Friday, January 23, 2009

Around Cambodia

The Rest of Cambodia.

Hello! We're back! The events described in the following post took place in the first weeks of December. We're trying to catch up. Enjoy!

...After our time in Siem Reap, we decided to venture to the Northeastern corner of Cambodia, which had been described to us as the "last frontier." Transport in Cambodia is rather difficult if you are trying to go anywhere other than from Phenom Penh to Siem Reap. There are two major "highways," and even these become dirt roads for large sections. To get to Rattanakiri, the NE province, we had to basically backtrack 3/4 of the way from Siem Reap to Phenom Penh. It took us 2 1/2 days to get there by bus, shared taxi, promises of a car that never came, and another bus. We eventually arrived in Rattanakiri, a dusty red dirt roaded town that reminded us of the Wild West. Although we could not afford the 60$/person National Park entrance fee, which is why we went there in the first place, we managed to see the nature of this region-- mostly dirt roads and dirt roads leading to beautiful waterfalls. We rented motorbikes and spent 4 days tooling around the area. Beware, if you go to Banlung (the provincial capital) and rent motorbikes, check the brakes first. Really. Vegetarian options in this town were minimal, making us repeat customers at the one food stall that understood our needs.

Bus ride to Rattanakiri. Even though our phrase book only contained about 30 words in Khmer that could be used for an actual conversation, we managed to keep a steady, yet repetitive dialogue with a mother and her child sitting next to us. When we stopped, they bought us some flakey food product that requires some cooking. Our phrase book didn't give us enough vocabulary to discern what it was, or how to cook it. Nevertheless, an interesting 12 hour ride. As we are typing this, Max realizes that he still has it in his pack. (It has been over a month since
we took this bus.)

While we were waiting to change buses, Kara entertains a group of Cambodian taxi drivers. The picture they are looking at is of a drunk guy who was dancing in the blistering sun for over 2 hours while we waited to embark on the next leg of our journey.

Downtown Banlung. Naga (see last post for Naga clarification) adorned roundabouts are common in Cambodia.

Crater Lake. The most unpolluted, beautiful piece of water we have seen in Asia so far. The lake is one of the biggest attractions of the area, and many locals come here to cool off and hang out. Kara swam all the way across it and back. Max was laying in bed that day, unable to move because of a horrible neck ache. Ironically enough, the bed was probably the culprit to begin with.

Local friends whose names we have since forgotten. We learned from them that Rattanakiri is an industrial province with lots of mining, logging, and other natural resource extraction processes. In our friend's old job in Kompong Cham (middle Cambodia), he was making approximately 6000 Riel/day ($1.50). In Rattanakiri, his new salary is 8,000 Riel/day. These industrial processes and the migration that they produce add to the frontier image of Rattanakiri.

When we came back to our bikes after swimming, we realized that our key was missing. There is no changing room there, as most Cambodians, both men and women, swim in their clothes. We searched the dock and Max made several dives around the dock looking for our bike key. Eventually we determined it lost, and called on the help of the local police who were going for a swim. They in turn, enlisted some random people and a big rock to break the lock. The smashing of the lock went on for about 15 minutes. As soon as it was completely destroyed, some kids emerged from the dock with our key. Ugggggggggggggg. Later, Kara's pedal fell off and that sucked too. We were able to convince our hotel that our loss of the pedal balanced out their loss of the lock. It worked.

Our view from the hotel.

Invisible graffiti collaboration.

After realizing that trekking was expensive, a minor motobike accident, seeing all the waterfalls there were to see, and a crick in the neck that would not leave, we decided it was time to make our way back to Phenom Penh. The ride there was uneventful, except for the fact that we covered the entire length of Cambodia in a single bus ride. It looks mostly the same from top to bottom, just in case you are short on time when you go.

