Beautiful Cambodia: Phenom Penh and Angkor Wat

Trip Start Aug 26, 2006
Trip End Dec 08, 2006

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Saturday, October 7, 2006

Flying to Cambodia was terrifying - got on a propeller plane. I have never flown on one before. It was scary. And the landing was anything but smooth... or straight.
Upon arrival to the hotel, we were greeted with a welcome drink similar to a Shirley temple. Mmmm. Went to lunch with the two Whitney's (One's blondish brown, one's dark haired... If I don't preface it, assume the tall blondish brown girl)... walked to a tent - were the only Americans... had so noodle/veggie/other stuff dish with a fried egg on top and winter melon juice to drink. Our meal was under 2 USD each... but we each left 2 USD and the lady was so grateful. I mean... these people are lucky if they make 1 USD a day. Imagine getting a tip that's double your pay for the day... and 3 dinners? We increased her income by about 5 times that day. Baffling.
After lunch, Whitney and I decided to ride the elephant that we had seen coming in to our hotel. 15 USD later (for both of us) and we were up in a teeny basket atop an elephant... seeing monkeys in the trees. Went to the national museum that afternoon (thousands of artifacts just chillin in an open air museum... I'd love to see the faces of the curators of the Smithsonian). Odd thing about Cambodia, everyone likes to charge you for pictures: In the courtyard of the museum, $1 a picture... street children will let you take their picture for a dollar... etc.
Left the museum for the Mekong River for our sunset cruise... which was absolutely beautiful, and it is obviously down to a science - every turn is made deliberately for a better, more breathtaking view of the palace or the floating houses along the river. For dinner, we visited a giant buffet... I don't like buffets and I miss street vendors and restaurants. Oh well. Ate some disgusting Pepto-Bismol tasting ice cream among other food... lots of fish items... as always. Called it a night and hit the hay... well.. I watched some MTV Asia first after my glorious steaming hot shower!
WARNING TO THE READER: The following information is from my visit to the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields in Phenom Penh which was one of the 280 killing fields used during the Extremist Khmer Rouge Reign of Terror. Some of the stories, thoughts, and (eventually) pictures are horrific and graphic. Please... Proceed with caution; IF YOU ARE A YOUNGER READER, this might be a section to skip and read at a time when you can grasp the situation a little better. For my older readers, please, keep in mind this happened and should not be taken lightly...
Day 2 started off with the Genocide Museum which is a former 4 building high school used by the Khmer Rouge's most important prisoners who were meant to be tortured and executed. The Khmer Rouge came into power post-Vietnam/American War and sought to bring about a 'worker's paradise'. To accomplish this vision, all educated individuals who may have the mental capacity or background knowledge to oppose the system were executed. Outside reports place the number of deaths between 1 and 2 million during this 4 year reign, while Cambodia claims 3 million lives lost prior to the turnover of this poorly structured regime by Vietnam.
The school is encircled by an ~ 8 foot wall capped with barbed wire. While walking to building A, 14 large, white stone rectangles house the bodies of the last 14 victims of the camp (The Vietnamese found the bodies upon arrival to the facility and laid them to rest in a place where they could be remembered).
The school became holding rooms for prisoners who were shackled to the end of the bed, forbidden from talking as well as a host of other rules posted outside the barracks. On the wall of each room hung a single photo of one of the thousands of victims who had passed through those buildings - bloodied and mangled - bound to the end of the bed - gazing out of the barred windows into what looks like a paradise of palm trees - so close, and yet... so exceptionally far.
Individuals were interrogated using many different means: lashes, electric currents, or the gallows - where prisoners were hung upside down by their feet until they passed out - then they were thrust into a large vat of putrid water, waking them immediately... and continuing until all information needed was extracted. I'm sure there were other methods of torture, however, those were the 3 focused upon.
Building B housed hundreds of thousands of pictures of victims. The Khmer Rouge took a great deal in keeping in depth records of their prisoners - learning of their childhoods and educational backgrounds, thus, if there was ever a problem, the file could explain why the individual was exterminated. Once the file was as complete as needed or desired, the person was taken to the killing fields and executed. (More on that in a bit). The further into building B, the photos changed from head shots of the prisoners to those of the pain and suffering inflicted upon these individuals - starving - barely alive... skin, bone, clinging on to an existence of... I'm not sure. I have no idea what hope could be left. Less than 1 dozen (Yes, less than 12) individuals survived after being sent to the barracks.
From there, we took our bus to the killing fields on the outskirts of the town - down a very bumpy, dirt road where all around us were fields of green and spots of grazing cattle (no more than 3 at a time). Upon arrival, there is a tall, white stone building - looking almost temple like that houses the skulls of nearly 8,000 victims. They're organized by age and sex from floor to ceiling. Some look completely unscathed; others are missing large chunks from bullet holes or are bashed in by blunt trauma. Outside and in the surrounding area are wooden signs - and by the end, I was dreading seeing the yellow-gold outline of the sign, knowing it was one more horrific tale, or a marker of yet another mass grave. Some of the signs spoke of techniques of the Khmer Rouge - using DET to prevent the stench from floating to nearby workers, which would raise suspicion, as well as to 'finish the job' with any prisoners still buried alive. Other signs spoke of the dark barracks created to house any prisoners who were not executed the day they arrived (surviving an extra night was a very rare occurrence) One sign spoke of a tree used to beat children against; another told the tale of the 'magic tree' which housed a noise making device that covered the sounds of the moans of the dying. Most of the signs marked mass graves of men, women and children... some clothed, some not... some without heads. In some places, where the graves are so shallow, clothing is visible among the regrowth of grass and a few flowers that looked a lot like morning glories.
That's about all I have to say about that. It was a tragedy and I'm feeling a little unwell thinking back over it - because I was there. It happened. Not guilt... fear? Perhaps... knowing that it was the EDUCATED that were punished... that were outwitted and extinguished. My stomach turns and sinks into a pit of disgust mingled with sadness. I'm not really sure what I feel right now... still a little numb... but starting to feel that tingling feeling you get upon waking up a sleeping limb - a little pain and a lot of discomfort... trying to make everything all right once again. But I don't know if that will ever happen.
Visited the Russian Market (which is called such due to the first 'White' visitors came from Russia... now all White people are referred to as Russians - anyway, they came to trade and barter at this particular market, and thus, the name stuck). Lunch was rather uneventful minus my drink of grass jelly (sugar cane juice and jelly at the bottom...? It comes in a can...) Visited the palace and the silver pagoda - brilliant works of architecture and monuments reflecting the large percentage of Buddhists in the region. Flew to Angkor Wat and proceeded to a dinner show... which... was alright. Were received at our hotel with a welcome drink that was very sweet and bright green as well as a much welcome cool wash cloth to clean our hands and sweaty faces. Went to bed early to get up in time for the sunset at Angkor Wat the next morning.
A side story for all PRE-MED readers: my roommate, a pre-med, lacked common sense, and even though we discovered it early in our check in, took the key out of its resting slot, which controls power supply, resulted in neither light nor air conditioning (which I'm fine with, however, my roommate complained the whole morning about her uncomfortable, air-conditioned-less sleep until I re-explained the concept to her). There's a note to you, pre-meds: Don't be annoying or stupid or act like you know everything. Seriously... work on your common sense skills, otherwise, you'll sleep without air conditioning (and your roommate will get sick of explaining basic concepts... to you)!
DAY 3Woke at 4:30 am to catch our bus to Angkor Wat in an attempt to see the sunrise. There really wasn't a sunrise (which is typical of this voyage, or so it seems) but I did get some good pictures of the temple, played with functions on my camera, and did some exploring - including climbing up to the center of the temple. This portion was.... Ridiculously steep. I'm sure my Mom would've died in fear at the steepness - it wasn't really bad going up... but... terrifying coming back down. I mean... there are signs of 'climb at your own risk' and really, nothing to catch you if you slip.. Just more stone stairs and a stone ground at the bottom. And... did I mention Whitney and I did this in flip flops and past our knees flowing skirts? Yea. We did. And it was totally worth it - such a view!!! And a great adrenaline rush. In retrospect, it really wasn't that bad - the steps weren't terribly narrow and not nearly as worn as some areas of the Great Wall - just the incline is very steep. Anyway... we rushed back down to make sure we wouldn't miss the bus (it probably wasn't our best idea to climb the temple with about 15-20 min left... oops).
