First day in Phnom Penh (an email to friends)
Phnom Penh Travel Blog› entry 9 of 22 › view all entries
one day down and 27 to go.. We got to Cambodia safely after a VERY long flight via Phuket and Bangkok, and despite the fact that it may not be the cleanest nor the most beauf iful city i've ever been to, it certainly has it's charms..
okay, so charms might not be the best word.. The complete and abject poverty is ghastly. And it's everywhere. apparently something like 65% of the population lives well below the poverty line, with the majority of families only earning a maximum of US$15 a month. To put this into perspective.. it's less than the amount I earn PER HOUR at Myer. So to see this poverty manifest itself on the streets in such force is very confronting, but even more tragic. This afternoon at a Temple we visited had a small boy reject our offer of money because he only
this morning was probably the most confronting experience of my life. We visited the Killing Fields and Prison S-21, Tuol Sleng, which were two of the many places that placed Cambodia in the situation they are in now. The killing Fields in particular were difficult, as walking past the massive glass Stupa containing the skulls of the 1800 bodies that have been exhumed already (it was a sight i was prepared to see, so it didn't really shock me so much), but whilst walking around the field you could see so many bones and items of clothing being exposed by the soil erosion.
And yet, the people have such hope, such joie de vivre and so much pride and commitment in themselves as a nation, their heritage and each other, and you can honestly see in their faces and in their manner that they bear no ill will towards a world that has, and still continues to cause so much suffering to the Country as a collective. The people are simply delightful. And i never thought i would say this, but the children here absolutely beautiful. They truly are. We met several little kids who wanted nothing mroe than to talk to us and show us Phnom Penh through their eyes. And I'm handing out bananas left right and centre to them!
so yes.. I'm running out of time so I have to cut it quick..
Tuol Sleng was probably just as traumatising as the killing fields in that they had a photo display of every single mug shot found in the prison when it was deserted.. every single person had a mug shot taken when they entered and you could truly see the fear behind their eyes... After Tuol Sleng, we visited the Russian MArkets, The Independence monument, a really beautiful hilltop temple, the National Museum, Psar O Russei, and the Mekong Riverside (which is the nightlife area and is lovely).
tomorrow, we're off to Siem Reap where we will be visiting Angkor, The Floating Villages and Spending Some time working at Aki Ra's orphanage, then on to Battambang, Kampot, Sihanoukiville and back to PP for a few more days. So.. I shall update as soon as I can again..
in the meantime, love to you all, and I hope that now after my first day of being on the absolute verge of an emotional breakdown, I'll be able to experience the rest of cambodia with an understanding of how far they have come since 1979.
Wow! What a day! We arrived in PP at 8pm last night after detouring in Phuket and Bangkok.. a 12 hour journey in all.. first impressions at night.. well. CHAOTIC! and awfully destitute..
This morning, however, it did't seem so bad.. The people are very warm and friendly, always smiling.
We started the day off by hiring a car and travelling out o the killing fields of Choeung Ek, a once-Chinese cemetery which was converted to a massacre site of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. While we saw the massive glass stupa with teh hundreds of exhumed sulls, it was teh graves that hadn't been opened and that were eroding to exposure that probably traumatised me the most.. It was absolutely horrendous what the KR did to those poor people and seeing bones and scraps of fabric pushing through the barren-clay (barren from all the tonnes of chemicals used to dispatch of the bodies) that really hit me. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried. I feel that it was justified to do so.. I have never in my life before seen human tragedy manifest itself to this extent, an the effects of pure twisted psychotic evil to this extremity.. All I felt was just wave after wave of a feeling of hopelessness, and anger at a regime that could have punished their own people to this extent for such petty things as daring to cook their food or knowing how to read and write.
After the killing fields we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, also known as S-21, a prison site that was once a school.. As soneone once graffitied on one of the walls "As a prison they never learned, but as a school they never killed". It still sends shivers up my spine.. They left the prison as it had been found by the Viet troops in '79, and added a photo memorial of all the prisoners kept there. Each prisoner had a mug-shot taken on entry, and other photos of their defeated, tortured bodies after a few weeks of entry. You can see the fear in the eyes of teh prisoners, the sorrow they felt and, strangely enough, the dignity they possessed at knowing their death was near. There were also photos taken by the war-correspondant photographer that came with the troops in '79.. Where you saw the twisted bodies of prisoners in the classroom-come-torture rooms, cained to the hard wooden slatted beds, their bodies contorted into anguished positions, where you could see the marks of the physical abuse they suffered.
It was very interesting though, eye-opening and together with the killing fields this morning, crucial in understanding how far Cambodia has come and how the people manage to tay so positive... In the knowledge that life will never be as bad as that again.
The poverty here is astounding. It's so saddening to see the beggars with limbs blown off and faces disfigured by land mines. It's a constant reminder that while the Khmer Rouge are no longer in power, people are still suffering from the brutality of the regime, and that the war has not yet ended. It's heartbreaking to see children so hungry that they will refuse to take money as all they want is food. Some of the younger children we encountered today (one boy was about 4 years old and was carrying his baby sister around), had not yet grasped the concept that the money could be used to buy food. In the end We dashed over to a nearby fruit seller and bought a couple of bunches of bananas and a few boiled eggs for the kids.
The rest of the day passed much more.. comfortably, I suppose is the best word. We drove past the Independence monument, and viited Psar Tuol Tom Pong, the Russian Market, which was fairly average as far as markets go.. (Then again, I d ohave the souks and kasbahs of Morocco as comparison!).
We then visited Wat Phnom, a beautiful hill-top pagoda near the river and Royal Palace that was constructed in AD 1434. It is the only hill in town and is a little bit of a circus, with the elephants and wild monkeys parading around, and beggar children and vendors calling across the park.. Twas fun! :)
Then to the National Museum, which was a bit of a let down truth be told. Quite unremarkable in content, but lovely architecture. Many stautes and ornaments and a rather average collection of Rodin sketches. Then on to Suria mall.. A modern shopping complex which truly does demonstrate the wealthy-destitute divide PP seems to have.
Dinner was at a place called Veiyo Tonle, a NGO non-profit resteraunt run by the New Cambodian Children's Light Association (NCCLA), a home for children who are homeless, orphaned or come from families in extreme poverty. They are clothed, fed, educated and taken very well care of by the owner, A delightfully cheerful and kind-hearted Cambodian man and his wife. The food was excellent and we were caught in conversation with two young Khmer girls who ere selling books. Their names were Lee and Ling, and they worked in the evenings selling books and postcards so that they could afford to send themselves to school. They could not have been any older than about 6 or 7 and told us they earned about $1 from each book sold. And my word were they were sassy young things! :D I ended up buying a couple of books from them for about $3 each. A History of Cambodia, One about Tuold Sleng prion and another about Sex Trafficking in Asia. I've started reading the last one, and it's really really interesting.. all photocopied of course, but hell. If it pays for their education, then I'm happy to help them.
So yeah.. A brilliant day in all. I have a feeling that I'm going to fall hopelessly in love with this country...