Phnom Penh was our second and final stop in Cambodia. I have to say that I love this country. The cities are rather small here providing an atmosphere that is hectic but quaint. We stayed in a small boutique hotel called La Librairie and it was comfortable. The hotel catered mostly to French tourists and had a pleasant little restaurant run by a French chef. Everything we at at the hotel was either good or great. The staff was courteous and friendly and the location was fairly good. I had worried a bit about our experience given that we just searched the Internet and booked this place several months ago, but I couldn’t be more pleased with our experience here. It was just what we needed. The balcony overlooked street 184, which is really nothing special, and provided a wonderful place to sit, relax, and read.
I think the word that best reflects my stay in Phnom Penh was comfortable. It was mixed emotionally, but I covered that in another post.
The most frustrating part of all these cities (Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) is their lack of walkability. Traffic is crazy with motorbikes, cars, and tuk-tuks everywhere; they drive on the damn sidewalk. There is a constant fear of getting clipped or out-and-out plowed down here as a pedestrian. The streets and sidewalks are rather poorly maintained, but since leaving Europe, Singapore was the only city I’ve visited that had properly maintained infrastructure… so I’m fairly used to it. I like to walk, but with five people, three of them kids, the risk is high and the stress is even higher. It makes anything but the shortest of journeys untenable.
All in all, we didn’t do much in Phnom Penh. We took the time to enjoy the exceptional culinary scene here which was a wonderful diversion. The one thing that consistently excited me the most about traveling the world for a year was the food. I love food. I love food. I love food. I am also blessed by listening to my mouth and not only sophisticated opinion. I like fancy French meals (like the one we ate at Camile Rue 200). I like eating fried tarantulas and crickets at sketchy roadside stalls. I like Taco Bell. I like food that makes my mouth happy and my soul sing. Phnom Penh had some opportunities to do just that.
The most surprising outing was actually Mexican food (tex-mex / mexican street food more precisely) at a little whole in the wall near the Royal Palace called Cocina Cartel. They have the usual taco, burrito and bowl selection that places in the US have, but my mind was rendered useless by the flavors. Carnitas where you can still smell the lime in the marinade, black beans and rice that tickle the front of the tongue, guacamole (REAL GUACAMOLE!) and a margarita that was just damn honest. I just grunted the whole time I was eating my carnitas burritos; it was obscenely inappropriate. This place might be the second best taqueria I’ve visited in my life. La Victoria Taqueria still holds number one in this man’s heart.
Lots of soups and curries and stir-fry were had. Rice with most meals meant we were eating local. I also happened to have the best sweet & sour fried fish I’ve ever had… at a simple little diner… for $3. We took a variety of food pictures while in Cambodia.
One evening we went for a sunset cruise on the Mekong. It was nice and the food was decent. The views were fantastic despite not being given an epic sunset in itself. As the cruise was mostly post-sunset, the lighting was low. While I could take in the views myself, I didn’t have the right photography setup to capture it well. My camera really only works well up to 3200 ISO and my lens is f/4… so it was just a bit too dark to take good pictures. I think we snapped about 100 photos and found less than ten to be of usable quality. On a smallish boat, a tripod doesn’t really help much; the vibrations from the engine are worse through a tripod than through my body.
Cambodia has been absolutely amazing, with one exception: there was nowhere to walk.
This post is graphic and may not be suitable for some people. If you are sensitive to an overt discussion of humanity at its worst, please stop reading. I wrote this post as a reminder of what can happen when human beings don’t value other human beings.
This visit was particularly difficult for me. I feel deeply connected to the loss of life simply because I’m human. My visit reinforced my commitment to universal human rights. Perhaps this post will help you do the same. Everyone should visit this place and understand tragedy; as that is unlikely for most people, I hope my post can take you there.
The story of Cambodian genocide under Pol Pat’s rule is tragic. Genocide has happened for all of recorded history and likely before despite human kind only giving it a word in 1944. The bible talks of attacking cities leaving no survivors. In the stories, God did it at Sodom and Gomorrah. The Greeks did it. The Romans did it. The Mongols did it. The American settlers did it.
While it is unfair to apply today’s moral standard to the distance past, we’re left with the sour truth that the twentieth century has the horrid honor of encompassing the collectively worst genocides in human history. Increased global population and the rise of totalitarianism have collided in a moral train wreck. The only encouraging thing is that we’ve collectively decided that this is not okay. One thousand years ago, these events were simply a risk of being human and celebrated by victors; the sentiment was that this was simply part of wars and wars are what humans do. Today, much of our modern global society finds war a horrid and unfortunate act, and committing genocide abhorrent and unthinkable. Progress of the mind proceeds progress of the civilization.
