Originally published on facebook – January 10, 2011 at 11:59pm ·

Ok, ok, so I am home, but I never posted all this, it’s exists only in my journal so I’m sharing now. There is yet still more to come after this, read or not at your pleasure….

Vietnam (Chau Doc) to Cambodia (Phnom Phen) – Day 54

I’m crossing into Cambodia today, Phnom Phen via a long slow boat ride along the Mekong River. It should take about 8 hours including a little break at the border for lunch and to get our passports stamped. The journey is pretty uneventful, I see lots more of what life is like for people who live along the Mekong River. The river is used as a bath, a kitchen sink, a garbage can and, appallingly, as a bathroom. I can’t image it’s very healthy to be washing your dishes (or yourself) 3 meters away from someone going to the bathroom, but it is what it is. Kids swim and play in the water, duck farms with hundreds of then packed into a very small area, water buffalo bathing. I’m tired from my lack of sleep last night (the rainy bed, the morning socialist shout out over the loudspeaker) and am hoping to nap but no such luck, in the first boat the seats are just hard chairs not even attached to the floor. At the border where we break for lunch I make friends with Julie and Martin from Denmark and Christian from Italy. We realize we’re all planning to stay at the same guesthouse in Phnom Phen and start to hit it off.

After the border we’re on a different boat, this one has two slatted wooden benches running along the sides, even more uncomfortable then the first boat, if that was possible, I bear it for half an hour or so and then make my way towards the back of the boat where the engine cover (and my backpack) is. It’s noisy but I lay down on my bag and promptly pass out for a couple hours. You know that feeling when you wake up really suddenly, startling yourself? I do that, catching myself just before falling off my bag. It’s around 4pm by now and I keep thinking we must almost be there but no, it’s another 3 hours before we get off the boat. Along the way we watch river life, it’s around the time of day when everyone comes down to the river to bathe. I see a very old woman, naked from the waist up she stares right back at us, not shy. I see a young probably newly married couple, he’s in shorts and she’s in a sarong, they’re both wet from their bath and are sitting cross legged, knees to knees, staring into each others eyes, looking very much in love. Sweet. Lots of kids and adults too, waving and shouting hello, it never gets tired.

Off the boat we get into a minibus for an hours drive into Phnom Phen city. Delivered directly to our guesthouse I opt for a “prison cell” room, no windows. It’s pitch black all night and very quiet, I expect to sleep well and do, yay.

Phnom Phen – day 55

I sleep in, enjoying the darkness of my “cell”. Explore a bit of the city, seeing the Vietnam-Cambodia friendship monument the Independence Monument and a Wat with lots of stupas. I want to head to the Silver Palace & Royal Pagoda complex but run into Julie, Martin and Christian from the day before and they (easily) talk me into going to the Russian Market with them. We spend a few hours there and I introduce Martin to the joys of the Vietnamese pancake (different name here but same same). The market is incredible, clothes, antiques, jewelery, food, paper, opium pipes, Buddha statues, paintings, lamps, etc, etc. We all buy something and then head back to the hotel.

We shower and have dinner and then head to a bar that Christian met the owner of somewhere. It’s more a pub really, with drink specials, so we play pool and imbibe. A guy that the Denmarkians had met in Vietnam (Marcus) joins us and we end up at a club on the riverfront. Not a place I would usually go but hey, it was there. Unfortunately it’s filled with “pros” and Martin (who is quite shy) attracts a hanger on. He tells her I’m his girlfriend, which doesn’t seem to make a difference to her at all and he’s really uncomfortable so I decide to help him out a bit and drag him onto the dance floor. Mistake. For my trouble I end up getting shoved a couple times from behind and my hair gets pulled. I’m not pleased but she has quite a few friends and I’m a peaceful type so I ignore it and pray I am not about to be knifed. I make it out alive thank goodness, not even a bald spot.

