Day 73: The Land of Contrasts
Trip Start May 20, 2008
77Trip End Aug 19, 2008
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We by some miracle of science actually managed to wake up on time today and after the most glorious English breakfast imaginable, set out with our rickshaw driver for a half-day tour of the Khmer Rouge's carnival of horrors. For the less history inclined among you, the Khmer Rouge was an extreme fringe Communist regime that ruled Cambodia for a brief period during the 70's and envisioned a country ruled by the impoverished peasant class "Old Khmers." This dream was to be accomplished by eradicating the corrupt "New Khmers," aka any city dweller, lawyer, doctor, professor, etc. It was a genocide against educated people and among the most infamous of modern history, rivalling the Holocaust for its sheer inhumanity if not scale. They evacuated all of Phnom Pehn and sent nearly its entire population to work/death camps where many ended up in mass graves. Any local in Phnom Pehn older than 30 (there were *not* many) that we passed on the street was automatically either a victim or one of the perpetrators, prompting some weird feelings in me when interacting with any of them. In the late 70's, the Khmer Rouge got ambitious and started running cross-border raids into Vietnam, who thanks to the US were not in a good mood and promptly invaded Cambodia, booting the genocidal bastards out of power. They continued to be a problem for the next few decades, carrying out an insurgency against the Vietnamese occupation and later legit Cambodian government well into the 90's. Poipet, the Tijuana-style border town I mentioned in an earlier post, was a victim of Khmer Rouge grenade attacks as late as 1996 according to LP. They've since been put down for good, allowing the country to start a slow but sure climb out of misery.
/end history lesson.
Our first stop was the Tong Sleng Prison, an unassuming former High School in the middle of town converted into a detention center by the Khmer Rouge. t was a humble, functional complex, not sprawling like Auschwitz, but once inside it just kept going, and going, and going... One by one I walked through the cells (former class rooms), each one with a rusted steel bed frame and a B&W picture on the wall of the battered charred body discovered on said bed frame, and each one packing more of a punch than the last. On a couple secluded sections of wall was some graffiti chiseled by former tourists reading "BEAR WITNESS", "Man's inhumanity to fellow man is unbearable" etc. We both traversed the building slowly, I stopped in each an every room to note each and every bed/picture & Jeff probably did the same, to make sure the full impact was absorbed and full respects paid. The central building's ground floor had been converted into one long room with mugshots of each and every confirmed victim (hundreds of thousands.) Just as with the cells, these were traversed slowly, taking care not to miss a picture. The first hundred made me sad. The next hundred made me choke. Then, as the pictures kept going seemingly without end, feelings moved into vomit-territory until finally we both grew numb and overwhelmed by the sheer horror of it all. Stepping inside these small buildings was like opening up a Pandora's box of inhumanity. Stories of children being taken from their parents and brainwashed into killing them, pictures of mutilated bodies above the blood stain where the body was found... etc.
Following the prisons, our rickshaw driver drove us to the Killing Fields, remnants of mass graves centerpieces by a towering Buddhist shrine (at least 4 stories tall), housing only shelves upon shelves of victims' skulls; a four story tower of human skulls. It was insane. We continued on, walking around the memorial park through all the marked grave sites. Some still had human bones poking out of the dirt, but not many as most were given proper burials in the many shrines scattered about. Street kids were posted at steady intervals along the trail, first happily asking if we could take their picture then instantly shifting to a more desperate tone begging for money. I let Jeff take over the "dealing with the locals" role for the first time this day, as after all of the things we saw I was not in much of a mood to talk.
By afternoon the bad times were over however and the rest of the day was spent walking around the colonial area of the city with the Royal Palace as our end goal. We arrived just in time for the gates to be closed for the day on us, but the walk was worth it. We traversed a food market selling bugs and skinned frogs, with random barber stalls dotted throughout it, walked past art shops, through parks, past old French villas now lying in disrepair. It was as sublimely beautiful as it was sad. The centerpiece of the walk was a large park/roundabout populated by monkeys. We watched as one pulled the tail of another, mischievously yanking his friend out of the tree. My love of the monkey continued to be cemented. Strung above many of the roads where Kuwaiti flags, no doubt because the President/PM/King of Kuwait was visiting this week. We joked that the Cambodian ministers would try to tell the Kuwaiti "Look how much we love your country! We keep your flags up all the time!" in hopes for a donation. Another random funny sighting included a literal military-style transport convoy of, of all things, monks. "Spiritual Emergency!" we joked. It was soon after this that both our legs began to gave out, and we started barking "Transport? Transport?" to the resident army of motorcycle taxis. In a comically swift reflex, two napping drivers instantly woke up and revved their engines on, ready for battle. They whizzed us back to the Lakeside in no time. Rather than making another attempt at nightlife, we decided to kick back around the inn this night, pub hopping the handful of adjacent tourist bars. Dinner was had at a particularly delicious Indian restaurant and a beer pitcher was drunk at an adjacent Irish themed pub. A quiet but pleasant night resulted. We had to wake up early the next morning to pick up our visas and catch a bus to Saigon, so the low-key early bedtime was necessary.