Cambodia, Part I: Phnom Penh

2:13 AM Jmo 0 Comments

It's no secret that I watch the travel program Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. I am a fan. I'll even admit to romantically lauding his cinematic travel exploits and adding some of his stops to my own travel schedule. Sure, he can be somewhat pompous and arrogant but I admire, and often try to emulate, his style of travel: Dive in, try it all, eat it all, drink it all, etc.

The first time Bourdain visited Cambodia he immediately felt in over his head. He felt young, coddled and voyeuristic. But most of all, he felt ignorant. And ironically, in no way trying to emulate, I felt this way as well. Walking around the streets of Siem Reap for the first time, it was clear: I knew little to nothing about this country! I knew little to nothing about its people, its current political state, or its recent and traumatic history. In my mind, Cambodia was a jungle wonderland that occasionally appeared in Unicef advertisements. I was obscenely ignorant. But in my naive state and wealth of Trip Advisor searches, I was just excited to have a wallet padded enough to entertain such an "exotic" destination and booked the ticket.

I loved Siem Reap my first go. It was incredible and all new. I came back humbled and changed. That may sound ridiculous and 'neo-colonialist' to some, but its true. Even within the safe, touristy, bubble of its faux-European streets, I knew it was different. The air was heavy. Scarred from a dark and recent history. Heavy, but beautiful and enchanting. I came back wanting to learn more. I came back knowing that this destination was more than just a movie set. I came back wanting to go back.

I arrived into Phnom Penh late. It was 2am and all of the tuk tuk drivers were asleep, and, it was a Cambodian holiday. I had to take a private taxi. We drove into the heart of the city in silence, air conditioning blowing down new car smell. I looked out of the window at a city boarded up. Store fronts were packaged up in iron bars and almost every store sign was dim. I arrived to my hostel and was immediately left at its doorstep to find it boarded up in the same fashion. My taxi sped off and I was left, standing outside, rapping on a metal shutter. I don't know how long I stood out there, knocking my knuckles on the only thing keeping me from safety, but it felt like an eternity. Had I made a mistake? Have I romanticized this place even more during the short years in between? Had I become even more blindly tenacious? Just as these thoughts were running through my mind, a local rose to his feet from behind a stall, shrouded in bushes, as if he were answering my internal rhetoric.  No, no, no. Go sit back down! Please, don't come any closer. Even if you are trying to help! For the first time in while, I was scared. Just then, the shutter was pulled open and my haggard looking hostel owner ushered me in. "You're late."

I woke up at 2pm the next day and spent the greater part indoors writing about China, hiding from downpours, and talking to the hostel's bartender. She was a Cambodian woman, possibly my age, possibly younger, with a large, speckled bruise covering the entire right side of her face. It was beginning to yellow around her eye socket. I didn't dare ask what happened. But we carried on as if her right side resembled her left. She told me she was going to marry an Australian man in December. They had only met twice, but he was going to marry her and she was excited about this. I smiled and told her that I was happy for her. She didn't love him, but she missed him and "life will be easy" with him.

The first couple days of my time spent in the capital happened to be the festival of Pchum Ben, a holiday to celebrate ancestors, so almost everything was closed. Shops, restaurants, museums...but I walked around the city anyway. Phnom Penh was inspiring. I felt great there. It was a real place, unlike Siem Reap where almost everything is gift wrapped to the needs of tourists. The city was built around temples, and the temples were built around the city.
I walked through a Buddhist compound and met a Swedish photographer who told me about some of the architecture that I was wondering through. And later on I met an older man who was seated on one of the top steps of the main alter, wiping sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. "What do you think of all this?", he asked me as I passed by him, about to go down the stairs and carry on. He was overcome with a desire to vocalize his animosity towards organized religion and saw me. I guess I have one of those faces. I'm an easy target. We had an interesting discussion about money, religion, religion and money, and the temples of Angkor Wat; which he amounted to being a monument to slavery. I understood his point, but stated that many "human triumphs" can be seen this way. The American railway system out West for example. I'm proud to say he was a little thwarted by this and looked at me with a contemplative, "Huhh...". We ended our conversation and shook hands. His name was Richards. I asked what he did for a living and it turns out he was a molecular biology professor at UCLA. I now understood his disdain for religion.

