2/7/12 - 2/21/12 85 °F
Hello from the beautiful town of Dalat in Vietnam's central highlands! Avery and I were having so much fun in Cambodia, we forgot to write. Oops. Hope you weren't worried that we were eaten by a cobra or lost in the jungle or some other terrible fate. Just having too good of a time.
DISCLAIMER: I put all of my photos on CDs. This computer does not read CDs. So these are Avery's photos. Thus, I am prominently featured on this blog. More photos of Avery when I find a functioning CD-ROM drive!
So now I am going to do a huge disservice to the country of Cambodia and condense our travels into one post. It's a shame because we had such an amazing time there and had a wonderful experience. But...yeah, here it goes. (AND DON'T YOU DARE JUST LOOK AT THE PHOTOS AND NOT READ THE TEXT. I spent a whole bus ride writing this one damn it!!)
After Siem Reap, we traveled to Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia, where we hired two locals to drive us around the city and surrounding countryside on their motorbikes. Saw some beautiful country, fruit farms, a bamboo train, kids walking to school, farmers tending their fields, the only winery in Cambodia. My driver Odom (or Mr. Excellent as he introduced himself) was an excellent guide, telling me all about himself, the Khmer culture, the local crops, the history of the area. He definitely lived up to his self-appointed name.
NOTE: Picture of our drivers and us is on my CD. Boo.
In front of a temple that was once a Khmer Rouge prison, he told us his story of living through the Khmer Regime -- how the Khmer Rouge murdered his father and two sisters, how he worked in the rice fields from age 8-10, how he survived the regime's brutality and a refugee camp on the Thai border. At the refugee camp, he learned how to be a medic, working in clinics and hospitals in the area. When he returned to Cambodia in the 90s, he could not find work, despite his desire to aid his country with his medical skills. Corruption and greed had blocked his path. He did not have the $1,000 to pay his way into a job in Cambodia. Now he works a motorbike driver in Battambang, barely bringing home enough money to feed his family. He is fluent in Khmer, Thai, English and French. Despite all of this, he was an incredibly warm, friendly, hilarious man. He had me laughing the whole time, especially when he told us how his wife locks him out of the house after he has been drinking beer and eating dog meat with his friends. Too funny. One of the best experiences of my trip so far.
After a couple days in Battambang, we took the bus to Phnom Pehn, capital of Cambodia. Beautiful city. Many bored (read: annoying) tuk tuk drivers. Good food and shopping. Fascinating and heartbreaking cultural spots.
Poverty and luxury often residing in the same city block. If you're not familiar with the Khmer Rouge, read this before going on.
Our second day we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is located on the premises of the former S-21 prison. "Formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, named after a Royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes." (From Wikipedia)
It was heartbreaking. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took incredibly detailed accounts of everyone who entered the prison. The prisoners' head shots from those records now line rooms of the museum. The victims' faces are blank; devoid of fear, anger, any emotion. They simply stare back from the past. It's haunting. I can still see the walls, picture after picture of man, woman, child -- no one was spared from the cruelty. Only seven people survived the prison. The rest were sent to the killing fields.
In the beginning, the prisoners were buried near the S-21 prison, but the grounds soon filled with corpses. They began bringing prisoners to Choeung Ek extermination center, also known as the killing fields.
There, prisoners were murdered, usually by bashing them in the head as ammunition was expensive and scarce. Bodies were piled in top of each other in mass graves. Nearly 9,000 bodies were exhumed from the graves. There are more that lie in the field behind the tourist area. The government has decided that those graves will not be disturbed.
Now there are huge depressions in the ground, like small bomb craters, where the bodies once lay. Bone and clothing fragments can still be seen everywhere. I saw a lot of clothing, only a couple of bones. Hard to hold back my tears and disgust at what brutality humans are capable of. Felt sick for the rest of the day.
That night I dreamed of being locked in the prison alone, at night. When I awoke, the streetlights filtered through our hotel room's curtains, casting a sickly, yellow glow that was too much like the peeling yellow paint of the prison's walls. I had nightmares throughout the night.
Maybe you're wondering why anyone would want to see that. Why would a country with such a brutal past turn around and put it on display? Because you can't understand Cambodia without seeing it. You can't fathom the cruelty that humans are capable of until you stare upwards at 9,000 human skulls. You won't understand the pain in your motorbike driver's eyes until you see the cave where his family may have been thrown to their deaths. And you can't understand why so many Cambodians suffer from PTSD and depression until you come face to face with the injustice the Cambodian people have been dealt.
Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was never put on trial for the murder of over 2 million Cambodians. He died naturally in 1998. Only recently did the UN begin to try other leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Duch, the leader of the S-21, was just sentenced to life in prison -- more than 30 years after his crimes had been committed.
It makes you angry doesn't it? You would think that for all they have suffered, the Cambodian people would be bitter, depressed, angry people. But...they're not. At all. They are some of the happiest people I have met. To understand the strength of the Cambodian people, the sheer tenacity within their souls, you need to know their past.
Not saying everything in Cambodia is honky dory. There is still a lot of poverty, a lot of crime and corruption. There are things that need to be changed. But, I was still blown away by the spirit of the Cambodian people. Seeing things like this changes a person.
