Our journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was a bit of a misadventure. I realized an hour before we were supposed to leave that our tickets were to Battambang, a different city in the opposite direction. Luckily, I was able to get them changed. Then, when we were finally picked up at the hotel, we were a little shocked to see that it was a van instead of the fancy looking charter bus pictured on our tickets. In hindsight, what on earth did we expect? This was Cambodia, after all, the poorest country in Southeast Asia. The van had seen better days, maybe in the 1980s. There was no air conditioning, and the window closest to me didn’t open. Our imaginations went wild thinking about being trapped in such a situation for seven hours. As panic set in, the van stopped, and everyone climbed out. It was then we realized that the van was bringing us to the bus. Not quite what we had in mind, but what a relief! At least the air conditioning worked, more or less, but the roof leaked. Natalia concluded that we were definitely on the lechero. In Spanish, the word literally means milkman, but it can also mean the slow bus that stops in every little tiny town. Her expression says it all.
When we finally arrived in Phnom Penh seven hours later, we stepped off the bus into total chaos. I wasn’t sure if we were even supposed to get off there, because there was no bus terminal to be seen. I felt like we were being dumped on the side of the road. Best of all, we had no idea how to find our guesthouse. We got in a tuk tuk with a Brazilian couple, who mentioned that after Cambodia, they would be going to Vietnam and Krabi, Thailand. (This may seem like random information, but it will be important later in the trip.) The driver dropped off the Brazilians and somehow figured out where to take us. When we got to the Penh Guesthouse, the guy working there couldn’t find our reservation, and I was getting annoyed. Turns out I had booked the wrong dates. Oops! When you’re traveling, sometimes you have no idea if it’s Wednesday or Saturday because it usually makes no difference. They had one available room, and we took it. Without a doubt, Cambodians are among the kindest people in the world, even after suffering so much. We had a fascinating conversation with the man on staff about history, politics, and life in Cambodia.
I had two goals in coming to Phnom Penh, 1) to get a history lesson, and 2) to get a glimpse of how contemporary Cambodians live. To accomplish the first goal, we visited two historic sites from the Khmer Rouge era. It was a very somber day. Here is a photo of the memorial at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, also known as the Killing Fields. Inside are the skulls of many of the thousands of people who were murdered here and buried in mass graves. Even now, when it rains, bones and fragments of clothing are unearthed from the fields.
I took only a few pictures at the Killing Fields. There is a museum with artifacts and an audio tour to guide you through the fields. During the Vietnam War, the United States launched a bombing campaign in Cambodia that they called the Secret War. In Cambodia, it was no secret. The bombing devastated the country and set the stage for the Khmer Rouge to take power. For nearly four years from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime’s twisted vision of a utopian agrarian society resulted in total destruction and the killing of between two and three million of their own people. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge army removed the population from the cities to work on forced labor farms. The entire city of Phnom Penh, then with over three million residents, was vacated. Anyone whom the state did not consider “pure” was subject to torture and death. There were killing fields like this one all over Cambodia.
At the end of the tour, I looped back around to the memorial. I looked at the skulls piled high to the ceiling. I wanted to feel their meaning through emotion and direct experience, beyond an intellectual understanding of facts. I laid a flower at the grave. I heard people chanting and sat with them in silence. A few turned to look and pointed at me. Perhaps it was because of my red hair, or perhaps it was because I was an outsider sharing in their prayer for the dead and for peace. It seemed to me the only appropriate thing to do.
In many ways, Cambodia reminds me of a less extreme version of India. The level of poverty is very high. There is a feeling of desperation. In the markets, the shopkeepers plead with you to buy a two-dollar pair of pants. Many of the destitute are missing limbs from landmine explosions. Phnom Penh is a dirty, dusty city, and the smell of rotten garbage is inescapable. We grew tired of bits of debris flying in our faces while we were on the road, so we solved the problem by wearing surgical masks, Asian style. We’re both smiling for the camera underneath our disguises.
This is Tuol Sleng, or S-21. It used to be a high school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison. Now it’s a museum. As many as 20,000 prisoners were brutally tortured here. Some died at S-21, and others were sent to the killing fields afterwards. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their prisoners, including mugshots which are now on display at the museum. It is one thing to know by numbers how many people were killed, and a very different thing to see their faces and look them in the eyes.
Only seven prisoners of S-21 survived because they had skills that made them useful to the Khmer Rouge. This is Chum Mey, a mechanic who survived because he could fix typewriters. Natalia and I each bought a copy of his book. I couldn’t believe how a person who had endured such horrors could have so much light and compassion shining through his eyes. Natalia wondered how now as an old man he could return to the prison where he had suffered day after day. He considers his torturers to be victims like him. His book contains the first Tuol Sleng confession ever published, in which he confessed to working for the CIA, an organization he had never heard of.
What I love about the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is that it is both the home of the nation’s highest elite and a public space for everyday people.
The palace is along the riverwalk, where there are restaurants and shops. Natalia and I became regulars there during our stay. What a complex, fascinating, beautiful country of vast contradictions.