passed them a cup of sugar and we couldn't help but notice their bare, board floors whilst they lay upon tables to sleep.  Outside, two men shared a tuk tuk as a home, hammocks strung up over the passenger compartment. Beside them a mans bed was the seat of his motorbike and half a block away the trishaw drivers too, slept in their vehicles, grouped together for security and company.  Families slept on the streets struggling to feed their children.  Now, here was I, sitting on a balcony, glass of wine in hand overlooking 90 people participating in a nightly two hour aerobics class on the shores of the Mekong, music blaring from large speakers (which occurs twice daily, 5am and 5pm, right outside the bedroom window waking us without fail every morning).  It was an enjoyable, entertaining way to spend the evening but it was such a bizarre contrast to the first few days in the city and this new perspective was a surreal reality check. 



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