Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Phnom Penh

We entered Phnom Penh in perhaps the worst possible way. It was early evening and after the time it took to walk the back streets, it was already dark. As mentioned in earlier posts, Cambodia is still trying to work out the kinks of building/maintaining its cities. In Phnom Penh, that means that on the outskirts of the town, lighting is non existent. So after dropping our bags and setting out, our expectations were quite low. The streets were trash-filled and some of the dark alleys felt a bit sketchy. But, first impressions can be deceiving. By daybreak, the city seemed to start its metamorphosis. Suddenly, the trash seemed to lessen, the parks seemed manicured and the restaurants abundant.

But the city has not been graced with the easiest of histories. On our third day, we decided to visit the heart of the insanity that was the Khmer Rouge regime, namely the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng, or S-21 prison. In an effort to usher in a demented form of "communism," genocidal Pol Pot and the leaders of the Khmer Rouge decided that it was necessary to torture and kill intellectuals, tradesmen, political opponents, politicians and pretty much anyone else that got in their way. The result was that over 40% of the population of the entire country was tortured and murdered. 40%. And as if that weren't crazy enough, the regime borrowed a page from the Nazi handbook and kept detailed records of all of the people who they felt it necessary to kill.

Our first stop was at the Killing Fields, one of hundreds of places throughout Cambodia where people, from infants, to the elderly where executed. To say that the experience was difficult is a colossal understatement. At the entrance of the site, a bone pagoda sits with the skulls of hundreds of murdered people in levels rising high overhead. Walking around the hastily dug pits where thousands were buried and seeing fragments of bones still embedded in the earth was heartbreaking. As we continued around the site trying our best to keep from crumbling, our tour guide pointed out the butterflies that swarmed all around the burial pits but nowhere else around the site. For Buddhists, this notion of the souls of the tortured and murdered returning to grace the graceless site seemed to offer the closest thing to comfort.

The next site was the infamous S-21 prison. S-21 was one of the Khmer Rouge's central processing points and torture facility. The methods employed were simple: starve, torture and humiliate people until they confessed to a trumped-up charge, and then execute them. What makes the place even more absurdly terrible is that it was a converted high school. The grounds still look like any typical high school anywhere in the world with manicured lawns and a central quad. Inside the campus buildings is the incredibly moving tribute of line after line of photos. Each of the thousands that came through were photographed upon entry or prior to execution. And seeing the faces of children, teenagers, the middle-aged and old and knowing the fate that they endured made it difficult to fathom the horrors that humans can commit.

Unfathomably, many tourists combine a tour of these sites with a stop-off at a nearby shooting range to try their hand at shooting an A-K. Needless to say, we skipped that part. We felt like we needed at least one class in Cold War politics to understand the Khmer Rouge, as well as the current political situation in Cambodia.

And what of a city, no less a country, that endures this kind of hardship? Many of the people who were directly affected by the Khmer Rouge, either as victims or indoctrinated as soldiers and child soldiers are trying to go about their daily lives. But this is the amazing thing, the people are guarded, but wonderfully sweet and open once you get to know them a bit. There is the sense that while the scars that were inflicted from 1975-1979 are still there, the people remain, somehow, hopeful.

While it was hard to leave behind the images and emotions of the Killing Fields and S-21 and return to the world of tourist, we spent the next 3 days exploring the myriad neighborhoods, eating wonderful food and drinking an absurd amount of fruit shakes.

By the end of our five days, Phnom Penh became one of my favorite cities. With a mix of beauty and tragedy, of bustle and sweetness, it is one of the places I could easily imagine living in.


1 comment:

Dave said...

If you don't title one of your entries in Cambobia "A Holiday in Cambodia", I may cry.

Pol - Pot! Pol - Pot!