Friday, September 11, 2015

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Prep Yourself For Depression

Bye, Vietnam!  Land of the most amazing food ever - I am already having banh mi withdrawals.  Early the next morning, I took a 6-hour bus from Saigon across the border to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  

What It's All About:
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia. Back in the day, it was a big deal to both the Khmer people (the predominant ethnic group of Cambodia) and French colonialists.  I wish I could tell you more about the city because I thought it was incredibly lovely; except I decided to treat myself to a nice hotel and spend an entire day by the pool, so not sure I absorbed as much culture as I normally would (seriously, you have to have these days people).

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Crossing the border by bus into Cambodia was fairly uneventful. Except you know, for when the bus driver took all the passports and disappeared with them and I mentally reassured myself that a large bus company can't stay in business if it steals peoples' passports on the reg. I seriously walked through the border crossing with no idea where my passport was, where the bus driver was, and where the people on my bus were. (Spoiler alert: I had gone to the bathroom and came out to pure chaos at the crossing. Turns out the driver had gone ahead and given all our passports to border control already and all I had to do was walk through and wait for someone to call my name.  So it turns out nobody stole my passport).

Border control

And when I randomly wandered outside, there was the bus!  It had magically appeared.  Thank you Phuong Heng, you incredibly reputable company.
Welcome to Cambodia! Kingdom of Wonder

  • Fresh off my brief flirtation with the good life in Saigon, I booked myself my own room in a hotel that cost more than $5/night. Imagine the pure, unfiltered luxury.  But seriously, I found a hotel called The Pavilion that was a good rate - and it turned out to be the most amazing hotel ever.  It's across the street from the Royal Palace, and was built by the king's mother in the 20's because she liked its access to a temple that is still across the street today. They've turned it into a boutique hotel with bungalows, two pools (plus a bunch of the private rooms have pools as well), and it is the most beautiful, removed, perfect little oasis I've ever stayed in. And get this - it was $45, which is a splurge here in Asia, but cheaper than a Motel 6 back home. So ridic. Why did I ever paid rent in NYC?? Why didn't I just live here??

The stunning leafy oasis of my hotel; from pool #1

Of course they brought me a welcome drink, jelly, and cool towels on a banana leaf

Here's my beautiful room. Oh you wanted to see photos of actual Phnom Penh and not a million of the hotel I stayed at? I can't help it; I was obsessed
And the most beautiful bathroom; where I sang in the shower for the first time ever
  • Confession, I may have saved all my Phnom Penh to-do's for Day 2; and just spent Day 1 by the pool of my hotel.
View from my personal cabana; journal and Lonely Planet easily accessible
And while I was at the cabana, they came into my room and left me a plate of fruit!!  The spiky red/yellow ones are my favorite; they're like lychees and are called rambutans, which is a totally BA name 

And then I finally left paradise to walk around on the way to dinner

One of those turnabouts or whatever they're called. Obviously majestic-looking bc why not

  • The next morning, I slated the morning full of the two things I knew I'd wanted to do - the Killing Fields and the torture prison/museum.  Yes; pleasant-sounding itinerary, I know.  And here is where I have to go into another brief history lesson on Cambodia.

A Brief Cambodian History Lesson:
First off, Cambodia's history is one of the most atrocious and tragic things I've ever learned about - and I kind of knew something about it before I came, but I'd certainly never heard of the extent.  Long story short, this country has gone through its own mass genocide of its people, by its own people.  From 1975 to 1978, about 25% of its entire population of Cambodia was completely exterminated by its leading party.

In 1975, after Cambodia was weakened by internal conflict, Pol Pot and his political party the Khmer Rouge came to power - they believed in a Communist peasant farming society; a.k.a. a crazy Communist regime where peasants were most important and all educated people were murdered; and the rest of society would do backbreaking farm work and make the country agriculturally self-sufficient. All intellectuals (teachers, educators, anyone who spoke another language - even something as ridiculous as people who wore glasses, or had soft hands) were executed. The Khmer Rouge army recruited poor, uneducated young boys from the rural countryside to join their ranks and carry out the executions.

Basically overnight, schools, hospitals, libraries, temples, etc. were destroyed and all the cities in Cambodia were completely evacuated - people were trucked to the countryside to work on farms and fulfill impossible crop quotas. Working conditions were terrible and anybody who didn't work from dawn to dusk were killed or sent off to prison - if they didn't succumb to starvation or disease first, which many did.  And they were still the lucky ones.

