Craziness in Cambodia - End of Week 3

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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As I sit on my bed in Ko Samui, my favourite swimming togs hidden by a billowing sarong because my stomach is distinctly more flabby than it was one week ago, I reflect on the week that was Cambodia.

A week that has expanded my perceptions of the world, induced revulsion at the cruelty of humanity and caused me to now be on a perpetual diet.

It all started in Siem Reap with Susanne, Sam, Mel and I, though admittedly it was a slow start. This was possibly because we'd only had about five hours sleep in three days. Here we are in a new country for the very first time, and do we excitedly start exploring our surroundings? No. Do we eagerly plan an itinerary to encompass all the wonders Siem Reap has to offer? No. Do we even mention how enthusiastic we are about our location? Nope. Nothing. We stare sightlessly at each other as we mindlessly chew our tasteless sandwiches, then drag our feet to bed.

What can I say? We like to get the most out of our holiday.

We recovered our motivation the next day. We were up and at Angkor Wat by dawn, a fairly amazing feat for four people who were still out drinking at midnight. It truly is an incredible sight. The enormity of such a temple site, both physically and as a concept, are mind-blowing. The temple would be all but impossible to build today, such is its grand-scale intricacy. But these people built it centuries ago, before cranes, electric tools or smoko breaks.

As I wander around, I like to pause in isolated rooms and try to picture what is may have been like all those years ago. I place my hand on the cold sandstone, feeling its gravelly surface slowly suck the heat from my arm as I attempt to be drawn back in time. Who else stood in this room? What did they see? What was their life like? What pains did they suffer?

Apparently I have an over-active imagination, though mild insanity has also been suggested.

I quickly wish I could switch off that curiosity I have for people from the past when we visit the S21 Genocide Museum and Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. Suddenly I am surrounded by thousands of faces that all suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge at this prison. These 9000 individuals with families and hopes and fears are but a small portion of the approximately 1.5 million victims from the 5 years of the Khmer Rouge's rule in the seventies.

It is unbelievable that this all happened while the rest of the world wore bell-bottoms and danced to Abba. Most people probably thought 'Cambodia' was a new party drug.

I am truly disconcerted by the fact that this prison used to be a school. The buildings are similar on the outside to many schools back home. The sun shines down on the quadrangle and I can imagine children laughing and playing.

The inside is like something from a horror story. Some classrooms have one rusty bed with shackles and an empty artillery box for human excrement. Other buildings have had holes knocked in the walls and makeshift cells built out of bricks or wood, providing just enough room for a bed. This is all surrounded by barbed wire to stop prisoners from committing suicide. Here educated men, women and children were kept until it was their turn to be tortured and then sent off to the Killing Fields.

As a teacher, the perversion on this educational facility makes me particularly angered and sickened. Kids back home who say school is like jail have no idea.

As I stare at the sea of photographs, I am drawn to the face of a girl who looks to be about ten. Her arms are strained behind her back and there is a slight puffiness around one of her eyes, which is almost overlooked as you stare at her nicely combed and pinned hair. But it's her eyes that stab at me. At once terrified yet defiant, this ten year old girl reaches out and squeezes my heart, bringing tears to my eyes. Who was she? What did she want to do when she grew up? What was her favourite subject, colour, food? So many questions about a stranger who I will never know yet feel desperately connected to.

I wish I knew who she was. All I know is she was probably bashed over the head with a shovel and dumped in a mass grave with a hundred others. If she managed to survive the head trauma, she was buried alive and covered in chemicals which quickly finished the job. And now her skull is probably one of the nine thousand on display in the rememberance column at the Killing Fields.

Sometimes I curse my imagination.

Cambodia wasn't all doom and gloom though. I spent the entire week eating the most incredible selection of foods! I have literally eaten so much I felt sick. But you keep eating because it's so good and so cheap, and somewhere in your mind that means it can't be wasted.

Of course I'm paying for it now. I put on my bikini, look in the mirror and see only rice, coconut, fish and chicken. Luckily happy hour is pretty much all day here so soon I'll be too drunk to care.

Sorry all - not exactly a funny one this time, it was all rather too intense. But I'm at the islands now, so I promise you there will be funny stories to come...
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Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk