[She's back! Guest blog #2, written by Sunny. Enjoy. -Adam]
Making our way in the air-conditioned bus filled with local families and adventurous travelers, we sped along the dusty highway, through scanty villages, and past dormant pastureland. Cambodians went about their day carrying baskets of vegetables, sweeping storefronts, piling bags of rice high on the backs of motorbikes, and lounging in hammocks. Piles of filthy trash littered the roadside with debris comprised mostly of Asia’s favored disposable, non-biodegradable container, the plastic bag. The mostly barren terrain appeared ready for the monsoonal rains that would soon arrive to quench the thirsty earth. Houses perched atop high stilts spoke of the looming season and its tendency towards flooding.
The bus cruised along with the driver making use of the horn every few seconds to insure our safety, but not our sanity. Adam drifted off to dreamland, while I gazed out the window, taking photos and listening to my ipod. After about an hour the bus stopped in a little shanty village allowing passengers to stretch their weary limbs and satisfy nicotine habits. The landscape remained unchanging in its arid expanse and provided the backdrop for vendors selling fresh fruit, fried meats, and cold drinks. No doubt their livelihood depended on the business of these daily stops. I opted to stay within the confines of the bus, avoiding the potential olfactory repulsion resulting from the commonplace stench of rubbish, raw sewage and sweltering heat. Adam bravely stepped out and took a look around, returning a few minutes later with sliced green mango to snack on. Fifteen minutes later we were on the road again.
After the 3-hour drive through the flat countryside we finally approached Cambodia’s capital city. Riding parallel to the Tongle Sap River we passed the dirty, ramshackle outskirts of town before arriving at the polished center. Green lawns surrounded the stately royal palace, while shining tiles defined the riverside promenade. We negotiated an acceptable price with one of the many tuk tuk drivers that loomed like hungry vultures at the bus stop, and made our way to the hotel I’d found online.
Our room was simple, with two single beds, cable T.V., air-conditioning and a spacious, but grimy bathroom. Unfortunately sanitation is not always one of Asia’s strong suits. I find the ubiquitous, toilet-side crotch sprayers particularly foul. But alas, budget travelers must learn to adapt or be continually exasperated by such conditions. It certainly wasn’t the posh room we’d enjoyed in Battambang, but the bottom line was that the sheets were clean, the water was hot and the toilet flushed.
That evening we ventured into the busy tourist area to have dinner. Walking the wild streets we were greeted with the usual bombardment of begging young mother’s carrying babies, tuk tuk drivers and persistent, hungry children. Looking around I’d noticed billboards and offices for children’s advocacy organizations and wondered what progress was being made since just outside their doors children were sitting naked in the streets. It made no sense to me that the lavish palace lawns, stunning skyscrapers and impressive monuments would exist side by side with such deprivation. Avoiding judgment was challenging, but I had to acknowledge the paradox in an attempt to make sense of it. As well, I kept in mind that even the United States, a country of endless wealth, suffers from such contradictions.
“Hey you want some weed,” a random guy said to Adam as we turned a corner. “Uh, no thanks,” he replied without stopping. “How ‘bout a girl?” the guy whispered, following close behind. “No thanks,” I firmly stated with urban attitude. Adam and I were both well aware of Phnom Penh’s reputation for trafficking young girls, and as a woman I certainly didn’t appreciate the offer. The guy stepped back and away. Adam and I both laughed before finding a restaurant along the main drag. We sat outside in the balmy night air, opposite the river and ordered dinner.
The popular area was obviously a haven for pint-sized hustlers and as soon as we arrived we became their prey. Children circled in search of a buck. “You buy one book?” implored a young boy, strapped with a flat box of tourist friendly editions. “No thank you,” we both responded. We repeated this phrase several times before being served.
BOOM! Fireworks illuminated the night sky and the children ran to see the show of shimmering lights. We’d arrived on the first day of Songkram, the southeast Asian new year. The holiday takes place according to the lunar calendar, with special attention placed on honoring parents and grandparents. Festivities, performances and social events would go on throughout the city over the next three days. BOOM! The last of the fireworks went off and the brief spectacle was finished as swiftly as it had begun. The hungry little children returned in full force.
Dressed in trendy blue jeans and a stylish long sleeve button up shirt, one of the young boys began showing off some dance moves on the sidewalk. He was obviously confident and had the skills to impress; back flips, break dancing, and krumping were all part of his repertoire. His infectious smile and inner glow were a refreshing change from the distressed and despondent expressions we’d become used to seeing on the faces of Cambodian children.
I stood up from the table and walked over to the boys. “Hey, try this?” I said and began a pop-locking wave from arm to arm. The gifted boy did his best, and we all laughed together. But, I wasn’t through with this talented fellow. After teaching dance to thousands of children for the past ten years, I knew just what would impress them. “Okay,” I said, getting their attention again. With flip-flops tightly clenched between my toes, I did the best moonwalk I could on the bumpy sidewalk. “Whoa!” was the response. He gave it his best attempt and we all cracked up laughing. “I can’t believe you just did the moonwalk,” Adam said as I sat down with a big smile on my face.