I retired to a bar to rest my sore back and medicate it with a fifty-cent draft. I reclined back in my wicker chair in the nearly empty bar and watched the Breaking News flood across the nearest television screen: US BOMBS SYRIA.
My head was reeling. So many thoughts were running through my head. Maybe it was the heat. I was getting emotional and quite meta.  What was I doing here? What was I trying to accomplish? What was truly important? Am I helping or harming? What am I trying to prove? Am I trying to prove anything? How does my American presence affect where I can go and what I can see? Am I being herded? Phnom Penh is different; Is Cambodia getting better? I feel strange. Is this Western Guilt? Why the hell does this place make me feel this way?

Back at the hostel, I was invited out to dinner and drinks by a group that was staying in my dorm room. There were a group of French girls, wearing tiny Spring dresses to match their adorable personalities. They were studying Economics at the university near by. Then there was Leon, one of the girl's boyfriends who was by far the friendliest; George and Andy the two New Zealanders who were polar opposite in personality; and then Adom who had dark eyes and a ominous presence. We ended up drinking cheap beer at a rooftop bar facing the Sap river which flows out into the Mekong. I sat by Adom because almost everyone else had a pairing. The conversation started slow, and I felt that I needed to prove myself to him for some reason. I hate that feeling. But once we started talking about travel, and China, and Korea, things really picked up and I suddenly had value. He ended up telling me he was Tunisian but went to a Saudi boarding school payed for by his father. He hated the students there because they would pull up to school drifting Lamborghinis and treated the teachers horribly. He said that their wealth would protect them from punishment.  He left the school at 16 and has been traveling since. He lived in China and picked up Chinese, traveled Africa and picked up French, and told me crazy stories about hitching a ride in the backseat of a local's car in order to cross the border into Somalia. He thought Cambodia was too easy and preferred the danger of Africa and liked to "make his own way". A few more beers in, I finally asked him how old he was. "How old do you think I am?" I'm notably horrible with guessing people's age, but he seemed older than his khaki pants, short dark hair, and serious face. Add that to all of the stories he had just told me and I guessed 28. He laughed. He was only 20 years old.

The following days I tried to immerse myself in Khmer Rouge history. It was a rough and emotional  couple of days to say the least. I started by taking a long tuk tuk ride to the outskirts of Phnom Penh to visit the 'Killing Fields'. I was fixed with an audiotape headset that allowed me to listen to stories of events that corresponded to specific markers in The Fields. At the center of The Fields was a giant pagoda. Walking up to the pagoda, the regality of its spires were wiped clean as you were confronted with the skulls and bones of Khmer Rouge victims. The bones, piled up upon one another; reaching higher and higher with no end in sight. Men, women, and children. Each skull was marked with a colored dot to correspond to a key to indicate how they were killed: ax, bullet wood, bludgeoning... Some people were taking photos of the display, but I couldn't bear it. I walked further into the fields and listened to survivor stories via my audiotape. Stories of rape, torture, children being separated from their families, reunification and perseverance. Upwards of 3 million, of Cambodia's own people, were murdered by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979; a population cut in half. (Brief history: Pol Pot rose to power in the mid 70's and was determined to take Cambodia back to a "working class". He believed that Cambodia needed to reject outside influence and begin again at "Year Zero". He forced everyone out of the cities and into the rice fields; determined to multiply Cambodian's rice production by three-fold. An impossible goal. Those who were not killed for being an intellectual, foreigner, doctor, artist, professor, bi-lingual, multi-lingual, or, simply having soft hands (meaning you were not 'working class') were sent into slave labor. Pol Pot was anti-Vietnamese, and was therefore secretly supported by The United States, having just seceded in The Vietnam War; though, sometime in 1978, we changed our mind. Pol Pot and his party was eventually overthrown by the Vietnamese government and fled into the countryside. Pol Pot died happy and comfortable under house arrest.)

