Today is day three in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh (the “ph” in Phnom is pronounced as a gentle p, like pink, immediately followed by “nom”) and my opinion has changed a bit since my first post written upon arrival. I am growing to accept, if not like, Cambodia more. Let me start from where I left off with the last post, which was Friday evening. (It is Sunday evening now.)
After the Internet Cafe, I took a meandering path back to Nomads, my hostel-home for the moment. Robert, the gregarious owner, was chatting with some people out front when he saw me and paused to ask if I would like to go to the Killing Fields the next day because there was another solo traveler who was looking for a companion for a full day of sight-seeing, starting with the Killing Fields. I was hoping for exactly the same thing! Funny how that works out. That’s how I met Kenny, a Chinese-American who is doing an internship in Singapore for the summer and spends weekends exploring the region. He only had one day in Phnom Penh and was eager to see as much as possible. A perfect partner in crime! We agreed to meet at six o’clock the following morning and figure things out from there.
The next day followed the same pattern: we took things one step at a time and, in the process, ended up taking a lot of steps, starting with the tuk tuk. People of this region are early risers, so getting a tuk tuk at six in the morning was no problem. Robert counseled us on fair prices to have a driver for the day, so we agreed on $18 to go to the Fields and all over the city. The road to the Fields was largely unpaved, dusty, and riddled with potholes. It was a bumpy ride, but Kenndy got this picture of me on a smoother stretch.
The Fields were, needless to say, a somber place. Around 20,000 people met their end here in brutal ways. Shooting executions were rare because bullets are expensive. Instead, people were blindfolded and told to kneel, after which they were hit on the back of the neck with a machete, hoe, bamboo stick, or anything else that was available. The sturdy, sharp, and jagged palm fronds of native trees were also used to cut victim’s necks. Infants and small children were held by the ankles and swung against a tree, which was discovered after the fact still covered in blood and brain matter. Not everyone was dead when they were pushed into the pit, so DDT and other chemicals were sprayed to finish them off and disguise the smell. Propaganda music was played over loudspeakers to cover the sounds of the screams. There is an audio tour of the Fields, which provides these gruesome facts, stories from survivors, and what the last moments sounded like (propaganda music and a diesel engine) for thousands of men, women, and children. The killing almost always took place at night.
The picture above is of the bracelets that visitors leave behind on the bamboo perimeter of marked mass graves. Many of the graves at this site have been excavated, the remains cleaned and reverently cared for. Sometimes bits of bone or teeth or fabric still wash up from the mud. Signs ask visitors to kindly resist from removing any of these items. (What a gruesome souvenir that would be…)
There is a large pagoda at the entrance to the fields that houses skulls and large bones by the thousands. It was eerie to go in, with all those empty eyesockets staring forlornly back. Sometimes the approximate age and gender of the victim were marked and you think “that could be me.” There are many times I have had that thought while being on this trip, especially here in Cambodia. I could be the lady squatting in a squalid alley, selling bananas or sleeping in the trash. I could be the little girl forced to sell bracelets to tourists when I should be home eating dinner, playing, and doing my homework. I could be the old woman, back bent double from a life of labor with skin like animal hide. It could be me.
But it is not. I am lucky/privileged/blessed, whatever it may be, that I come from the circumstances that I do. That I can afford to be here, that I am in school, that I come from a family and country where people love me and care if I go missing. That I can go to a hospital if I need to. How must us tourists look to these people? Coming for a few days, consuming their poverty with our cameras that cost more than a year’s wages? But people aren’t resentful. Beggarly, yes, but not resentful. And there are certainly well-off Cambodians, a majority of which I suspect is through illicit means, though I will get to that and the politics later.
Moving along from these conflicted-tourist musings: our next stop was the genocide museum, shown above. (It was a prison/torture/interrogation center that used to be a school. People were killed in former classrooms.) Having gone yesterday, I waited outside with a book while Kenny went in. Sitting outside, a tourist is never guaranteed peace. I was hassled by beggars and endless men hawking the use of their motorbikes and tuk tuks. Usually sitting in a restaurant or some such establishment will buy you some peace, though the occasional peddler drifts into all but the fanciest establishments. So I waited, patiently smiling and shaking my head and keeping my eyes on my book. I am thinking of it as training for India.
Next stop: the Independence Monument. I don’t know when/why it was built (forgot to do that bit of homework) But it is a nice, elaborate monument in the middle of a roundabout. Sound like France, anyone? There is plenty of colonial influence here. The red-roofed building in the background is one of Phnom Penh’s many temples.