When we arrived in Phenom Penh, we met up with the Famille Nommay, who we had previously arranged to stay with via They are an extraordinary family who extended to us the most hospitality that we have experienced on this trip. They opened their home to us and we are forever grateful, especially for the washing machine. They became vegetarians with us for the week so that we could share an evening meal together and learn about one another. Yves and Lucile are aid workers and have a young daughter, Sarah. They have both worked for Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) and other familiar NGOS around the world. Most recently they lived in Sierra Leone and we enjoyed hearing about how relaxed and modern Cambodia was for them in comparison. Other things that happened in PP: Kara turned 25, we went to horribly depressing Khmer Rouge historic sites, and we bought the full series of The Wire for under $10. We bring you Phenom Penh:

View of the Independence Monument (de France) from the tallest building in Phenom Penh-- come to think of it, the tallest building in Cambodia.

Modern tools imitate old techniques. These buddhas are made in open workshops, basically on the streets.

Though Cambodia was not the mecca for vegetarian fare, we still managed to find some delicious and pure vegetarian restaurants in the capital. Most of them were run by ethnic Chinese families, like the one shown above. We were able to find one that had many native Cambodian dishes, which was our only opportunity to try these traditionally meat based dishes. That same restaurant also had an "American hamburger" listed on the menu. Vegetarian, of course.

Kara reviews the day's plan after being kicked out of a German photo gallery. This was the beginning of a temporary falling out between us and the German population abroad. They refused to let us see the exhibit even though we were leaving the next day. Kara pleaded and even flashed her camera in some attempt to gain profesional empathy. They weren't having it.

It's very difficult to blog about the horrific sites we have seen and knowledge we have learned. But these explorations are a large part of our journey and it is important for us to share them with you. What follows is our visits to Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21 as well as what is commonly known as "The Killing Fields."

Some background: During the US war in Vietnam, transportation of millitary supplies between the North and South was strictly limited. The North Vietnamese Arrmy (NVA), with some support from the Cambodian and Lao people, built the Ho Chi Minh trail through their two neighbors to connect "the great Base (the North) to the great Front (the South)." The United States heavily bombed the trail and the surrounding area for miles, and in some cases supported invasions on the ground. The Vietnamese did little to organize the population, being mainly concerned with their own national liberation first and foremost. Out of this brutality and neglect, the Khmer Rouge was born. A young Pol Pot rallied an army of angry peasants whose land had been used as a battle field for two other nations for many years. With the French gone from Indo-China and the Americans concentrating on Vietnam, Pol Pot gained strength and eventually marched on Phenom Penh in 1975 with a plan to "bring Cambodia back to the Stone Age." Calling themselves Communist, the Khmer Rouge's anti-industrial, anti-intellectual, anti-humanitarian vision had nothing to with the writings of Marx, or even Mao. Masked as an agrarian revolution, the Khmer Rouge managed to kill over 2,000,000 people during their 4 year reign. After being defeated by the Vietnamese in 1979, Pol Pot and the remains of the party continued to wage civil war against the new government. Pol Pot died in 1998, having never been brought to trial for the genocide he ordered and oversaw. Many members of the new and current government are former Khmer Rouge generals, including President Hung Sen.

S-21 Prison, otherwise known as Tuol Sleng. Thousands of suspected enemies of the Khmer Rouge were interrogated and tortured in this former school house. Imprisoned here were innocent men, women, and children who labeled as a threat to the government. Some of the later prisoners were former guards and soldiers themselves. As many as 30,000 people were held in this torture house. All were eventually killed.

A sign outside S-21, which now serves as a museum to the genocide.

Inside one of the interrogation rooms. Some of them still had a chalk board on a wall. All the rooms held the original beds and instruments of torture could be found on them. Pools of dried blood remain on the floor and walls, over 30 years later.

Prison rules listed on the inside of cells.

Not pictured is room after room of mug shots of many of the prisoners that came through S-21. All prisoners were photographed on arrival with a piece of paper with numbers on it that was safety-pinned to their clothes. Some prisoners were taken so quickly that they did not have time to dress and a cloth had to be draped over them to pin the number to them. We will never forget the looks of those innocent faces; they were aware of their fates. In some, their fear was palpable, in others, they were dully resigned. Only a few are smiling, perhaps at the novelty of having their photo taken, or perhaps in defiance of their captors. Max spent over an hour looking into the eyes of every single prisoner. Kara lost it there. Just remembering being there brings us to tears.