Breakfast, found some free internet, then headed off to Ta Prohm which you would all recognize from the movie "Tomb Raider". The structures are being both held together and torn apart by the trees growing in, on, and around the temples. And the roots of these trees are the fanned out, alabaster type you'd imagine from a book. Moss covered stone lay every where - some structures still maintaining their original, dignified positions... others, scattered across the dirt and grass... toppled, strewn every which way. Amazing really... how something so beautiful, that took so much man power and labor left to disintegrate back to dirt - left alone long enough to grow into such disrepair. Nearly every stone had some sort of carving on it - some more intricate than others... some deeper than others... all taking exorbitant amounts of time and skill. I wish my pictures showed their magnificence - Dad would've loved it and really appreciated it - I hope my pictures will give some idea of their magnitude.
Next, we returned to Angkor Wat - this time from the East entrance (in the morning, we entered via the West entrance). These temples are in a much better state of being, but still, ancient. Whitney and I, once again, took the trek to the top of the center temple as we had in the morning, which... wasn't nearly as scary as the first time (fear of the unknown will do that to you) and explored the upper areas. It felt like being on top of the world - seeing for what felt like forever - over the tops of some of the trees - seeing people look like miniscule dots... making you feel slightly insignificant - covered in the shadow of a great human-built masterpiece. You could literally, scale the temple - there were some ledges close and some further away and down more - kind of a safety net. Blue skies and green trees and breathtaking views worth every ounce of focus used to climb back down.
Took a little path on my own back to the entrance - it was a dirt road past the house of some monks and a few street vendors. Giant, green trees hung their branches in a way to shield a passerby from the heat of the midday sun and in that moment - alone with myself for the first time, really, since getting to Cambodia, I realized what a small, insignificant blip I was on the map... how the world's not all that big... how we're not all that much different... a sense of peace. It almost felt like I was back walking on the towpath around Roscoe... but it wasn't. It was me... by myself... with my thoughts.... Evaluating myself. I've always heard that the only person that matters is yourself... very much the individualistic American culture speaking. And in that moment, I was completely content with who I am; what I am, and where I headed. In that moment... and many moments on this voyage, I have solidified a few ideals I have about myself, however, those are personal and not to be revealed to the general public as of yet. I'm not sure of everything I felt during that walk... but I do know that I was, for a brief, glimmering moment, in perfect harmony with the world and at peace in my chaotic head.
Visited Angkor Thom in the afternoon... it began to rain a bit, which was a good reason to sit in one of the stone windows and take in the gazillion of carved Buddha heads and the soft pitter-patter of the rain on the stone.
Flight home... interesting, really, coming into Ho Chi Minh City - there were lights everywhere and the streets looked like an intricate spider web from up above. Normally I associate lots of lights to a large city and a great deal of technology... funny to think that miles below me, thousands of Vietnamese were whizzing around on their mo-peds... hoping that they're not going to be another statistic... and... well... that was pretty much it. But it was enough. Actually, it was more than enough.
And finally, a thought that should really brighten your day: My opinion of Traveler's Diarrhea.
Oh boy.
Good times.
Kate and I are taking the optimistic approach to having your guts turn to liquid: we can eat whatever we want and as much as we desire... and it'll all slide right through. However, and for those of you who have seen the movie "Van Wilder"... well.... That's pretty much the best way to describe it.... You basically dread going to the bathroom because it's going to be a few minutes of extreme discomfort. No worries - we're pounding back the water and Gatorade and eating lots of white things (bread, rice, etc.) and... yea, no amount of discomfort is going to make us stop fully enjoying the countries we visit :)

P.S. for Mom and Dad: I've been taking my Malaria medicine religiously as well as slathering on the DEET :) Therefore, I should return in about 2 months in relatively good health!
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