Phnom Phen – day 56

In the morning we met a guy named Julien from France, we all liked him right away and invited him to come with us to the Killing Fields for the day. We rent 3 motorbikes, Martin and Marcus share one, Julie and Christian on another and Julien and I share the third. Martin and Christian get a map and directions, Julien and I figure to follow them so we don’t pay much attention. It’s a pity really because we lose them within the first block. Do we do the smart thing and backtrack, no, we keep going. We end up having a lovely tour of the countryside and drive (circuitously) about 70 kms to get to the Fields. Once there we run into everyone else and shockingly seem to have arrived about 5 minutes after them, they went about 20 kms in the same time it took us to do 70. I’m not sure how that works.

At the Fields (Choeung Ek) we check out the small museum first and watch a short video, it’s really informative, almost 9,000 bodies were discovered in just this one area and not even all the mass graves were unearthed. There are other Killing Fields scattered all over the country, millions died. It’s terrifying. In Buddhist cultures a stupa is a sacred structure that contains the remains of the deceased, especially the remains of greatly revered individuals. The construction of a stupa is a significant activity that produces merit for the living and encourages the remembrance of the dead. In 1989 the Stupa at Choeung Ek was completed to house the over 8,000 skulls and many other bones and clothing remnants found at this site. Prior to 1989 the bones were stored on open wooden shelves, the stupa seems a more fitting memorial. Most of these bones were found in mass graves within the first couple of years after the Khmer Regime ended. During heavy rain bones and clothing pieces still rise up to the surface today, there are many bodies still buried here. The field that holds the graves that have been dug up looks like a wavy sea, grass grows in the holes, yet it is still obvious what was there. They are however much smaller then I imagined, and so I am uncomfortably reminded how closely packed in the average grave of  200 or so people were. In one mass grave every single body found was headless and wearing a uniform (army fatigues), in another it was only women and children. Right next to this grave was a large tree, apparently the tree was used to smash children’s heads against to kill them before tossing them into the neighboring open grave all in the interest of conserving ammunition. It was actually common for adults to be killed by other methods then bullets as well. Ammunition was rare and expensive, people were bludgeoned with axes, picks, rocks, canes etc and stabbed with bamboo stakes or whatever else may have been available and common and lethal.

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This was an incredibly somber visit however I didn’t feel the same heaviness that I have felt at other memorial sites, I can’t put my finger on why. Don’t get me wrong it was very affecting but, I don’t know…perhaps I thought it would actually be worse then it was? I certainly thought the graves and the site would be larger, cover more territory then it did. That sounds terrible, like I didn’t feel, I did believe me just not as harshly as I anticipated I might.

The next place we headed to changed all that, S-21 Prison aka: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. To workers assigned by the Khmer Rouge to the Tuol Sleng neighborhood, S-21 was known simply as “konlaenh choul min dael chenh” – “the place where people go in but never come out.” Tuol Sleng’s reputation was brutally accurate: the sole purpose of S-21 was to extract confessions from political prisoners before they were taken away for execution outside of the capital near the farming village of Choeung Ek. Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng; of these only six are known to have survived.

S-21 was originally a school, there are still monkey bars in the courtyard, right next to a wooden structure that was constructed as a gallows for the hanging and torture of prisoners. From the moment you arrived as a prisoner at S-21, your rights and responsibilities were made painfully clear by a large sign showing a set of ten standing orders. These rules dictated how you acted, how you responded to questioning, and how you had no choice but to accept the fact that you were a traitor and would be treated as such.

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As we head towards the first building (A) there is an area in the courtyard with 14 tombs. These tombs hold the bodies of the last 14 people (one of whom is a woman) who were killed by the Khmer Rouge just moments before they fled from the prison. Building A has large rooms with yellowish walls and black and white checkered floors. Most of the rooms still contain a single metal bed frame, sometimes there is a metal box on the bed-springs, it looks like the type of rectangular box that would hold ammunition, in fact it was used as a toilet and is labeled “case for excrement”. In other rooms there are old metal implements, tools like a pick or axe or shovel, on the bed. These are the actual tools that were used to kill and torture people here. Each room looks exactly the same except for these small differences, with one exception, on one wall there is a large black and white photo of a dead prisoner, each photo, each death, is different, unique, bloody, horrific and appalling.