I walked a little further in and came to The Killing Tree. This is where Khmer Rouge soldiers were instructed to kill children, often by grabbing their legs and beating them against its trunk until they were dead. The tree was covered with bracelets as a way to pay respect to its victims. Across from The Killing Tree was a larger tree that seemed to be at the center of the camp. I pressed the corresponding number on my audiotape to learn about this tree's role. The tree was used to hang a speaker which played propaganda music to drown out the moans and screams of the people being executed. I couldn't take any more.
The Khmer Rouge were almost but swept under the rug of history. Many of its leaders, including Pol Pot, escaped trials of war crimes due to loopholes such as 'lack of a war', or on the basis that many of killings were not deemed as 'religious persecutions'. Also, because of confusion and political chaos, many Cambodians didn't even know who was running their country at the time. And, to this day, some still consider Pol Pot to be 'a great leader'. For more, please visit: History of the Khmer Rouge
(Note: The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh has been bought by a private, Japanese, company. Read here.  And, that doesn't sit with me too well. I believe that Cambodia has been cut up, divided, and sold-out by their government enough. That being said, I still believe that is an important place to visit, see the evidence of crimes never prosecuted, and educate oneself. )

The following day I went to S-21. This was quite possibly the most disturbing place I have ever been. When the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and instituted its '4-Year Plan', education was banned. Schools were closed and anyone with higher education, was seen as a threat and murdered. S-21 was once a high school in the heart of Phnom Penh, but under Khmer Rouge rule, had been transformed into a prison and torture headquarters. To say it was disturbing might be one of the grossest understatements to ever be mentioned. What happened there, is truly unspeakable. On par with the cruelty of Auschwitz, Khmer Rouge officials tortured, maimed, starved, and mercilessly executed their own people. Each "prisoner" was documented meticulously. Name, age, height, methods of torture used... Room after room house mugshot-esque photos of the victims. One of the most disturbing things to me was their faces. Many of them seemed to look up at the camera innocently and inquisitively. You could draw a timeline with their faces. Those who looked at the camera with eager eyes must of been imprisoned early on, as word of S-21 was still scarce. Others, who had already been beaten and malnourished, looked up at the camera with terrified, drained expressions. There was even a section dedicated to babies and children. Mugshots, of babies. Just let that sink in.
You were allowed full access to the prison. Walking along its corridors I felt strange. Not only because of what happened here, but also because the hallways were outdoors, much like Korean schools. I can only imagine the people of a promising and well educated Phnom Penh, routinely sending their children off to school here, as I would imagine those back in Korea. That is why this 'museum' is here today. To serve as a gross reminder of a history, hopefully, never to be repeated again.
Classroom had been transformed into torture chambers. The wire bed frames used to detain interogees were still in the rooms. Some of the restraints and crude torture implements were still there as well. Hanging in each room was a photo that was taken when the prison was liberated. Barely recognizable bodies were mangled and twisted into each bed frame. The very bed frame that laid before you now. The patchwork, tile floor was still the same. And the stains at the base of each wall, paired with the rest of the surroundings, manifested a nightmarish image. I walked through the rest of the prison and felt hollow. I sat outside in the courtyard of S-21 in a haze, ashamed of The US for their support during The Cold War, and just loathing humanity in general. I sat there, scanning the grass, picturing boys in school uniforms carrying books. I sat there, scanning the grass, until my eyes met a pair of beams, crudely fashioned into gallows.

I walked the city after the prison. It felt good to walk. It was incredibly hot and my clothes quickly became saturated with sweat. I sat down at a roadside eatery frequented by local tuk tuk drivers. Before I sat down many of them tried to offer me a ride and were shocked, and a bit confused, when I sat down in one of the red plastic chairs. A young boy, nervous and awkward, came by to take my order. He didn't speak any English. He backed away to get help and a woman, who ended up being the owner and chef, came out and asked, "Order?" I wasn't sure what was offered, but the men's plates looked okay. I asked what they had. She understood the question but couldn't recite to me the menu in English. She smiled, walked away, and came back with a plate of food. "Pork rice for you." I ate and felt comfortable. A pile of white rice tops with meticulously cared for (as not to waste) strips of pork. The stares had stopped and I was one of the guys.

Phnom Penh was beautiful, somber, educational, and jarring. It was quite the shock coming from comfortable Korea, and a wake up call for what lay ahead. It should not be seen as an after-thought to Siem Reap. It is a real testament to the strength of the Cambodian people and should be viewed as such. I watched families playing in parks, locals eating in restaurants, children chasing balloons. It was encouraging and full of progress. If you make it to Cambodia, please, be sure to stick around Phnom Penh for a bit.


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