|Our first night in
Phnom Penh was a little unsettling. The guidebooks had advised caution,
we'd met a traveller in Vietnam who'd been robbed here twice, there were
piles of garbage and rats in the streets, and some of the streets were
just rubble and mud. But then, any new place takes a little getting
Our guesthouse was fine, clean, comfortable, ten American dollars a night and only half a block from where the bus dropped us off. We didn't feel like wandering very far.
Cambodia is a country that's been through hard times. Caught up by its proximity to the war in Vietnam, bombed by the Americans, then taken over in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge who indulged in a ruthless program of genocide against its own people that led to two million deaths, the country has really only gained stability over the past five years. Everybody here has a tragic tale to tell, and many wanted to tell us.
The countryside is still covered with thousands of land mines. Every time we stopped, we were approached by several people, missing arms or legs, begging for money. Children begged for money. This is a country filled with orphans. You could not remain unaffected.
At the same time, we found some of the nicest, friendliest and most gentle people in Cambodia. It used to be very bad here, they all told us. It's much better now.
November 21 -- Neither Carol nor I were inclined to visit the S-21 War Museum, the former torture and interrogation centre in Phnom Penh, but we did feel it was important to go visit the Killing Fields. They were just on the edge of town. Our companions on the Thursday afternoon tour were David and Harvie, a couple from London, England whom we'd met coming up through the Mekong Delta, and our old travelling buddies Tom and Eli, who kept getting on the same buses as us.
Reaffirming all we had come to believe about Cambodian roads, it was a bouncy, jostling ride. The Choeung Ek Killing Fields were about 15 kilometers southwest of the city, containing the mass graves of close to 20,000 people. It's a quiet place, but unsettling as you realize there are dozens of other killing fields scattered throughout Cambodia. Close to two million people died in the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. Entire families were killed and buried here: babies, children, the elderly.
Walking between the graves, we encountered hundreds of butterflies. About half of the graves here had been excavated, with shelves of human skulls housed in a glass stupa, a monument to the dead. Everybody here has a personal connection to the atrocities. Our guide's parents managed to survive, but her sister was killed and her grandmother died. She welcomed the opportunity to tell her family's story. Cambodians want the world to know about this, and to remember. We'll remember.
Just outside of Phnom Penh near the airport are a couple of firing ranges where, for a few American dollars, you can lay down a few dozen rounds of various automatic weaponry. One of these places has been dubbed War Disney. Explained Victor Chao, who opened the 48 lane shooting club about four years ago: "We wanted to create another tourist attraction in Cambodia besides the Holocaust Museum and the Killing Fields which basically depress people... We wanted to create something a bit more entertaining."
We'd heard about this place a few weeks earlier from some Europeans
anxious to try it out (They'd also wanted to try out some of the snake
meat cuisine in Vietnam too). A 30 round burst from an AK-47 will
set you back 20 bucks, as will a single grenade. Firing a grenade
launcher will cost you $200. Fortunately, what we'd heard about being
able to fire a grenade launcher and blast a cow turned out only to be a
local Urban Legend.
|Outside the Choeung Ek Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, children
waited, asking for a dollar or a pen.
|Regularly surrounded by kids begging for money, Carol would
often spendtime explaining that going to school was good for their own future
and important for their country.
|Thousands of human skulls at Choeung Ek provided a grim reminder
of Cambodia's tragic history. Over 25 percent of the country's population
died during the Khmer Rouge holocaust from 1975 to 1979.
|A single lotus flower adorns one of the graves at Choeung Ek. Only about half of the graves have been exhumed here, bits of cloth and bone sometimes protrude from the ground. The afternoon we visited, however, hundreds of butterflies flitted quietly over the graves.|