Getting to Cambodia was easier than most trips—just 6 hours from Saigon to Phnom Penh, including a quick border crossing and lunch. The visa was only $20, but there were opportunities (read: scams) to pay more if you weren’t paying attention.
Shortly before we arrived at the bus stop, I looked out the window at the swarm of motorbikes and realized this craze had carried over from Vietnam. As I scanned the faces, I saw one looking right back at me. It was none other than Tim Lee! This wasn’t completely out of the ordinary because he was planning to meet us at the bus station and be our host for a few nights, but it was funny to see him before actually getting off the bus. Tim is an old friend from Chicago. He’s living in Phnom Penh for one year doing an internship with an NGO to prevent human trafficking of minors. He’s a great guy and it was welcoming to see a familiar face this far into the trip.
Tim showed us around Phnom Penh the next few days. It’s become a nice city recently, but has quite a troubled past. As with the two previous countries we visited, Cambodia was subjected to intense bombing during the Vietnam War. After the war was over, the Khmer Rouge gained control and instilled their version of intense communism. From 1975-1979, Pol Pot was at the center of the regime and demanded that anyone with an advantage in society in any way must be eliminated. His goal was to “take Cambodia back to year zero” and become a purely agrarian society with everyone living as peasants. The borders were closed and anyone educated or suspected of being anti-communist was arrested, tortured into confession, and brutally killed. Families were ripped apart and the nation lived in fear. After America’s defeat in Vietnam, Western nations weren’t particularly interested to interfere in SE Asian politics again.
Part of visiting Phnom Penh is learning about the unsettling details of the past. The Tuol Sleung school, two blocks from where Tim lives, was transformed into a torture chamber. Former classrooms served as cells for intense brutality. Pictures were taken of the victims as part of the meticulous records kept by the regime. When the Vietnamese finally liberated the city from intense brutality, only 7 people of the 20,000 brought through Tuol Sleng were found alive inside. The site is now a Genocide Museum where visitors can learn about the atrocities, see the bloodstained concrete floors, and mourn the loss of over 2 million people during these dark days of Cambodian history.
After being tortured, prisoners were transported to an orchard about 15 km away known as “The Killing Fields”. They were forced to work in the fields for a time, learning how to be farmers, and then viciously murdered. I’ve never visited a concentration camp in Europe, but I imagine this is similar. An audio tour guided the way through depressions in the landscape that signify the location of mass graves, recounting the grim details of what happened only a few decades ago. Diesel generators and loudspeakers blaring the national anthem would drown out the victims’ screams. There are still articles of clothing imbedded in the earth and every so often bones and teeth rise to the surface during the rainy season. One heartbreaking stop was at The Killing Tree. It is believed to be the spot where hundreds of children were beaten and killed. When first discovered, there were bits of bone and teeth imbedded in the trunk. It’s truly horrifying what humans can do to other people in the name of power.
We decided to visit both of these horrific sites on the same day, which compounded the sadness and disgust, because the following day was my birthday. It certainly gave me some perspective and appreciation for my very fortunate life. We spent the day down by the riverfront in the city. I had a “Happy Birthday” pizza and beer for lunch, and then we marveled at the exhibits in The National Museum. It was refreshing to learn about Cambodian history that didn’t involve genocide. Many of the exhibits are artifacts taken from the Angkor Wat area and provided us with some background knowledge for our next stop.
After the museum, Gabriella treated me to a Seeing Hands massage (blind person rubdown). The massage started out very thorough and relaxing, but it seemed like they lost track of time and had to rush at the end. Their clock would speak the time when a button was pushed, but they didn’t check it until 40 mins in, then 7 mins later, 5 mins, 2 mins…ok, you’re done! It’s always good to get a massage though, and I was happy to support their way of making an honest living.
Later that night, Tim, Gabriella, and I went to a great restaurant for an authentic Khmer birthday dinner. The fish amok was delicious and Tim treated us to mango sticky rice for dessert! Afterwards, we met up with some of his friends at a rooftop bar for specialty cocktails. (Dad: You woulda loved some of their combos! ;)) It was unlike any other birthday I’ve had, but then again, I’ve never celebrated in Cambodia before.