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Each of the four buildings is of the same exterior design, 3 levels with open covered porch/walkways lining the front, along which doors lead into the various rooms. Building B is covered in barbed wire, so that prisoners could not jump from the balconies to escape the confinement, torture and painful death that awaited them inside. These rooms have been re-purposed into small cells made of either brick or wood. Each cell is about 3′ wide and 5 or 6′ long. There are no beds, there are many “cases for excrement”. Because the building wasn’t originally constructed as a jail there are big windows (now covered in bars) I suppose if you were “lucky” you got a cell with natural light, if you were in a corner cell you must have been in pitch blackness 24/7.

Building C is dedicated to showing some of the implements and devices of torture .Also to many, many photographs of the thousands of people who were housed here. This is incredibly difficult, there are pictures of men and women, but impossibly also of children. Children who were killed solely so that they could not come seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents and/or other family members. Some of the photos look like mugshots, some are much more explicit, showing cuts, bruises, black-eyes, ropes tied around necks and worse. This is the hardest for me, the mass quantity of images is overwhelming, I feel very affected and stricken numb or dumb. The faces show the terror, fear, shock and helplessness that these people must have felt. Actually how they must have felt is unknowable for me, I have nothing even remotely close in my personal experience to relate to this, I can only imagine and empathize, empathy in this case is painful, I feel indescribable, I’m shut down, I can’t look anymore, my heart and mind has overloaded. I can only look and experience the smallest portion of what these people must have gone through. There is still one more building to see and I can barely face it.

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Building D, there are more photos of prisoners. Some skulls are on display, you can see the bullet holes. A small Buddhist shrine has been set up to offer prayers and remembrance and perhaps some sort of personal solace. There is a photograph on one wall of a map of Cambodia, made up of human skulls, a chilling and powerful image. In following rooms there are stories of people who worked (or were assigned) at the prison. Many of these people were coerced in some way into complying and I want to read but I am exhausted emotionally and cannot focus my eyes or brain, I’m done. I head outside into the sunshine (which feels good yet incongruous) and sit on a bench in the courtyard to wait for the others.  It’s been a day of harsh experience, I sit back, close my eyes and breathe. reflecting on what I’ve seen today I’m glad to have done it and felt the feelings I felt, but I don’t want to dwell here, feeling all heavy and shitty. If there is something I have learned from this country and its people is that they don’t wallow in self pity and feelings of victimization, they get on with life, so that’s what I do. I am joined by the others and we all feel similarly, we talk about it and come to much the same conclusions, we experienced it, and it was really heavy and harsh but it’s time to let that go and enjoy life in the present.

Back on the bikes we are making our way to the guesthouse when we are stopped by the cops. They demand $10 from each of us for some imagined traffic infraction. They tell us that if we don’t pay it now we must come to the station where the fine will be $100. I’m all for trying to talk the price down but everyone else is all nervous and they pay up so I am forced to do the same. This is a super common scam, I’ve heard of it before and since and it IS actually possible to talk them down to $1 or $2, but you have to try! My hands were tied, I went along with the group, one of the pitfalls of traveling as part of a crowd.

Phnom Phen – Day 57

I spend the day checking out some of the Water Festival activities. This is a big deal here, it celebrates a major natural occurrence: the reversing flow between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong River. For most of the year, the Tonle Sap empties into the Mekong River. However, when the rainy season arrives in June, the Mekong rises, reversing the flow to dump water into the lake, increasing its size ten-fold. When the rainy season ends in November, the Mekong drops once more, allowing the current to reverse again, emptying the excess waters of Tonle Sap back into the Mekong. This natural occurrence is celebrated in Cambodia with three days of festivals, parades, boat races, fireworks, and general merriment. Actually there’s not much to see. The boat races along the river are confusing, I can’t really make heads or tails of whats going on and while there are a TON of people watching, nobody seems very excited, not cheering, encouraging or even booing the teams, strange. We don’t a see any actual parades, I miss the fireworks because I heard they were at a different time then they actually were. And the “general merriment” ended up basically being very large crowds wandering the streets randomly, many many food and snack stalls, and some concerts. Still, interesting to see how this event is celebrated by the Cambodians.