Everyone else - the educated (and every single one of their family members) - really just anyone who could pose a threat to the new regime - were either sent to torture prisons and forced to sign false confessions (which would inevitably lead to death), or sent out to the killing fields. Which were basically mass execution camps.

By the end of the Khmer Rouge rule in 1979 (nobody intervened the entire time because the world claimed they didn't know it was happening), ~2 million people were killed. 2 million in a population of 8 million, in 4 years. Add on the complete loss of documents, historical buildings, all symbols of Cambodian history and culture; everything - was completely wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. It is seriously one of the most evil things I've ever seen in my life.  Why aren't we taught about this?

  • Ok brief lesson over. On my second morning, I headed out to visit one of the most well-known killing fields - the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.  These sites are basically just mass graves where thousands and thousands people were ruthlessly murdered. I have to include some grisly details because I don't know where else to put all this new, terrible knowledge I have.  
    • First thing you notice is that there are huge plots that have been outlined that mark where the graves are - and there are tons of them.  In fact, the land is completely uneven (hills, dips, etc.) because of the sheer number of bodies that are under them.  
    • Even today, when it rains, the soil shifts and still brings pieces of clothing and bones to the surface. The graves are cleaned every couple months - but the most disturbing thing is that you still see clothing and bones when you look over the site - it's unavoidable because they are everywhere.
    • The Khmer Rouge didn't even want to waste bullets on killing people because bullets were expensive; so they would kill them in other, incredibly violent ways (hacking them to death, beatings, torture, chemicals to hide the smells, etc.)
    • There were too many people to be killed in a day so they ended up having to house the extras to be killed in detention centers nearby. And would lie to them the entire time that there would be hope, when they were basically just waiting to be murdered. 
    • There is a tree on the property that has been named "The Killing Tree."  It was this giant tree that they smashed babies into to kill them. There was an entire description of the person who discovered the tree and what he found on it that helped them determine what it was used for.  The Khmer Rouge didn't discriminate - they would kill women and babies just as easily as men. In fact, they had a well-known saying that you had to kill the entire family so nobody would grow up and want revenge (something like "to kill the tree, you have to start at the roots"). So often they would just decimate entire families for no reason.
    • The worst part was that nobody knew what was going on. Even after the Khmer Rouge escaped (Cambodia was saved by their neighb Vietnam), they weren't even brought to trial for another 20-some years. And in that time, they were technically still recognized as head of the country and given assistance by Western society. Pol Pot died under house arrest before he could even fully be brought to trial.
    • The visit to the killing fields finished inside this memorial that was recently built - and inside, you see 17 levels of skulls, bones, clothes, and fragments of the victims. The skulls themselves are stacked multiple stories high. And the worst is you can see the damage that was done to the skulls.

The number of killing fields and prisons we know about today

The only picture I took that felt appropriate - this is a spirit house, built after the field was discovered - they house spirits who have nowhere to rest.

  • After the killing fields, I went and visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was a former high school the Khmer Rouge converted to a torture prison. Out of 20k people sent to the prison, only 7 people ever survived. Basically, incredibly terrible things happened here as well. I won't expand too much, but I will say the most disturbing part was that the Khmer Rouge were meticulously detailed with their record-keeping of killing and torturing - therefore there are rooms and rooms and rooms filled with photos of all the prisoners of the museum. All were assigned numbers - some photos were taken when they were admitted, some were taken mid-torture, and some were taken after they'd died.  I can't tell you how eerie it was going through thousands and thousands of photos with these empty, hollow faces just staring out at you; and you know that they all met the same gruesome fate.  Cambodians still come today and comb through every single photo searching for answers on what happened to their loved ones - many still don't know what exactly happened to their relatives.

And the only photo I took of the Genocide Museum/Prison.

  • It was just one of those days where you take in a lot, and you don't know what to do with yourself for the rest of the day.  I can't believe people can do this to their own people.  That's all.
  • Getting off my history soapbox, I left Phnom Penh in the afternoon on a 6-hour bus to the city of Siem Reap - which is where Angkor Wat is. 

The two most-visited cities in Cambodia, and the road between them is still in rough shape - some parts are a pothole-filled dirt road that drive straight through tiny villages of children and cows and chickens and dogs

Some roadside houses

Watching the sunset from the bus window

And so begins the last city of my SE Asia leg.  On a side note, I'm sorry for the longest, most thoroughly preach-y and disturbing detail-filled blog entry ever.  Things cheer up tomorrow. xx

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