Thursday, 10 November 2011

Cambodia Part II - Modern horror and ancient wonder...


And a good evening to you from across the globe after another GREAT DAY in the Lion City. After a 10 day layoff, the Bull finally got back onto the pavement for a run, logging 30 minutes (so prob around 3.75 miles) around the Marina. It should be noted that, whilst I've commented often lately about how much cooler it's become since "winter" started (read: 85 degrees and 90% humidity), I'd forgotten how miserable running outside in Singapore is until this evening. When I finished I was 49 shades of red and was covered in sweat. Let me just say how excited I am for some long sleeve running weather...and post run chicken wings...don't forget those.
Muffin Puffin at the Grand Palace - this place was fantastic!

Also, it should be noted that yesterday, 9 November, the Bull wandered into Cold Storage (the local grocery store) and heard...wait for it...wait for it..."Deck the Halls." That's right, sports fans - it doesn't matter if it's Vermont and covered in snow or Singapore and decorated in fake snow, the Christmas season has arrived. Tonight I saw trees and metallic snowflakes EVERYWEHRE on the run. Oh yes, it's happening. Bring on the eggnog (sorry, pumpkin)!

But enough of that, let's return to the Kingdom of Wonder for a recap of Sunday, another fantastic (if somewhat disturbing) day in Phnom Penh (and yes, you do pronounce both P's in case anyone's curious - THIS IS NOT UP FOR DEBATE, BRITISH PEOPLE!!! The Khmer people say it, so it's good enough for me...).

We were up at a reasonable hour and down for brekkie ($45 USD a night got us a GREAT room and brekkie included every morning - score, Muffin Puffin!). We showed up and they handed us the menu, at which point the Bull (in full vacation mode) asked: "So how many of these can we order?" The poor, naive, skinny little waiter said, "Whatever you'd like? Order enough to ensure you're full?" ROOKIE ERROR.

Ten minutes later, I am sitting with a full "American" breakfast and pork fried rice, whilst Muffin takes down some Cambodian style noodles. Add in coffee, water, and OJ (as well as fruit!), and you've got two cats who just found away to avoid paying $2 USD for lunch! Hitman, tell me you aren't proud of that one...

We then began our wander for the day, beginning with 2 separate dudes SITTING ON THE STEPS OF OUR HOTEL waiting for the ang mo's and saying "Tuk tuk? Sir, ma'am, sir - where you go? I give you special price?" We shook them off to find another guy IN FRONT OF US ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EIGHT FOOT WIDE STREET saying "Sir, ma'am, Tuk tuk?" NO I DON'T WANT A @#$#ING TUK TUK!!!!! Please don't make me set fire to your only method of income. Okay, calm again.
This photo doesn't capture the tout who spotted the 2 Ang Mo's
from a mile off and sprinted to us before trying to sell us the
one day tour of the city...for a "special price"...

Speaking of calm, stop one was the Vietnam Friendship Memorial. Let me preface this by saying that, if you aren't familiar with the last 40 years of Cambodian history, I can assure you that it's been fairly complicated. Between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge (and the extended, if quieter, civil war), there has been tons of blood shed in Cambodia, and it's home to 2/3's of the world's active landmines. They have a plan in place to remove them all by 2025, and I'm happy to report that the project is on schedule. But still, when you consider that means people are living and farming in these areas for the next 14 years, it's a terrifying thought. I say all that to tell you that Vietnam has had a rather patchy history with Cambodia, sometimes fight with them - other times fighting against them. As I'm forever the historian, I'll be happy to get into this further at Conference Room C once I'm home (between Ogas' Pai-Gow lessons, of course), but for now let's just say that Cambodia and Vietnam have now normalized relations.

In fact, as an aside, our guide gave us some interesting perspective on those relations. His take is that pretty much all governmental jobs go to either the ruling party (not surprising - the Cambodia's People Party) or to Vietnamese immigrants. Oddly enough, the person who owns the ticketing system for Angkor Wat is a Vietnamese businessman, and he gets SEVENTY PERCENT of all ticket sales by himself. The other 30% goes to the Cambodian government, meaning that Cambodia loses about $52 million USD per annum that would otherwise go to the people. Statistics like this were absolutely shocking and provided all too frequently. Now granted, I'm acknowledge that we were only getting one side of the story, but if our travels around the country are any indicator of the accuracy of his statements, I'd say he's spot on with the wealth distribution.
Notice the memorial - this is a Khmer style tower - you'll see
lots of similar architecture during the Angkor Wat posts...

After the Friendship Memorial (and getting stalked by another tout), we wandered over to the Victory Memorial, which should also be called THE WORLD'S LARGEST TRAFFIC CIRCLE. We did use it to our advantage, however, as it oriented us toward the first of our 2 big sites for the day: S-21.

I'd never heard of this place before Tait came back from Cambodia and his time in India. However, when I saw his photos, I realized that this, like Dachau, Auschwitz, and so many others, was a place that I needed to see. There was obviously another, more famous spot in Cambodia which was synonymous with genocide - the Killing Fields (l'll talk about that tomorrow). This particular spot was Pol Pot's torture prison. Essentially, this is where people were brought to be tortured mercilessly and forced to confess crimes they didn't commit and inform on people who were innocent before being taken to the Killing Fields for execution. I have no lie to tell - it was a gruesome place to visit.