The Independence Monument was part of the tour en route to the National Palace and Silver Pagoda. The Palace was swamped with tourists. Something tells me it is uninhabited, though plenty of areas were off-limits. Also off-limits were sleeveless shirts. I had already paid the outrageous $6 entrance fee (it doesn’t sound like a lot but here that is a pretty significant sum. I can only wish that some of it is going to help the beggars outside the gates.) and was turned away at the door because of my bare shoulders. But of course all hope was not lost since someone happened to be selling (not loaning like they do in Thailand, but we’re not in Thailand honey) t-shirts right there. Convenient, right? I was irritated at this extra expense and unleashed a torrent of grumbling English, to which the modestly-dressed Kenny was sympathetic, while forking over two more dollars for a plain, XL t-shirt. Thusly dressed, I was permitted to enter and resolved to write “I went to Cambodia’s Royal Palace and all I got was this dumb t-shirt” on it using the Sharpie wrapped in duct tape (once a techie always a techie) that I keep in my bag. Coming up with the idea made us both laugh, which made the hassle worth it I suppose.
No pictures were allowed of any interiors, so I asked Kenny to take a clandestine one of me in mirror by the window as a final “revenge.” Petty, but it got more laughs and there was the adrenaline element since we narrowly escaped being chided by one of the many guards.
At the Palace exit there was a Buddha shrine (one of many) with a live Khmer band playing opposite. Notice that the golden decoration above the Buddha’s head is actually natural growth from a tree. Pretty groovy. (Also note the Pepsi product placement. Anything and everything is reused and recycled.)
By this time it was getting later in the afternoon, which meant it was time to go to a boxing match. This was a highlight for sure. After living for a year in Thailand, I never went to one Muay Thai match. After living in Tampa for two years, I never managed to find the MMA (mixed martial arts) scene that is supposedly pretty big there. So finally, here in Cambodia, I got to go to see some good-natured combat. A funny desire for a peace-loving vegetarian, but there is something primal and attractive (perhaps it is the boxers themselves…?) about it. Forget cricket; this is a sport I can understand.
The boxing arena was a ways outside of town, at the end of another dusty and bumpy road. At first it appeared that we pulled into a television station building, but a walk around beheld a large hangar that could almost house an airplane. As soon as we alighted from the tuk tuk, music began to play and the crowd cheered. The music came from a three-man band on a corner of the stage, blasted over loudspeakers. The reedy flute sounded like the instrument of a snake charmer, which was appropriate with the television camera arching over the ring, swaying to the boxers’ movements like a metallic, one-eyed cobra. The boxers felt the rhythm too. At the start of a new match, they danced around each other, taking little steps in time to the music and making deliberate punches and kicks to feel each other out.
We found seats on dusty (everything here seems dusty despite the daily rain) bleachers and settled in to watch the progress. The smell of Tiger Balm was heavy in the air, mixed with sweat, beer, and the occasional cigarette. A downpour began soon after, and somehow the high metal ceiling didn’t rattle with the onslaught. Nothing disturbed the sound of the snake charmer, drums, and the shouts of the crowd, which was mostly male. The male demographic was generally younger and well-groomed. A smattering of foreigners stayed inconspicuously in the bleachers. Some Khmer women were present, as were children. One little girl slept in the front row, her body supported by two plastic chairs with her head in her mother’s lap. Other children ran between the chairs, seemingly oblivious to the spectacle in the ring. One little boy was naked as the day he was born. We saw him afterward, riding home on the lap of a motorcycle driver still wearing nothing but a pair of flip flops. No photos of him, but I did catch one boxer showing respect to his teacher before a match, which is done casually before entering the ring and in a formal ceremony once the match begins.