Pol Pat’s genocide that killed (directly and indirectly) as many as 2.5 million people is not the worst… not even close. In the twentieth century Ze-Dong Mao, Adolf Hitler, Leopold II of Belgium, Jozef Stalin, Hideki Tojo, and Ismail Enver all committed atrocities, each with individually higher body counts, killing between 90 and 120 million.
Today I visited the Killing Fields, now called the Cheung Ek Genocidal Center, just outside the city of Phnom Penh. I took my children there. I want them to understand that as soon as you dehumanize someone, as soon as any individual human life has “less value,” the worst imaginable things can happen… in this case, far worse than any healthy human can imagine. Nearly 9,000 individual humans have been found in graves here and several of the mass graves here were left unexamined… at rest.
The evidence makes this site special and different from many other genocidal sites of the twentieth century. It is disturbingly well preserved and leaves so little the to imagination that the haunt is surreal.
The deranged and extreme regime put in place was there to weed out anyone who didn’t subscribe to the socialist utopia he envisioned. As Pol Pat became progressively more paranoid, this expanded to… well… anyone. His mantras were diabolical. “No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out.” "Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake." Justifying over killing just to be sure.
“To kill the grass, you take the roots” meant that women, children and the old were killed right along offending men leaving no one to seek vengeance. This was, after all, genocide. The part that makes this place special among genocidal spots in the twentieth century is the methods used and the corresponding carnage and evidence.
You see, bullets were expensive and thus shooting people was expensive. If you’re going to murder vast swaths of your fellow man economically, you must use inexpensive mechanisms. People were murdered by bludgeoning with hammers, clubs, machetes, bamboo sticks. They had their throats slit with palm tree petiole. They were burned alive, sometimes not quite to death. They were perfunctorily dumped in mass graves and covered with DDT to control the stench. This was the story for the men.
The story of women and children is far worse. As if the malfunction in the human brain that allows for this desecration of humanity is wired backwards, the deaths of the women and children were more brutal. Women here are most often found in their graves without clothes because many were raped before they were murdered. Children were beaten against a tree until dead and tossed atop their mothers.
Standing in front of the killing tree can only overwhelm. Tears that started in my heart dampened my eyes. I found myself so full of sorrow that I had no room for anger; which in itself was hard to understand. I was simply filled with a sense of profound loss.
There are many mass graves in this killing field.
There are many killing fields like it in Cambodia.
As time goes on, bones and their owners’ clothes surface. None of the dead here are at peace; they claw their way to the surface at an agonizing pace.
Hell lives here below a thin layer of earth, while awkward peace and tranquility lie above.
These were my first steps in Cambodia.
When we planned this trip and decided our rough itinerary in 2014, there were two places I was most excited to visit: Siem Reap, Cambodia and all of Japan. My ideas of Cambodia were as half-baked as anyone who has ever watched NatGeo but yet not set foot in the country.
I am a bit more educated than when I arrived. I’ve learned of the Khmer Kingdom of ancient times, a bit about its rulers and wars, but mostly about its great architectural and building legacy. The temples here are astounding. Most are a volcanic rock core with a facade (albeit thick) of sandstone. During our brief time in India we saw first hand how poorly sandstone stands the tests of time in a humid and rainy environment. That left me quite surprised to see exquisitely intricate carved sandstone in structures that were not only built in the tenth century, but also abandoned and lost to human knowledge for nearly one thousand years: Banteay Srei.
After touring five temples in three days I can say the places here are amazing and a trip to Siem Reap will not disappoint.
The first day of tours we saw two temples on the outskirts of the Angkor temple complex: Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm happens to the the site of much “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” filming and we decided that movie would be perfect for our Christmas Eve pizza-and-a-movie tradition. (Internet didn’t cooperate, so we watched it Christmas evening and watch Big Hero 6 on Christmas Eve). Both of these temple complexes have significant jungle encroachment problems that slowly wreck the temples. The old saying that nature always wins is so obviously true, but it is interesting to see that in an environment as hostile as a jungle (humid, heavy rains, rapid growth) that simple stone structures such as these could survive for nearly one thousand years largely lost to humans. It’s clear that between the twelfth century and the nineteenth century, none of the Buddhists here read: “Zen and the Art of Temple Maintenance.”