The entryway - the guys out front are guides, charging $5 for
the tour. If you don't go with them (we didn't), the ticket lady
gives you a pretty snarky look and tries to make you buy the $3
book of torture. We passed on that as well...obviously...

Much like our trip to Dachau back in 2009, the weather was perfect - blue skies (although the pics don't really show it), puffy clouds, and even a light breeze. Consequently, it was really impossible to get a sense of the suffering, horror, and misery that haunts the place. It's been left exactly as it was found during liberation, complete with the beds that the 7 survivors were chained to at the time the army arrived.

This is the first room you enter in S-21. They used this bed
for torture - usually starvation.

The images were ghastly. Like the Nazi's, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of their victims - every single one of them were photographed. Who were their victims? Well, that's part of the insanity. Although college educated himself in Paris, Pol Pot believed that all intellectuals were the enemy. He idealized the farmers, and anyone living in cities was deported into the countryside to work 12-15 hour days with basically 3-4 bites of rice and virtually no water. All doctors, lawyers, government officials, teachers - you name it - were forced into harsh labor and eventually brought to S-21 to become one of the 20,000 people executed in the Killing Fields (usually by knives, axes, hatchets, bayonets, or the butts of guns so that the army wouldn't have to waste bullets). Anyone with glasses or smooth hands was considered an "enemy of the state," and more often than not brought here for unspeakable torture. There was an exhibition dedicated to this, and some of the devices were on display (as well as quite a few skulls). Women. Children. Elderly. It didn't matter. Everyone was tortured. And Everyone died.
These are Pol Pot's "instructions" to the
prisoners.  I saw this sign in Tait's
photos, and it's always haunted me.

Before the Khmer Rouge invaded, S-21 was a school. For me, arguably the most incongruous (and therefore disturbing) image was that of make-shift prison cells in a former classroom, with the blackboard still attached to the wall (and containing instructions). Also the barbed wire that covered every walkway and window so that people couldn't throw themselves to their death. I will quote the Shogun when he was telling me about Dachau, as it's always stuck with me and I think is truly the best description one can craft for a place like this: "a terrible, solemn memorial to some of the darkest, most depressing moments in human history." Needless to say that, when we left that place, our spirits were low, and we weren't doing much talking.

Not the chalkboard in the next room - this image still bothers me.

Our pensive, reflective spirits didn't last long, however, as soon we were confronted by a BASQUILLION tuk tuk drivers DESPERATE to take us the 1 mile to the Royal Palace. When we said no to the first one, the guy standing RIGHT BESIDE HIM would then ask - rinse repeat for THIRTY MINUTES. Finally we made it to the Grand Palace, my somber mood replaced with utter frustration and a desire to punch the next dude for whom the subtle headshake wasn't enough assurance that I was walking EVERYWHERE in this city.

As to the Royal Palace - let me say that I really, really enjoy it - arguably as much as the elusive Grand Palace in Bangkok (if for no other reason than the fact that this one is actually OPEN most of the time). We actually got to go into the throne room (no "funerary practice" this time), and we also went to the Silver Pagoda, one of the more famous temples (after Angkor, of course). The views of this place were sweeping and stunning, which meant only one thing - Jenny Taylor getting CRAZY with the Gorilla.

Gorilla in action!

What, is the Gorilla (accept no substitutes!), do you ask? Well, it is, simply put, the greatest invention since the wheel. Basically, you screw it onto the bottom of your camera, and it will stand up ANYWHERE, regardless of what insane angle you place at on. Seriously, Jenny was like somebody out of Nat Geo with the way she had this thing strung up. My Muffin Puffin is just too cute...
After that, it was just past 4 PM, which after the day we'd had and the sites we'd visited, meant only one thing: HAPPY HOUR. Sure enough, we found this AMAZING place on the second floor of a building along the river front, and so we camped out for a GREAT evening of just relaxing, taking in the river and the people below, and thinking about everything that we'd seen. As I went through TEN beers (don't worry, Mum - 1) they were weak and only 12 oz, and 2) I'm on my 3rd AFD in a row back in Sing Sing; and don't worry, Dad - they were just 50 cents each) and some of the best food in Southeast Asia, I was drawing some early conclusions about the Khmer people - namely that they were the friendliest, most service-oriented, and best English speaking (outside SG, of course) culture we'd met. Everyone (minus the tuk tuk drivers) was very relaxed, super friendly, eager to help and not demanding anything, and seemed to be genuinely happy. The food so far had been WAY better than expected (and cheaper - always a plus), the beer always in a cold mug, and the city had just enough sites to keep a person busy all day and then have room to tackle the river for the evening. The pace of life here was just great, and perfect weather and company were making it even more wonderful. It was early, but already JT and I were thinking: "this could be up there in the elusive camp of 'best 1 weeks trips in the world.'"

And how do you cap off such a wonderful day? You stop in for a $4 foot massage, of course! Oh, man - that woman had magic hands - I was ready to PASS OUT by the time she was done. My feet were so refreshed that I almost contemplated that tuk tuk ride for the half mile home....juuuuuuuuuuust kidding...even with that "special price."

Well, that's Sunday wrapped - apologies that I was a bit depressing there, but I feel it's important to try and convey how depressing that place was and how much of an impression it left on me. I'll warn you in advance that tomorrow will be worse, as the Killing Fields really tore me up.

Okay, that's all the news that's fit to print. Chat tomorrow!


Sam and (probably about to call it a night after some nice wine and a home cooked meal in Manly) Jenny

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