The final stop for our ever-so-patient tuk tuk driver was at the National Museum, to catch a cultural show. It cost $12, which is again a little steep, but it went through many of the major ceremonies that mark a Cambodian’s life, from birth to the hair-cutting ceremony to the rite of passage ceremony for girls to the entering of monkhood for boys (their rite of passage) to marriage to illness consultation to a funeral. The story flowed from one ceremony to the next, accompanied by more live Khmer music and English subtitles on a screen. The subtitles weren’t the best, but they gave us a gist of what was going on. The photo below is of the mock wedding. The bride and groom are both pretty in pink: During the show, what sounded like a riot practically drowned out the performance. This was one of many motorbrigades that I have seen/heard in the past few days here. Luckily they passed by within a few minutes, and the streets were clear when we left the show. During the day, the participants look something like this except they are on motorbikes and parading through the streets: I knew it was political and had something to do with an election, as I wrote a couple days ago. Fortunately, Kenny met a Phnom Penh local, Acha, while traveling in Bangkok and was able to give him a call and arrange a meeting. The first thing I noticed was his American flag bag. There is nowhere with more American and British patriotic paraphernalia than in this region. The stars and stripes and Union Jack adorn everything from helmets to umbrellas to shoes to purses. Acha likes America, speaks good English, and was able to give us a run-down of what is going on. He is in support of the party on parade, as are most other young people. However, this party is not the National People’s Party (the one with the longest-running “president” in the world) as I thought. In fact, Cambodia has eight political parties, though as in the States only two or three really matter. I heard that the second and third parties merged to form what I am seeing now: The National Rescue Party. Two days ago (Friday July 19), when I first saw the crowds, turned out to be the day that the leader of this opposition party returned from exile after an official pardon from the king. Since he is the leader, I suppose he is the one running for president, though you can be sure that the other party will try to complicate matters as much as possible with this recent development of the opposition leader not being in-country in time for some arbitrary deadline. So the young people are hitting the streets and campaigning for change, big time.
Now that I have a clearer idea of what is going on, I am in support of these people (I think) though I certainly won’t don a shirt and start campaigning with them. Who knows if the new government will be any better, but I really admire that the people are trying and actively making their voices heard. This is a wonderful time to be in Cambodia, witnessing what could be history and is in the very least inspiring. Acha will go to Siem Reap to vote on the 28th. People have to go back to their original locality to vote – electronic voting isn’t an option. (I made a mistake of saying “Oh, well it is a nice opportunity to visit your parents.” “I don’t have parents.” I didn’t inquire further, but it was another reminder that we are not in Kansas anymore. Since Acha is 27, his parents very well could have been killed by the Khmer Rouge. Who knows?)
After dinner and more political talk (Acha certainly has some strong views) we went to an ex-pat bar to meet a mutual friend of Kenny and Acha who they met in Bangkok. This was Sam, who happens to be from Lincoln Park, Chicago and has been living in Thailand and Cambodia teaching English. Small world! Even more bizarre was when I found out that both Acha and Sam spoke Thai. Acha has been learning for three years and sounds like a native (after all, Thai entertainment like TV, music, and film is popular with neighboring countries) and Sam started learning in Bangkok and is continuing his studies in Phnom Penh. It was exhilarating to feel that the rhythm of the language has not left me, though I need to grasp for words more than when I was on my game. But the familiarity can be brought back, which has me thrilled.
With Sam were three other people, a guy from Oregon teaching English, a woman from China teaching Chinese, and a guy from Germany just traveling through like me. It was a fun group. The guy from Oregon speaks Mandarin, as does Kenny and the woman from China. They sat in a triangle, speaking together; while Sam, Acha, and I sat in an overlapping triangle speaking Thai. What a funny world.
We went to a few bars together. I didn’t drink because a) I already totally blew the budget for the day on all those entrance fees and the tuk tuk and b) the local ex-pats warned me that Phnom Penh can be dangerous. A woman walking in the dark is definitely a no-no. There is a reason many nightclubs ask patrons to check their weapons at the door. At some point, we got some street food. The carnivores got burgers (Sam, Acha, and the guy from Oregon) while I went with the German guy and Chinese lady to get some local-legend pizza. The stall was called Katy Perry’s Pizza and was sold off the back of a motorbike with an oven an small prep station rigged to the back. If it exists, it can somehow be rigged to a motorbike. Seriously.
The pizza was good, the reggae rooftop bar with a full view of the city (only one significantly tall building, nothing else reaches over five stories) was even better, and somehow I didn’t get home until two in the morning (via tuk tuk – $2 for the ride over an easily walkable distance was my insurance against injury). Shower, sleep, and… Blasting music?
This morning around 7 pm I was woken by both my bladder and music loud enough to shake the floor. Outside, the day’s political rally was in full swing. They played thumping music, alternated with announcements rousing cheers, for the rest of the day. It’s madness! Don’t these people have school or work? But again, good for them for getting out there.
Whew, and that post only covers one day! Granted, it was a pretty full day. Today was not so eventful: I just wandered, got lost, explored a new market (and creeped on people from above as shown in the picture below), snacked, watched a documentary about the Khmer Rouge, napped at the hostel (even with the music – I was tired!), and am now going to get some dinner and check out the night market while I wait for my bus to Siem Reap. Oh, and I will try to book something in advance accommodation-wise. No more of this spending a half day to find affordable and decent lodging business.
Cheers, until Siem Reap!