After Phnom Pehn, we headed to the sleepy village of Chi Phat in the Cardamon Mountains. Avery went mountain biking (his report on that later). I biked for two hours and decided I'd rather not suffer some terrible heart trauma hours away from a hospital. It was just way too hot for that kind of activity. New motto: "Quitters may never win, but winners spend their lives doing things they hate." Makes me feel better about quitting.
Spent my time in Chi Phat talking to the kids at my homestay (their picture is also on that CD...grr), sweating and dreaming of ice storms.
Favorite quote from homestay conversations?
(Homestay girl, me and her two friends are talking. One leaves.)
Homestay girl: We don't like her.
Me: Why not?
HG: She is always late for school. She likes to sleep in.
Friend: Yes, she is lazy. Sometimes she sleeps until nine!
Then south to Sihanoukville. Met a couple from Minneapolis who just started a bar there. Listened to The Current. Felt homesick for The Wedge and cheese. Snookville is dirty; feels like all the bad of Thailand wrapped into one.
One night there then onto Koh Rong. White sand, blue water. So Beautiful. Got drunk with a couple Swedish sisters and a South African (Afrikaner). Played card games. Drank too many buckets. Played "Fuck the Bus," Sweden's version of the popular game. Went swimming at 1 a.m. in the warm warm waters. Played with the glowing phosphorescence like we were in that scene from The Beach.
Going for a swim!
Then it pooped.
Went to Koh Thmei. Nothing there but eight bungalows and a restaurant. Nice but got bored. Too much beach time.
Planned to go to Kampot after Koh Thmei. It's an old, rotting French colonial town on the coast. We waited for our bus in the fishing village. No English. Van pulls up. Tiny Khmer woman in floral pajamas (the hit style here) and a orange plaid sun hat gets out. She has a gold tooth and gummy smile. Points to the van. "No, no. We are taking the bus," we say.
She rattles off something in Khmer and says, "no bus!" She points at the van again, smiling that gummy grin. I keep hearing "don't get in cars with strangers...especially ones who don't speak English." I am unsure. She is relentless. I am hot. I am defeated. "Kampot?" we ask. "Kampot!!" she says.
A friendly police officer (or just some random guy in a uniform -- you never know in Cambodia) claims the van is indeed going to Kampot. We get in. I laugh. That's all I can do at this point. I note that the windows open wide enough that I can crawl out if need be. I relax.
Every few miles, we pull over and let someone in. They always stare at us, say something in Khmer, then laugh.
At 17 people, the van is still stopping for passengers. A lady in a yellow blouse and white sun hat waves us down. We pick her up and head down a dusty dirt road, away from the main highway. Lovely, I think.
The van gets stuck. It gets stuck in some loose sandy, ashy substance. The driver spins the tires. We are really stuck now. Okay, everyone out. 1,2,3..push! Still stuck. We keep pushing and digging the van in deeper and deeper. I want to display my awesome snow bank rocking skills to everyone here, but the van is a manual. Don't think I could shift fast enough. I am sad.
(MY PICTURES OF THIS ARE ON THAT CD TOO....UGH.)
Finally, a man brings over a couple dried palm leaves and places them behind the back tires. All 17 passengers are pushing now. Pushing, pushing and ... the van heaves out and onto the packed road. Everyone celebrates!
There is an argument between the lady in yellow and the driver. We leave her standing in the yard. Everyone inside the van laughs. Avery and I imagine they are laughing at the lady in yellow and whatever ridiculous request she had.
In Kampot, we 125 CC Honda Waves and take them up Bokor Mountain. Beautiful views. Crazy road. No one crashes. Good thing because they have my passport as collateral. Ride out to the pepper plantations and through the countryside. It is so beautiful. Mountains, green crops, palm trees, giant white oxen. Potholes, loose gravel, homicidal traffic. We make it back a little sun burnt but unscathed.
My "I am so getting a heat rash from this" face:
I surprise Avery with a really nice room at a boutique hotel. Air conditioning! Hot water! DVDs! CLEAN SHEETS. We are in heaven. We order room service all night and watch Dances with Wolves and Taxi Driver.
Then we head out to the Cambodia and Vietnam border...
So what did I think of Cambodia? I loved it. Oh, I loved it so much. I was scared to travel in Cambodia. I had read terrible stories of scams, corruption, violence, etc. I knew that Cambodia was still unstable; a country still recovering from the toll of poverty, war, genocide. I had only wanted to stay there for a few days. We stayed for three weeks.
While Bangkok is an assault on the senses, Cambodia is an assault on one's emotions. So many days I was challenged to maintain my composure when I saw mothers and children begging on the streets, men and women with missing limbs because of landmines, the skulls of murdered Cambodians. It was very difficult at times. I was ashamed of my expensive sweat-wicking clothes that cost what some people made in a month. I was embarrassed to have ever complained about anything, ever. Because I have it so so good. Traveling in Cambodia taught me that. It taught me to be grateful for what opportunities, resources and basic human needs I have so readily available.
Cambodia also taught me how to be happy. Like I said, the Khmer people are so friendly, so kind. Like Avery's driver told him, "Cambodians just want peace. We want to be friends with anyone who wants to." It's so simple, right? I guess this goes together with remembering to be grateful for what you have in life. Be grateful, be happy. Smile. Talk to strangers. Forgive. These are the things I learned while traveling in Cambodia.