Welcome to Cambodia (April 26th - May 4th)
(Stung Treng, Kratie, Kompong Cham, Phnom Penh)
Distance biked so far: (11, 171 km)
Welcome to Cambodia.
It was an easy border to navigate but it didn't take long to get a taste of the corruption for which Cambodia is becoming famous. As you get your Lao exit stamp you have to go to the quarantine booth for what qualifies as a medical check-up. You sit down and they point a gun like instrument at your forehead that supposedly takes your temperature. They did it to me and said I was hot, not the most detailed or insightful prognosis considering I was biking in 100 degree heat. I was then given a pamphlet and told, that if I did get a disease in Cambodia, to not hesitate and call the number provided. I could have had just about any disease on earth and they would have no clue but they were very quick to point out that the consultation fee was $1 U.S. After that bribe I went to obtain my Cambodian visa and paid $23 for 30 days, a fairly typical fee. Prior to leaving the border area I had to stop at passport control where they dutifully checked that I had a visa and then said there was a $1 U.S. fee. I asked what that fee was for and they said a processing fee. I pointed out that I already paid for the visa and any fees should have been included and also added that they simply opened my passport and there was really no processing involved. He held my passport and it was clear if I wanted it back I had to pay another bribe. The amounts are not a lot but there are hundreds of people crossing a day and the money is simply pocketed. When many people in Laos and Cambodia live on $2 per day, it is an exorbitant amount and one that is giving Cambodia a bad name with travellers. No one would mind paying the money if it went to those who need it but these guys do nothing but sit in their air-conditioned office and collect illegal fees, after being appointed to their positions by relatives or friends.
The route south to the first town of Stung Treng and then on to Phnom Penh was incredibly hot and boring. There were no trees and after a few days I was excited to enter the Capital City where I will stay for a while. As usual, the relative wealth of cities is a marked difference from the poverty of the villages and countryside and it's nice to the often over looked luxuries such as air-conditioners, garbage cans , traffic lights and a variety of food to eat and restaurants to eat in.
Phnom Penh is a riverside city with a population of about 2 million but a relatively easy place to navigate. Most of the traffic is tuk tuks or motorcycles. As I walk down the streets I can expect to be asked if I need a tuk tuk or taxi once every few minutes or so, a problem that I have experienced in every city since I left Europe. There seems to be a common belief that tourists are only willing to take a taxi if you repeatedly point out that you have one available and if you just sit there quietly and wait for us to come to you , it would never happen.
Phnom Penh has some really nice walking paths along the Tonle Sap River that make this part of the City very peaceful and quiet.
The path is situated between the river and the Royal Palace, the official residence of King Sihamoni.
The main reason I came to Phnom Penh was to try and get a better understanding of what happened during the years between 1975 and 1979 when the Khmer Rouge government held their reign of terror over Cambodia. I am reading a book, "Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare" to get an understanding of the political strategy behind the movement and also, "First they killed my father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers" a chilling and heart breaking account of an eye witness but I also wanted to see some things for myself.
For those of you who are not aware of the Khmer Rouge, I would recommend the 1984 movie, "The Killing Fields" that brought the world's attention to the atrocities. The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (their name for Cambodia) and was led by Saloth Sar who would later change his name to Pol Pot. The Party held an extreme vision of social engineering that would lead to genocide of almost one-third of the 8 million people. They attempted to make Cambodia a classless society so when they captured Phnom Penh, they immediately started evacuating the entire City. Millions of people had to leave their homes and go into the country and join agricultural communes. The entire country was forced to become farmers and an attempt was made to isolate the country from all foreign influence. Schools, hospitals and factories were closed. Money was abolished. Religion was banned and private property was confiscated. The actions resulted in massive death through executions, work exhaustion, illness and starvation and all of this happened about 30 years ago while the world largely sat still and watched.
In 1975, Tuol Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This soon became the largest center of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the Killing Fields after being beaten and tortured. The Prison is located right in the middle of the City.
As you enter the old high school the first impression is exactly that, it looks like a school complete with a green inner courtyard with classrooms located in the 3-story building. The prison had a series of regulations that give a hint of what was to come with Regulation #6 instructing the prisoners that when they get lashes or electrocution, they must not cry at all. Imagine reading that while armed guards stand beside you.
