March 14, PHNOM PENH – Well, here I am again, sitting in a hot, sweltering corner of the lobby of my hotel in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. (The rest of the lobby is nicely air-conditioned, so obviously the blowers are facing the other way.)
It’s nighttime now, and I’ve now spent three days here in the capital. To my surprise, this actually seems like a nice city in the looks department. Although I’d read that it’s the best looking of the cities built by the French during their colonization of Indochina, I still expected it to look rather shabby, but it actually looks pretty good, with fairly new looking buildings, lots of golden temple spires and a good amount of open areas.
It’s also much, much larger than Vientiane, the capital of Laos. In Vientiane you could pretty much walk to any place you’d want to go. Not so with Phnom Penh. While Vientiane was a rather quiet place, this city has a much greater buzz to it. That buzz is composed of things like cars and motorbikes wizzing by, tuk-tuk drivers continually asking you if you want a ride to somewhere, beggars asking for money, kids asking you if you want to buy one of the books that they’re hauling around (even while you’re sitting and eating dinner) and – as was directed at me while walking to and from dinner tonight – propositions for the sale of marijuana and girls. (I think both Chinese and Cambodian were on offer for the latter.)
Our touring of the city began two days ago with a visit to the Royal Palace. I’d read that it had been modeled upon the palace in Bangkok, so I expected it to be a pale imitation of the royal palace in the Thai capital. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by a series of very beautiful and very elegant buildings. Not only that, it’s also a lot less croweded with tourists than the one in Bangkok, so overall I’d give the nod to the palace here if I had to choose which of the two I like best.
I also went to Wat Phnom, the hilltop temple that was founded hundreds of years ago by a woman named Penh (for whom the city is named) and the National Museum, which houses a collection of beautiful sculpture produced by the Khmer empire of Cambodia.
Yesterday, however, was an altogether different experience. If the great temples that I visited at Angkor a few days ago represented the high point of Cambodian civilization – the great Khmer empire – then the places we saw yesterday represented its lowest point: the so-called “Zero Years” of the Khmer Rouge. These Cambodian communists under the leadership of Pol Pot set out to systematically destroy the entire history of Cambodian culture – and they killed a large percentage of the Cambodian population with it from 1975 to 1978. Phnom Penh was emptied and turned into a ghost town. If you were anything other than a farmer or a peasant, you were destined for execution. The Khmer Rouge revolution left no place for intellect.
The first place we visited was the Touel Sleng prison. This former school was the Khmer Rouge’s chief detention and interrogation center, and only seven of the thousands of people who passed through its doors survived. From the outside it looks like an ordinary place, fronted by palm trees, but inside some of the greatest crimes ever committed took place. One can see some of the cells, but much of the space is taken up by photographs of the victims – men, women and children – systematically made by their captors. Again, everyone just looks so ordinary, like the Cambodians one sees today – the people working in the hotels, the shops and the restaurants, the monks in the temples, the children walking to and from school. I imagined the people in those photos as the people I’ve seen here in Cambodia this week and the enormity of it all began to sink in. The only crime of which the photographed people were guilty was that of being born and having lived in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Still, not all of the people who suffered are gone. Our tour guide, who was a child during those years, explained to us that his father and two sisters were killed during that period of national insanity, and you could easily see and hear him becoming very emotional and on the verge of tears while talking about it. I imagine that it must be very difficult for him to continually return there with tour groups to have to re-live the nightmare again and again.
After the prison we were taken 15 kilometers outside the city to the “killing fields” of Choueng Ekm where thousands of Khmer Rouge victims were bludgeoned to death, with loud music playing on speakers to mask what was happening from nearby villagers. Again, on appearance, the place seems rather ordinary – just a field. This particular field now has a number of open pits to indicate where mass graves were found. There is also a temple-like structures continuing the skulls of hundreds of victims found there. One can just hope that it will bring some peace to the souls of the departed.
In reading up on Cambodian history before the trip, I was somewhat suprised – though not completely surprised – to learn that after the Khmer Rouge fled into the jungle following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (after Cambodia had attacked Vietnam), Pol Pot and his mass-murdering colleagues were actually supported by the Unites States government and its allies! (Yep, there’s nothing wrong with supporting a bunch of genocidal mass murderers if it’s all done to protect our national interest – right???)
As for Cambodia today – well, things seem to be getting better, but there’s obviously a long way to go. After being ruled by an American-supported military government, the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge and the Russian-supported Vietnamese, the Cambodians finally have their future in their own hands. Unfortunately, the hands that run the government seem to spend a lot of time lining their own pockets, as corruption is rampant, and much of the improvements here are apparently being made by non-governmental organizations. It’s pretty sad when you see kids having to bother tourists morning, afternoon and night to sell books – and according to something I read at a restaurant where I ate today, these kids are just being exploited and really don’t even benefit themselves from what they’re doing. Still, thngs are obbiously much better than they were before.
The tour officially ended after breakfast this morning, so after breakfast I took a nice walk with some of the other tour people who were flying out tonight. In the afternoon I made an hour long visit to Wat Ounalom, a large temple close to the hotel, and spent some time speaking (in English) with some of the monks there. One of them even got a key and opened up one of the sanctuaries for me to see. Two other people on the tour left later tonight – I even let them use the shower in my room to get cleaned up before their flight – so now I’m the only one from the group left here in town. My turn to leave will be tomorrow morning.
So, overall, it’s been a very enjoyable journey here to southeast Asia. The rest of the world has undergone some major changes while I’ve been away, I’ve seen. The governor of the State of New York is resigning due to a sex scandal involving prostitution and, right here in Asia, there has been another outpouring of protests in Tibet (and elsewhere) against its continued occupation by the Chinese. I guess I’ll find out more about it all after I return home tomorrow night. (I just wonder how many movies I’ll watch on the flight home.)
Be well, everyone.