Phnom Penh: The good, the bad, and the ugly
Jun 26, 2007
So the Cambodia adventures continue with our trip to Phnom Penh, the capital. As many of you know, this was the site of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid-1970's. Since then the city has had a struggle trying to cope and recover with what happened. Actually, cope might not be the perfect word, because from what we can gather, it isn't really discussed among the Cambodian people. It has become a means of tourism and the foreigners are the ones who want to talk about it and try to understand. For the Cambodians themselves, that past is stillraw and the country is enjoying peace for the first time in decades. That being said there are a few attempts via documentaries that have been created to try to understand. Unfortunately, these films don't answer many questions and only invoke more. We arrived in the city with a brief knowledge of what happened and hoped come away with some kind of explanation. I think that like many other incidents of genocide, there is nothing that will explain the lack of humanity and the brutal killings that took place.
We were surprised to find a lack of apology. There didn't seem to be any remorse or regret from the people involved. To this day many are still in government positions, and many have died of natural causes at an old age. Also, we hoped to understand the US and UN's position and influence but again, we were left more confused than when we started. Today, in Phnom Penh the poverty from years of civil war is everywhere. All of the places that we visited we had people (mostly children) asking for money. On the other end of the spectrum, as we walked down the street being asked for money, many brand new SUVs were flying by us. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is everywhere. There is no middle class and it's hard to understand how a city can operate with such a disparity.
So, now that we've explained our opinions about the city, it's time for little of what we actually did while we were there. The first morning we did a walking tour (compliments of the Lonely Planet) and checked out the Central Market, Wat Phnom, and even did a little bathroom run to the American Embassy (it was great to pee on American soil ;). We also got caught in our first huge rain and found ourselves stranded under a random awning. After 25 minutes of debate and about 7 inches of flood in the streets, we decided we'd had enough and got a tuktuk back to our guesthouse.
The second day, we were full-on tourists. We arrived at the Grand Palace early and were too cheap to pay the $2 ticket for the camera, that was until we went through and realized that we were being stupid. So we made a second trip through the Palace to capture all of Kodak moments (we hope you enjoy). From there we checked out the National Museum and a met a high school kid who gave us a lesson in Khmer (the language of Cambodia). We ate lunch at this wonderful NGO restaurant that rescues children from the streets and helps them develop careers in the restaurant industry (plus the food was amazing).
After lunch, we made the trip over to Tuol Sleug aka S21, the biggest prison used in the Khmer Rouge. In 1980 (the war ended in 1979), the prison was opened as a genocide museum. In the last 30 years, very little has been changed and it is not hard to imagine the torture that took place. The tone of the museum was in stark contrast to the beautiful day and it was weird as we walked from building to building to see the sun shining so brightly. The museum is raw and there has been little done to sterilize the experience.
After the emotional day, we spent the next couple of days chilling out around our guesthouse. We watched several films about Cambodia in an attempt to get a better understanding. We also found ourselves at the Russian Market, one of the best we've seen. We spent the afternoon scoping the market and went back a few days later with money and a list. After mailing home all of our purchases, we chilled for a day or two and then headed south to the coast.
We arrived in Sihanokville and found ourselves on the wrong beach, so the first night we laid low. By the next morning, we were packed and headed to the proper beach and found a hilarious guesthouse that has free rooms. It's the low season, but the place is set up to be a huge constant party in the high season months. We had our first non-rainy day yesterday and took advantage by hitting up the beach. While we were playing dominos, several of the local kids (who are usually selling things) joined in and we spent the afternoon playing with them. It was so nice to see these kids just playing. Most of the time, they are begging or selling and it seems like they are missing out on being kids. Playing with them was a rare moment that we got to see them be kids.
That's all for now. We headed to few more places in southern Cambodia and then we're on to Vietnam (we got our visas today :).
Kate and Carla