Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cambodia: Holy Hell!

As I went to leave Laos I found myself very conflicted.  I have very rarely visited a place where I felt so compelled to donate or to perhaps find some way to help.  The peace and quiet of Laos had an effect on me, and it is one that will take some time for me to completely figure out.  However, a completely different world awaited me as I stepped off my plane in Cambodia.  The first thing I noticed was that bothersome humidity that I had left in Laos seemed to have reappeared.  Annoying, yes, debilitating no.  As I walked out of the airport it became even more clear that I was no longer in Laos.  I stepped foot outside the terminal and was instantly surrounded by 5-10 tuk tuk and taxi drivers.  All jockeying, shouting, and generally trying to get my attention and my money.  Laos, this was not.

I spent my first two days in Cambodia in Phnom Penh, the capital.  The city has a paltry population of 1 million people and from the second you arrive you realize that you are back in the real world, the 3rd world.  Cambodia is a place of stark differences.  Mansions and Palaces share the same street with shanties and shacks.  Affluent westerners speak with amputees and cripples who have been deformed by land mines and unexploded ordinance.  For those who have spent time in the touristy areas of S.E.A. this place, this country, is the real thing.  Phnom Penh is a functioning city, much like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh city.  The main lifeline is not tourism.  It is a hectic, dirty, beautiful, and surprising place.

After I arrived I hopped a Tuk Tuk over to S-21.  For those that know nothing about the history of Cambodia, the late 1970's saw the country undergo radical cultural change, and the murder (via genocide) of an estimated 2-3 million people (25% of the population).  I do not have time to go into the whole story of the Khmer Rouge, but let me assure you it is brutal, and it is frightening.  S-21 stands for security prison 21.  This was where Pol Pot (leader of the Khmer Rouge) imprisoned and tortured over 18,000 of his own countryman.  Simply wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language were enough to get yourself sent here.  Of the close to 20,000 souls who entered this prison, only 7 were found alive at it's liberation.  Today the prison, which was once a high school, is a museum dedicated to the Cambodian genocide.  It is a stark reminder of the brutality of man, and the horrors we are capable of.  All across this museum are photos and documents recovered at the prison.  The stories of those who survived, and those who tortured are on display and the cell blocks are still standing.  You are allowed to step into the world of the prisoner here and feel the claustrophobic fear.  I believe that it is important for us to bare witness to the brutalities of man, that way, when the day comes we are able to stand up and fight to stop it in our own way.

My second day was spent in two differing areas of study.  The first was a trip to the Royal Palace and the National Museum of Cambodia.  Both of these places were serene gardens and temples.  The glory of the Ancient Khmer Empire was everywhere on display.  However, while I took my time and enjoyed these sites, what awaited me on my other pursuit will stay with me forever.  A place, which shares a name with countless books and movies (The Killing Fields), was an intense and very personal moment.  The Killing Field is the place where most of the 18,000 plus prisoners of S-21 where shipped to, executed, and buried.  To date they have only found 8,000 bodies, but bones and graves are still being found when the rain rinses the ground during the rainy season.  What made this place personal was much the same as what made Auschwitz and Dachau intense.  Death was everywhere you looked.  There were excavated mass graves everywhere, and when you walked on the ground, you continually saw bones and clothing in the ground.  For lack of a better thing, the entire place was a graveyard of unmarked graves, and you were walking over them.  To bring everything home was a small museum and a memorial stupa filled with the skulls of those that were murdered.  Unlike the holocaust where most who died where worked to death, gassed, or shot, the Khmer Rouge could not afford the bullets or the gas, so they used what they had.  They had trees, bamboo, and their hands.  Most the people who died at this place were beaten to death, or had their throats cut.  Babies were beaten against trees, and well I don't think I need to say anything more.  This place, and epic place of death and sorrow, is set in a serene field surrounded by paddies and singing birds. 

At the end of my second day in Phnom Penh I hopped a tuk tuk to the airport to pick up Gisela.  I convinced Gislea to come do some traveling with me in Cambodia back in Korea, and while I've been out and about, she's been freezing in Korea teaching camp.  Well, not anymore.  The very next day we caught a bus to Siem Riep.  At arrival we found that the hotel which I had booked was undergoing renovations and they had forgot to notify me that they were closed.  No big deal we found another place shortly and set off after that to catch the sunset on Tonle Sap.  Tonle Sap is one of the largest fresh water lakes in all of Asia.  It is home to one of the best fishing grounds also.  Filled with fish, floating villages, and other animals that you can't see in the dirty brown water the sunset we caught here was pretty great.  However, the next day brought the biggest site I have seen in quite some time.

Angkor Wat, is the 8th Wonder of the Ancient World.  It is the worlds largest religious structure and has been in continuous uses since it was built in the 1200's.  That is about the same time that Notre Dame was started.  Our first day at Angkor Wat saw us do the mini tour of Angkor Thom, a walled city that at it's peak held an estimated population of 1 million people (for reference, at this time London only had about 50,000).  Inside Angkor Thom were numerous temples including the Bayoun, the Bapayoun, and other things that I can't remember the name of off the top of my head.  After spending about two hours exploring and climbing amongst the ruins (yes, not only can you touch, but you can clamber) we headed to Ta Prom.  Ta Prom, is an abandoned temple that the jungle has reclaimed.  The place is crumbling and has enormous trees strangling the temple at every turn.  This temple has been used in movies such as Tomb Raider.  We ended our first day exploring Angkor Wat at sunset.  I climbed all the way to the top (when you see the staircases you'll understand) and enjoyed the spectacular views that it offered.

The next day we headed farther afield and saw some older, and different sites.  Well, two of them were.  We started the day at the river of the 1,000 linguas.  This river has a carved river bed with pictures and over 1,000 linguas in it.  The belief is that the constant water running over it will help grant protection.  After this we stopped at the Banteay Shrei which is one of the finest preserved pieces of ancient Khmer art.  It is a temple built almost 1,000 years ago and dedicated to women.  We followed this up with a stop by the Cambodian Landmine museum.  This place is a testament that one man can make a difference.  Aki Ra (the name he was given by Japanese journalists, has cleared well over 50,000 mines and unexploded munitions from Cambodia.  Cambodia today still has hundreds injured and killed by these weapons used in the Vietnam, Civil, and Khmer Rouge fighting.  The man who started the facility does not know what year he was born.  His family was killed by the Khmer Rouge, and then later he was taken and forced to fight as a 12 year old for the Khmer Rouge.  He later defected to the Vietnamese army (busy fighting the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) and fought to rid his country of the scourge they were.  During this time he became an explosives, and mines expert.  He killed people, and even had a moment where his uncle was shooting at him from across a field as a member of a different army. 

Once the war ended and a government was elected, he dedicated himself to clearing his country of the millions of left over mines and unexploded ordinance.  To help do this he started an NGO and currently uses the profits from his museum to give shelter to, support, and provide an education to children who have been left homeless, been injured by mines, or have been abandoned by their parents.  His work ensure that they are cared for, fed, and educated.  At the end of their high school days, they are given a scholarship to either a university or a vocational school of their choice.  The man is living proof that one man with good intentions can help change the course of countless lives.  After this stop we sped off to one more temple before calling it quits for the day.

Today was our last day in Siem Riep.  I spent it by catching a sunrise at Angkor Wat.  It was truly stunning.  Pictures do not do it justice, but don't worry, I have lots.  After that I ate a quick breakfast before Gisela and I shipped off back down to Phnom Penh for the night.  Tomorrow we head to Sihanoukville and Otres Beach.  Sun, sand, and snorkeling here I come.  Peace everyone.

1 comment:

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