We were told that seeing Tuol Sleng was enough to understand the atrocities of the genocide. It took us a few days to collect ourselves enough to put ourselves through another visit to Cambodia's tragic past. We thought it was important to see the Killing Fields. So, we got on our motorbike and rode to where thousands upon thousands of people were buried in mass graves, just beyond the city limits of Phenom Penh. 
There were many "Killing Fields" on the outskirts of Phenom Penh used by the Khmer Rouge to execute and dump bodies. Choeung Ek is the one that has been turned into a memorial, and is where you can walk along the excavated graves.

Memorial Wat to the victims.

Inside the memorial.

The skulls are displayed because they give a record of the number of people who were killed. There is a current debate in Cambodia as to whether this is a respectful treatment of the remains of the victims. In Khmer Buddhism, the belief is that the body must be burnt so the soul can be free, but many believe that the best way to respect the victims is to show the evidence of their suffering.

Informational plaque.

One mass grave that held over 500 bodies.

The main method of execution was to make the victims kneel in front of the graves, slit their throats, and allow them to bleed to death. Some were buried alive, while the "lucky" ones were shot.

Walking through the Killing Fields.

We learned through Yves and Lucile, our host family, that there is a new generation of Cambodians that are ignorant and disbelieving of the Cambodian holocaust. They believe their elders are exaggerating, or even senile. Many adults who suffered through this time and survived are resistent to share their stories, even with their own families. We were shocked and saddened to hear this. We are glad we pushed ourselves to go here. This was real. This was horrible. This should not ever happen again. And it is happening again all around the world. RIGHT NOW.

Please take a moment to gather your thoughts as we will now come back to more pleasant experiences in Cambodia. Awkward, yes, but so is traveling. Often moments of powerful sadness are followed by trivial moments, or even great joy. Its hard and its beautiful, and we are learning, and thats why we do it.

Happy cute Sarah. Daughter of host family plays with Circle Rules Football in house.

Kara turns 25! An eventful day:

Here you can see Kara showered with gifts from Max. Just a few of her favorite things, such as: chocolate, vodka, conditioner, and cashews.

This is the best card Kara has ever recieved. It also served as a deed to Max's ears. The card is Max's left and right ear, glued together into the shape of a heart. Amazing.

Then we went to a vegetarian restaurant. It was kind of gross, but we liked the glasses. They were playing Christmas music for the duration of our meal. Just like home!

Then we went to the "Olympic Stadium." No, your memory isn't failing you. The Olympics have never come to Phenom Penh. But they are hopeful, and the 70s architecture is both functional and groovy. Max wonders how they change the lightbulbs in those towers, as there is no ladder leading up to them. The space is used all the time for football matches, amateur boxing tournaments, and concerts.

Inside the basketball court/boxing ring.

We later walked to Wat Phenom, which is the temple that sits on the highest hill of the city. Phenom means "hill," and "Penh" is the woman who founded the city when she built a temple on top of this hill. Hill not pictured. But trust us, its really just a mound.

Elephant on the street! Enough said.

Sunset boat ride on the Mekong. We managed to haggle our cheap asses onto this tourist trap for a fraction of the price and hung out with a group of Japanese tourists for an hour.

VIP Lounge, super schmancy bar that sits on top of the highest building in PP. (See first picture of this post above.) The host family and their vegetarian friend took us to a wonderful vegetarian restaurant. We later decided to go for a drink at this open air rooftop bar to check out a good view of the city. Unfortunately the VIP lounge was the only space that wasn't taken, so we awkwardly were shoved into this super air-conditioned glass box on top of the roof top bar. The disadvantage of the VIP lounge is that we were alone and we couldn't hear the lounge singer. We later were downgraded as soon as the bar cleared out so we could catch the breeze and listen to the lounge singer, who was a charming Phillipino man, singing various renditions of US pop songs accompanying himself with a Casio keyboard. Hotel California, the Asian favorite, was saved for last. Classic. Thank you, Yves and Lucile for such a wonderful evening.

The next day we flew to Indonesia. We're here right now, we are trying to catch up on blogging. If it means anything to you, we just spent 7 hours trying to post this so we can catch you up on our journey. Please keep coming back even if there is no activity for a month. Internet is slow! Life is fast!
K and M

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