Saturday, March 22, 2014

Phnom Pehn

Our travels to Phnom Pehn went off without a hitch. When we stepped off the bus, we were hit with the calls of "tuk tuk lady" "tuk tuk please". I cannot tell you how annoying and frustrating this has been in Cambodia as a whole, but the number of tuk tuks in Phnom Pehn is overwhelming. By the last night in Phnom Pehn, we were actually yelling at the drivers to leave us alone.

Our first morning, we had to find a place to do our visas for Vietnam. After reading various ways to go about this, we decided to go to a travel agent and paid $60 for a thirty day visa. Why you have to pay so much to get into a country for a short visit I'll never understand.

Brittany and I found a cheap breakfast place and my meal reminded me of Bob's Diner. A veggie omelette, home fries, and toast for $3. When we began asking our waiter for tips on how much to pay for a tuk tuk so we don't get ripped off, he replied, "Oh, I have a tuk tuk driver, want me to call him?" How could we decline?! So, Simon was our driver for the day. We paid $20 and Simon stayed with us from 9:30-4.

Phnom Pehn is similar to Siem Reap in the amount of dust and in the amount of history. Our first historical stop was the Killing Fields. You may find yourself asking when this Killing Field is from, just like I did. I knew little about Southeast Asia at all before I came to this continent. I had no clue there was a genocide in Cambodia and I was especially shocked to find out that the genocide ended only 35 years ago.

The Killing Fields are just that, a place where the masses were taken to be killed. Not gassed like the Holocaust, but brutally battered and beaten to death. Pol Pot was the man in charge of the Khmer Rouge, which was the group who led the mass destruction of the Cambodian people. Pol Pot was a brilliant man with a great education, but he believed that only a certain kind of person was pure. Most people seem to have been impure to him, as he did not discriminate. Even famous people and Westerners were murdered. At the same time the genocide was taking place, Pot was getting funding from the UN for his party, and Western countries did not even know this was happening, or at least pretended not to know. The Vietnam War had just ended and some countries may have been closed off.

There was a $6 entry fee to the Killing Fields, and we got a headset. Normally I wouldn't want a tour, but this is the only way to learn anything here. It is very quiet. No one is talking, and you immediately get a somber, depressed feeling. The headset explains what certain areas once were. It gives a great history on the genocide. It tells personal accounts from people who lived through it. Some were survivors and some had worked at the camps. The accounts are very detailed and emotional, which really makes you think long and hard about the whole monstrosity. My main thoughts were, how could any person think it is okay to kill millions of people and how could something like this occur only 35 years ago?!

Simon took us next to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I paid $2 to enter this museum, which was once a security office, called S-21. The office was designed for detention, interrogation, inhuman torture, and killing. We got to see the old school rooms that were transformed into prison cells. As you can imagine, living quarters were extremely cramped.

Something very interesting about this genocide is that every single prisoner was documented and every person's picture was taken when they entered. This usually occurred before the prisoner had time to process what was going on. At the Killing Fields, I learned that the genocide began in 1975 and ended in 1979, where 1.7 million people were killed. This became an even worse reality to me at the museum. The prisoners' pictures are on display, and some of the pictures look like they could have been taken yesterday with an Instagram filter.

Thousands of pictures are there. Men, women, and children. Khmer and Westerners. Some are smiling, some are clearly angry, and some seem indifferent. It was difficult not to feel emotional, as many faces seemed to be pleading, and you just know deep down that these people in the pictures did not survive.

I'm very intrigued by the genocide, so I bought a book about it to try and educate myself a bit more. The book is called Daughter of the Killing Fields, by Theary C. Seng. I'm 15 pages in and I'm already hooked! This topic will be a good one to discuss in a classroom in the future and I think it will bring on some great conversations.

After we walked through the museum, we asked our driver to take us to a spot for lunch. Maybe for comic relief after a depressing morning, we were taken to Tuk Tuk Cafe. It was packed and is appropriately named for the amount of tuk tuks lined up outside and the congregating drivers.

That night, Brittany's friend Kylie met us at our hostel. She has been volunteering at an orphanage for three months and was spending her last weekend in Cambodia. We went to dinner, and we were bombarded with drivers as usual. While sitting, a cute Khmer girl selling wallets and bracelets came to our table. She was very friendly and polite, so we each bought a bracelet for $1. As soon as she walked away, another girl selling the same things came over. We were sad to say no, but there are only so many bracelets that can fit on my wrist. This girl got so mad and stormed off, but not before saying under her breathe, You are not fair, you are stingy. We were shocked! The parents send these kids to do this as soon as they get out of school, around 11 AM. How awful that the kids are helping take care of their family at 8 years old.

The next day, Brittany and Kylie went to an animal rescue, but I didn't want to spend the money. I watched The Following, wrote some emails, and uploaded some pictures. There isn't a whole lot to do in Phnom Pehn, so I didn't feel bad being lazy for a day.

Before we left for Vietnam, we went to a place called Daughters of Cambodia, which Alicia had recommended. Daughters is a program that reaches out to girls involved in sex trafficking. Daughters offers an escape by providing salaries, training, and classes on essential life skills. At the Daughters visitor center in Phnom Pehn, you can eat at the Sugar and Spice Cafe, get pampered at the Hands n Feet Spa, buy something handmade by the girls at Daughters Boutique Shop, or watch an educational video about the history of Daughters. Brittany and I went with Hanna and Jana, two German girls we met back in Siem Reap. We each bought something small at the boutique, since the prices were a bit high for our backpackers budgets. We also ate at the cafe, which was amazing. I had a grilled pepper salad. It was literally a bowl filled with yellow and red peppers, cherry tomatoes, and homemade ricotta cheese. I was in heaven. I am glad that we made it to Daughters, and it was the perfect way to end our time in Phnom Pehn.

Although Phnom Pehn was not my favorite city, it is rich in history and something worth checking out in Cambodia. One or two nights is all that is needed there. The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng are amazing, humbling, and sobering, and are two places I will never forget.

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