That night we head out to celebrate my birthday, it’s a little weird for me to not have my friends and family around, instead I’m hanging out with people I’ve only know a few days, it’s not bad and I have a great time (maybe too great) but I miss everyone at home. We stay out dancing until almost dawn and finally tuk tuk back to the guesthouse and fall (literally) into bed.

Phnom Phen – Day 58

Let’s call this day a write off and leave it at that, except for these words of advice….. 39 year olds should exercise caution when partying with young 20-somethings, ouch.

One other thing….I read today that Confucius wrote that lucidity begins at 40, I can’t wait.

Phnom Phen – Day 59

I sleep late, possibly still recovering. I head to the Soraya mall, it’s a modern mall, with 6 tiers of escalators. On the top floor is an indoor rollerblading/skating rink, lots of teens in skinny jeans and big hair. Cambodian hipsters. The escalators must be a new-ish thing here in Cambodia, it appears that some people have never used them before and view them somewhat distrustfully, though many people are entirely comfortable of course. Perhaps it’s people from rural areas who have come into town for the festivities who are new to escalators, I don’t know, but it’s funny. Gripping one side of the railing with both hands before stepping gingerly onto the step, and keeping their hands there throughout the entire journey, I can see the mental preparation on faces as they near the bottom and realize they are going to have to step off this thing.The shoulders tense, the eyes focus, the hands grip a smidgen tighter and finally the step and the relief that they’ve made it. Only have 5 more to go to get to the ground floor. One kids freaks right out at the top, blocks the entrance and refuses to get on, his mother bustles him off to walk down the many flights of stairs instead.

After the mall I walk to the nearby Central Market. It’s a cool art deco style domed building built in 1937. Apparently it just underwent a renovation so perhaps it wasn’t up to full steam yet because it seemed low key to me, compared to the many other markets I’ve experienced. Maybe it needs a bit more time to get filled to the rafters again. In any case it houses an impressive number of jewelry counters in the central domed area and the wings are jammed with clothing, and art stalls. More interesting are the many stalls under the eaves on the outside of the building, various local crafts, fabrics etc. echoing with the familiar calls of “buy from me”, “hey madam” and my favorite “special best price just for you”. Uh huh.

From the market I take a tuk tuk to Wat Phnom, or “Hill Temple” it’s built on Phnom Phen’s only hill, an apparently artificial one about 100′ high and is the tallest religious structure in the city. Built by a wealthy widow (Daun Chi Penh) after a great flood washed statues of Buddhas downstream it is here that the city of Phnom Penh (“Penh’s Hill”) was founded in 1373. Shrines and other buildings have been put up and restored several times since then, the last major restoration taking place in 1926. Today it’s super crowded due to the water festival, everyone in the country appears to be on holiday, music is blasting from a temporary stage set up on the lower grounds. Didn’t really expect that, kind of thought I might find an oasis of calm amongst the crowds here but no such luck, oh well, go with it. Families camped out on blankets and bamboo mats, unsupervised kids everywhere, food stalls, balloon vendors, beggars, monks, you name it, packed. In the temple money is tucked into every possible crevice of the many Buddha statues, he’s hauling it in today. I explore the entire hill and then sit and people watch for a while, free entertainment.

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I meet up with the others later at the hotel and we head out for a dinner of street food and then just wander around aimlessly with all the crowds, We can’t figure out where everyone is headed to, there aren’t any events going on as far as we can figure. we head back to the hotel for an early night, we are heading to Sihanoukville tomorrow.

Overnight the bridge tragedy occurs, see the link.

http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2010/1122/Cambodia-Water-Festival-turns-tragic-with-deadly-stampede

We read about it in the morning English language papers and are stunned, over 340 people died, many more were wounded. It’s appalling to see the footage on local television, the information we get is unclear, various different stories about what caused it, details are vague,, theories abound. What is clear is that hundreds of people died not five minutes away from where we were safely sleeping in bed. Unsettling.

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