Thursday, May 28, 2009

Genocide, Ancient Temples, and Peace Corps

On Monday morning I went to the Thai consulate to apply for my visa, then had lunch and waited for the Khmer Rouge prison S-21 to open at 2:30. Originally a school, S-21 was turned into the main prison used by the KR in the late 70’s to “interrogate” and torture Cambodian’s suspected of unfounded crimes.

S-21 is located in the middle of Phnom Penh, and I arrived via motorbike taxi at 2:30. I bought my ticket, and while doing so met a pair of girls from Santa Barbara, Brittany and Shanna, with whom I explored the prison. It was strange to walk around the prison knowing what had happened there in the past while seeing life go on as usual outside the prison's walls. The first building we went into had the torture devices still in the rooms, and the second had endless rows of photographs of the victims of the prison.

The third building was more of a museum with each room devoted to a group of people with similar stories; one room for prison guards who explained their actions, another for family members of victims recounting the days leading up to their loved ones arrest, etc. There also were a couple rooms that had exhibits of paintings and photographs portraying what had occurred at the prison. It was a hard but necessary experience.

Brittany, Shanna, and I then went to the Russian Market via Tuk Tuk and sampled food from some of the stalls and walked around for a bit. We agreed to meet for dinner at 7, and they went home to shower. 

I walked around the city for a while, checked out what a Cambodian supermarket is like, then went home to shower as well. We met at 7 and went to dinner, then to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) for a drink before going home. 

The next morning I woke up and went for a walk to a local market to get breakfast. Before finding cooked food I came upon a guy killing and de-feathering chickens- it was crazy, never seen that before. 

After watching for a bit I searched and found some quality Cambodian noodles with eggs to have for breakfast.

At 11 I met Brit and Shanna out front of my hotel and we took a Tuk Tuk the 15 km to the Killing fields, the place where the KR took thousands of people to kill in mass graves. Many of the mass graves were exhumed in the past few years, and all the skulls were put into a tall monument where they can be viewed by visitors.

I have never seen, nor imagined, so many skulls being in one place, it was eery, and the smell was really musky.

We walked around the grounds for a while, then went back to the city. 

The weather was poor, so instead of doing more sight-seeing we went to a Seeing Hands massage parlor. All of the masseuses are blind, in Cambodia there aren't really any other ways for blind people to support themselves. It was definitely an experience, although it kinda hurt... After I went back to the Thai consulate to pick up my visa, then relaxed for the rest of the day until midnight when I got on a night bus to Siem Reap to see the Angkor Wat temples. 

I arrived in Siem Reap at 6 am and checked into my hotel. I met a couple of British girls on the bus, named Eve and Fay, and to minimize the cost of my day decided to share a Tuk Tuk with them to tour the temples. We left the hotel at 10 am, and after stopping at a bakery for breakfast drove the 10 km to the temples.

Angkor Wat is one large temple complex, but the name has been generalized to a large number of temples, large and small, within a close proximity to each it, that all have their own names. The area had been the capital of the region at the time when the temples were built, but none of the other buildings survived till now because they were made of wood. We went to the actual Angkor Wat first, and it was incredible. It had a huge moat around the outside, and the sheer size of it was inspiring.

We stopped at 5 other smaller temples as well, including the temple that was used to shoot a scene in the movie Tomb Raider. 

The weather wasn't great, so we didn't spend as much time at the other temples as we had at Angkor Wat. At one of the temples I overheard a guide explaining about it to a group of Singaporeans. They let me tag along, and in those 30 minutes I learned more about the temples than I did all the rest of they day. As a result, I decided that I wanted to go back to the temples again the next day with a guide, but I couldn't afford to spend 25 dollars on a guide alone, so that evening when we got back I went in search of a group of people that hadn't been to the temples yet and wanted to share a guide with me.

Instead of finding what I was looking for I ran into a few different people I had made friends with in Hanoi and in 4000 Lakes, so I ended up going out with them for the night, then sleeping in and being lazy all the next day. I wish that I had found people to share the guide with, but no regrets, it was good to see those people again. In the afternoon I booked a bus for the following morning to Battambang, the closest city to the village where my friend Eddie is living in while she's in Peace Corps. 

She met me at the bus station midday and we took a Tuk Tuk to her village, arriving around 3 or so. Her village is composed of 300 or so families, and farming is the main industry. She lives with the village chief and his wife, son, and two children that are staying with them while they go to school, and they had an extra bedroom for me to stay in.

After showering Eddie and I sat on the porch and talked. I told her about my travels since seeing her in Mui Ne, and she filled me in on what has been going on with Peace Corps in Cambodia.  At 6 we were called for dinner, which consisted of a meat and vegetable soup, fried beef with vegetables, steamed rice, and fruit for dessert. I asked for chili, so Eddie's homestay-mom, as she calls her, picked some green chilies off a bush next to the table. I later learned that everything we ate, except for the meat, was grown by the family- including the rice. We ate jackfruit and mango for dessert, then sat around and talked for a while. Eddie's Khmer is getting pretty good, and the host family barely speaks a word of english, so Eddie acted as translator. I found out that all of the chiefs brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and that he was forced to marry his wife by the KR as well, although they seemed happy so I guess it turned out alright. Both Eddie and I were exhausted, and when the clock hit 9 pm we got up and went to bed. 

Pics: 1. The set dinner table, which was a stump of a tree 2. Eddie sitting on a bamboo swing

I slept really well and woke up at 8 am. Eddie awoke around the same time, and after she showered (I was too lazy) we went to breakfast with her host-brother, named Kamera. He is in his late 20's and has a job with a micro-finance company in a nearby town but still comes home for weekends. We went to a noodle soup shop where a large number of Cambodian men were eating and watching a Chinese TV station. After breakfast we dropped the bikes back off at the chiefs house and decided to take a walk into the rice fields behind the town. 

Pic: Kamera holding a starfruit that they grew organically in their backyard

We walked through a monastery to get to the fields and it was incredible how the view suddenly opened up from houses to greenery. Kamera's families rice plot was one of the first one's we came upon, but he informed us that they had other plots further away as well. In addition to rice they grow various fruits and berries.

We walked for a while and eventually spotted a lotus blossom plot in full bloom. The field was the size of a football field and full of flowering lotuses. I hadn't seen anything like it in the 3 months of traveling I had done, only the occasional blossom here and there. It was really stunning.

We walked around the fields to the house of a friends of Kamera's so he could pay his respects (they were quite an old couple), and they gave us freshly BBQ'd corn. It had a very different consistency that the corn I'm used to, but was still good. Kamera talked to them for a bit, then we walked back to his house at 11. 

Pic: Corn

I was meeting Dave and Jeff in Bangkok the following evening, so I decided that instead of staying another night and risk being late into Thailand I hitched a ride in to Battambang with Kamera and boarded a bus to Bangkok at 1 pm. I arrived in Bangkok at 9 pm and found a guest house to stay at off the tourist road, Khao San.

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