As noted above, once the prisoners were tortured and deemed a threat to the Khmer Rouge they were transported by truck 15 km's out of town to what became known as the Killing Fields and was in fact an extermination camp.
The remains of 8,985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. Fragments of human bones are still scattered around and collected when the rains cause them to rise to the surface. A memorial has been constructed with more than 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age and visible through glass panels.
I am posting these not to be sadistic but as a reminder of a very recent past where human beings were able to commit such atrocities against each other. A number of months ago I visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Excellent museums like that are built to remind people of the past to ensure it will not happen again but the message is not sinking in. The Khmer Rouge genocide occurred 30 years after the Nazis were defeated.
As I was biking towards Phnom Penh and knowing a little about what was coming, I asked myself what it would take for a human being to pick up a baby and beat it against a tree. We often hear the excuse that people were just following orders and some reason think that somehow justifies the acts of barbarism but when you go to that extreme it cannot be excused so easily. This picture was one I stared at for a long time. I imagined walking down the same street. He is a kid with a lot of power and it's not often that adults are now at your mercy and have to obey you. I thought of him not liking the way I looked or wanting to take a piece of clothing or maybe trying to impress a young girl or his superiors. He then raises his rifle and for no reason shoots. As an unarmed Cambodian walking down the street, there would be nothing I could do to stop him.
There is a fanaticism often associated with religion but also with Nationalism that plays a big role in how parties like this come to power. I get uneasy when I see people wave flags with what seems like anger or extreme feelings of pride. A few months ago I watched the final of the Davis Cup tennis match in which Serbia won. The players ripped off their shirts, grabbed Serbian flags, started jumping up and down on tables and screaming with what seemed to be more pent up anger and hostility than joy. It sent a chill down my back. I asked myself at the time, what those young men would be capable of doing in time of war to protect their country and flag, if they were given orders.
The recent chants of USA, USA and the flag waving that accompanied the death of Osama bin Laden was also a time for me to think about the fine line between respectful celebration and over the top Nationalism. The Palestinian people rightly came under heavy criticism after 9/11 for celebrating in the streets to commemorate the death of so many innocent Americans. In return however, I was uncomfortable with the unrestrained celebrations marking a death and the "in your face" arrogance that seems to accompany these types of gatherings. The mission was important and a relief for many but that type of behaviour needlessly agitates many and isn't it time to rise above this never ending cycle of trying to prove who is from the best country. Everyone on earth shares a common pride in the country they were born and raised and respectable celebrations of achievements are important but when you start acting as if you have a monopoly on pride, it creates a point of contention that history has shown people are willing to kill over.
I went to one of the markets one day and was getting hungry so kept my eye open for a good lunch and decided this was not the place to stop.
I continued down the series of stalls and the smells of dead fish and raw meat sitting out in the heat were becoming overwhelming. Another option was chicken but the sight of these half-mutilated but still living birds curbed that desire. I'm really starting to see the appeal in becoming a vegetarian.
One of the great things about a City is that I get to have some more familiar food. The famous Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC) of Phnom Penh is a great place with a large balcony overlooking the river, high fans and ceilings and superb food. My first morning there I ordered a fresh fruit plate and excellent buttered toast with strawberry jam and coffee. I almost started crying when this was delivered.
The next day I went back and this time tried Cambodian porridge which was not too surprisingly made from rice. It is called Bobor and the rice is cooked soft and this one was mixed with chicken. It is delicious.
The prison had small holding cells with the first floor containing brick and the second floor with wooden cells. There were larger cells on the third floor used to hold groups. There were also rooms with single beds and various torture instruments along with pictures of a few after they were tortured. The windows and walls were reinforced to muffle the screams, since they were located in a residential area. Here are some of the brick holding cells.
The top floor was surrounded with barbed wire to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide, a feat that would have disappointed those engaged in torture.
There are more than a few disturbing sights but the one that made the biggest impression was a simple and ordinary tree. Guards here would take babies from their mothers, grab them by their legs, and beat them against the tree.
I booked my flight to the Philippines and will be flying from Singapore on July 1st. I am getting excited to start at the orphanage and will continue my route south. I head off in a day or two to visit the famous Angkor Wat, and then it's back into Thailand.