On day two we woke up before five in the morning to watch the sunrise over the Angkor Wat temple. I had been experimenting with stop-motion video on my camera, but given that it was pitch black and I had never seen the temple, I only had a faint idea what to frame and even less idea of how to light meter it. If you intend to do this, I highly recommend going the first day and taking a reel of pictures to provide you with the information you need to go the following day and set up your prolonged shoot. That was not in the cards for me and I have no real regrets. The sunrise was nice, but not spectacular as the cloud cover obscured the sun itself and there was no gradual lighting and colorization of the temple; after the sun rose, the clouds cleared a bit and things just launched into good lighting.
While I enjoyed all of temple visits immensely, Angkor Wat was my least favorite. I particularly do not enjoy tourist attractions that have too many people. I am used to waiting in line and patience has been something earned on this trip, however when people clutter the actual attraction I find it hard to absorb anything but their collective angst, which is what happened at Angkor Wat. The picture there is the crowd at the reflection pool and I'm taking the background image of this post. I'm frankly surprised that no one got pushed in. The top part of the temple (which is restricted to one hundred visitors at a time) was beautiful - likely a symptom of low population density as only one hundred people at a time are allowed in.
Later that afternoon, we went to Angkor Thom and it was fantastic: all the faces! Cambodia is a jungle (or at least the vast majority of it is) and Siem Reap is in the heart of it all. After a few days of being here and walking around, the humidity bonds with you in a way that makes you glisten at all times. It sounds disgusting (and I suppose it is), but given that it only gets up to about 33C this time of year, it isn't painfully hot and you just get used to it.
On day three we went quite a distance from the central city here to visit a small temple known for its consistently red sandstone and more intricate carvings: Banteay Srei. We got here early and while it wasn’t the prettiest temple we saw, it managed to fill me with an overwhelming sense of awe. There were very few people at the temple when we first arrived, but the guy behind me was carrying no less than $30,000 worth of camera gear. As we entered the main temple grounds, I saw another professional photographer walking from inside the main temple to the outside of the moat. He was toting similar camera gear and a big ruck-sack with “National Geographic” written on the top. It was pretty exciting for me to see a NatGeo photographer working on assignment… such a cool job!
After Banteay Srei, we hopped in the car and began our car ride to the fishing village of Kampong Phluk. This village alone made me appreciate Siem Reap more than any other individual experience. Architecture and artifacts are great, but people make a place. This little “floating village” consists of around 100 homes that are built on stilts where the Tahas river empties in to the Tonlé Sap lake. Rainy season here is like nothing in the imagination of a non-tropical dweller, changing the base water level by several meters for months. The people here in the village were going about daily life; kids playing, adults doing chores, everyone focused on just being normal. No hawkers; no beggars; kids said “hellogoodbye,” but did not follow us around. Everyone here seemed content.
It was fascinating to me to see the kids just playing games just as kids in the alley play at home. More interesting was hat they paid very little mind to the three young ladies accompanying me. In other places, kids jumped at the opportunity to engage, but much of that is for the prospecting opportunity. The adults went about their business as well preparing fish, mending boats, preparing for fishing, etc. The only individual that paid us undue mind was a very old lady sitting high above us that stared at us though the pars of the porch railing, but, as we all know, old people (the really old ones) can be quite odd -- a side effect of having no remaining fucks to give.
Taking in Christmas in another country away from extended family and other loved ones is a first for me. Doing it after five months away from those same people made the longing more profound. It’s times like these that I miss home and I’m reminded at the same time is that home is people, not things.
The people of Cambodia have seen travesty that I cannot imagine. The Khmer Rouge happened in the lifetime of every adult walking the street here. The deep knowledge of tragedy behind their eyes casts shadows of emptiness and loss, demands solemn respect and yet makes the people here seem softer and more human than any place I’ve been. They all share some part of a perspective that I hope to never have. At the same time I know that perspective would make me a better person as I can see it all in them. They seem kind, wonderful and deeply content in a way that is hard to explain. Their disposition, on the surface, reminds me of what I saw in Bangkok, but there is a lack of wanting here that rounds out feeling nicely.
Hawkers bother me and beggars make me sad. I would like to visit places and never see another hawker, for my own sake. Beggars, on the other, I would only like to never see for their own sake. Here, I am neither bothered nor sad. In lieu of my extended family and loved ones, I can’t think of a better people to spend my Christmas around than the people right here in Siem Reap.