Next, the kids came over and tried selling their books to us. I gave them some cash to show us more moves instead. Another little boy wanted to get in on the prospect and approached us. Since Adam planned to spend a few weeks in Vietnam he told the boy he’d take a look at his books. When Adam didn’t buy anything the boy became livid. “You said you buy a book,” he nearly shouted. “I said I would look and see if there was something I wanted,” Adam tried to reason, but it was futile. “You bad man!” the boy accused. We tried to reason with him and even gave him a bit of money. “You gave them more! This is not enough to eat!” he angrily pleaded. “They did dance moves,” I said. But he wasn’t hearing it. Frustration spread over his face as he stood fuming. Feeling his distress I leaned down and looked him in the eye and said, “I know…it’s not fair that you have to work to eat, you’re only a child.” He walked away in a huff.
In all honesty, visiting Phnom Penh hadn’t been on my to-do list. I wasn’t particularly interested in it’s violent past. Adam and I both had been expecting a dark and seedy metropolis ripe with rampant prostitution and corruption. We were surprised to see how modern and stylish, parts of the city are. And since I’d agreed to accompany Adam to the historical sites, we set out the next morning to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former high school had been converted and used as a prison and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979 an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, and eventually killed within the confines of the prison walls. Intellectuals, scholars, artists, doctors, monks, engineers and even children were amongst its victims.
Agreed upon by historians to have been one of the most lethal regimes of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge, under the reign of the sadistic Pol Pot, subjected Cambodian citizens to a radical social reform process aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society. City-dwellers were deported to the countryside, where they were combined with the local people in forced labor projects. Over 1.2 million people died. Perhaps the cruelest was what the children were subjected to; believing parents to be tainted with capitalism, children were separated, brainwashed and taught torture methods on animals.
The air was heavy and haunted by the chilly history as Adam climbed the worn stairs of the three-story buildings in the prison complex. He carefully photographed the instruments of torture used to exact confessions from prisoners. Outside, chain linked fence and barbed wire covered the buildings like sheaths preventing prisoners from ending their suffering by jumping to their deaths. Chalkboards covered in photographs put faces to the nameless souls; their eyes full of anguish and pain.
But I didn’t need to take photos, or witness the details of the bloody crimes…I needed to breathe. Stepping out into the mid-day sunshine I found a place to sit beneath the blooming branches of a fragrant frangipani tree. Closing my eyes, I contemplated the events that had transformed this institution of education into a place of terror. Again, as in Siem Reap, I found myself filled with a deep compassion and an overwhelming impetus to pray for the healing of Cambodia’s horrific legacy.
We continued our tour with a visit to the killing fields, where the Khmer Rouge had buried hundreds of victims in dirt ditches. Still stunned by what we had just witnessed, the ride over was quiet. We pulled into the grassy area as a lovely warm breeze rustled the branches of verdant trees. The garden setting nearly disguised the gruesomeness that had taken place there, if not for the skinny little sullen children that loitered with hands outstretched. We walked around and Adam took photos. One of the most horrific sites was a large tree against which guards would bash and crack the skulls of children. I remained concentrated on thoughts of forgiveness as we continued around the perimeter of the now empty burial pits. “Wow,” was all I could say as we drove away. Adam echoed this sentiment as the driver slowly made his way back to our hotel.
At the front desk we stopped to inquire about obtaining a Vietnamese visa. The manager cheerily shared information, and then began lightly stroking Adam’s resting hand. Adam and I quickly exchanged, surprised glances. The manager gave a few taps to the top of Adam’s hand and I almost burst out with laughter. Back in our room, I let Adam have it. “I believe there’s a bro-mance budding between you two,” I teased. “Yeah, what is up with that?” Adam asked, in good humor. Clearly this guy really felt a bond and couldn’t keep his hands off of Adam. On later occasions he would lean over Adam’s shoulders and comment on e-mails Adam was reading. This affection was the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time and brought needed comic relieve to our Phnom Penh experience. This short, smiley, touchy-feely Cambodian had a fondness for anything Daigle. He was lucky Adam is so chill, because Adam could’ve easily picked him up and dribbled him down to the Tongle Sap.
The next few days we mostly just hung out and waited for the New Year to pass, and the Vietnamese consulate to open. I indulged in a full body massage while Adam found a barbershop to have his head shaved. Around the corner from our hotel we dined at a beautiful Khmer restaurant resplendent in colorful décor, tropical plants and attentive service. The food was satisfying and the ensuing conversations were stimulating. Adam and I continued getting to know each other, discussing what we’d seen, where we’d been, and what was to come. I was pleased with my decision to accompany my new friend on his journey, entrusting my destiny to his guidance. I’d listened to my intuition and was reaping the rewards.
All in all Phnom Penh hadn’t been a bad place at all, it just happened to be a place with a very bad past.
Up next: Sihanoukville & Vietnam