In some ways, Cambodia felt a bit like a homecoming after Vietnam. It was much closer to the India experience, but we weren’t as enamored with the country as we had hoped to be. We talked through this, trying to figure out what it was. Part of it was our crappy guesthouse area, which was lackluster but also much, much more expensive than India or Vietnam. But overall we felt that the food wasn’t as good as other places, and that places like Delhi or Hanoi were much more vibrant and engaging.
Still, we discovered some amazing places during our short time in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Cambodian history is bloody and disturbing, something neither of us learned about in U.S. schools. I won’t spend a ton of time summarizing it, but in the 1970s, a communist dictator – Pol Pot – came to power for a handful of years. He and his cronies purged Cambodia of ethnic minorities and any people suspected of being political dissidents. A lot of people. The Khmer Rouge (KR), in other words, committed genocide, killing over a million of their own people (though estimates vary greatly from 1-3 million).
One of the benefits of visiting Phnom Penh is learning about this tragedy. It’s hard to stomach, but we saw two exhibitions on the genocide. One was a school that became a prison for people suspected of being against the communist government. The classrooms were eerie. On the walls of several rooms were wooden boards painted green, some still imprinted with the remnants of chalk writing. The only other items in those rooms were empty bed frames and a photo of the final prisoner’s corpse – which was found when the KR left. Other rooms held photos of the prisoners, row upon row of eyes staring back at you. Some exhibits detailed the torture techniques, and displayed whips and cuffs.
The killing fields lie on the city’s outskirts, about a 30-minute rickshaw ride away. An audio tour took us through the area. We learned that prisoners were shipped to the killing fields every week to be executed. To save money, the KR didn’t shoot victims; instead, they had prisoners lean over mass graves and then hit them on the skull with garden tools. Even more disturbing was learning how they would execute children by slamming them against tree trunks. Over 20,000 people were killed at this particular field, with hundreds of similar sites all over the country. This, again, was a difficult site to visit, and I have no photos. It felt disrespectful to capture it on film.
On a happier note, Siem Reap (about 5-7 hours away) holds the country’s pride and joy: Angkor Wat, a host of temple complexes built between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries by very wealthy kings. We only had a day there, and in that time we managed to zoom through about four temples. The temples were beautiful, crumbling testaments to the ancient kings’ power. They included Hindu and Buddhist imagery, depending on when they were built and what the king’s religious predilections were. Photos will be better than words in this case, though the photos do not in any way capture how cool it was to traipse through these enormous structures. Let’s try anyhow.
|a hazy angkor wat, the biggest temple|
|bayon - lots of smiles|
|ta prohm, overrun by trees|
|intricate carvings at banteay srei|
|sunset over another temple - name forgotten|
Another fun experience was stopping (amid temple explorations) at our rickshaw driver’s house en route. He introduced us to his beautiful daughter and wife, and his father. We watched, awed, as he sent a neighbor up a palm tree to cut down some coconuts… The man was incredibly strong and agile, and made hauling up and down that tree look really easy. The coconut milk was delicious!
Now we’re in Bangkok, just about to leave for the beach. Look for more photos on FB, and a new installment sometime early next week.