Posted by: Alicia Phillips | September 3, 2013

9 Days in Cambodia

Cambodia- a land full of ancient temples, beautiful landscapes, gracious kind people, and a terrifyingly violent history. I am surprised by how quickly Cambodia won me over, I remember thinking during the tuk tuk ride from the airport to my hotel that I was going to like it here. Perhaps it is a by-product from my vipassana (see: Vipassana meditation post) but I am finding the good in everybody I meet and the beauty in everything I see. Nothing gets me down and I am happily content just sitting back and watching the world go by around me.

View from the TukTuk

Working hard planting rice

Working hard planting rice

Little kids in the river, floating around in big cooking pots

Little kids in the river, floating around in big cooking pots

After spending an amazing few days in Siem Reap exploring the ancient temples of Angkor (see: Temples of Angkor Post) I made my way to the capital city of Phnom Penh. Like most capital cities, it was crowded and polluted, full of beggers and scam artists. But it also had great restaurants and a beautiful riverfront. I only booked two nights here because there were only a few things I needed to see, the killing fields and S-21prison in particular.

Before coming to Cambodia, I had no idea about its history. I had heard of the Khmer Rouge but I didn’t know what or who it was. Quick history lesson for you. Pol pot was the ruthless leader of the Khmer rouge. During a period of about 4 years he terrorized his own people, killing 25% of the population. In a population of 8 million, 2 million people died while he was in power. He wanted Cambodia to be an agricultural empire so he proceeded to evacuate all the cities in just 3 days- forcing everyone to go and work the land. He shut down all government offices, schools, hospitals, churches, and shops, killing anyone who opposed or questioned him. He was incredibly paranoid and murdered or sent to prison anyone who he thought was a traitor or had any ties to the former government.

S21 was a primary school that the khmer rouge converted to a detention and torture center. Over 17,000 people were held and tortuted here over a span of 4 years. What makes it so terrifying is that there was no rhyme or reason behind it. The people here were completely innocent, forced into confessions under torture. Anyone could be sent here, if you were named by someone during interrogations, if you wore glasses, were educated, spoke a different language, were a certain religion. Babies, children, and the elderly were also held here. By the time the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh, only 7 people survived S21. The entire time I eas walking through the rooms, seeing the pictures of the prisoners, the instruments of torture, and the tiny cells people were held in I kept wondering #1 why did this happen? and #2 why didn’t we (we being the international community) do something to stop it? I still don’t have an answer.

S-21 Prison

S-21 Prison

Faces of the prisoners

Faces of the prisoners

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The Rules in English

The Rules in English

The killing fields are where people were sent to be killed. A large field full of mass graves. As you walk around the grounds you can spot bits of bone or teeth or cloth in the ground from the bodies that were buried here over 30 years ago. I took an audio tour while i was there. One of the most terrifying sounds ive ever heard was the music they had blaring over the loudspeakers at night, over the roar of a generator that muffled the screams of the people being murdered.

Bracelets visitors put on the posts fencing off the mass graves

Bracelets visitors put on the posts fencing off the mass graves

The Khmer Rouge used this tree to beat and kill babies. Right beside it was a mass grave sof over 200 women and children.

The Khmer Rouge used this tree to beat and kill babies. Right beside it was a mass grave sof over 200 women and children.

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I visited both the killing fields and s21 in one day. It was very heavy day. Luckily, I wasnt by myself. I went some other backpackers from my hostel. It would have been tough to do alone.

After Phnom Penh I decided to spend a few days in the kompot province in the south of Cambodia. This province is famous for it’s pepper! Before the civil war, all the resturants in Paris imported their pepper from Cambodia. Then the khmer rouge destroted all the pepper farms, saying that Cambodia should grow rice, not spice. But in the last 10 years it has made a comeback.

My last full day in Cambodia I decided to book a motorcycle tour of the countryside. Me and another girl I had met went together and toured a pepper farm, then visited the coastal town of Kep, which is renowned for their crab, before taking a boat ride to rabbit island to spend the afternoon lounging on the beach.

Pepper plants

Pepper plants

Baby peppercorn

Baby peppercorn

Fresh crab in Kep

Fresh crab in Kep

Boats to Rabbit Island

Boats to Rabbit Island

And I finally got to try a durian! This is a large spiky Asian fruit that smells like a rotting corpse when you open it up, but supposedly tastes better than chocolate. The people who try and like durian say it is the most decadent fruit they have ever had. The smell is foul though, in fact many hostels I have stayed in strictly forbids durian, you can get kicked out if you bring one in. So I tried it, liked it, tasted like a creamy custard, but it wasn’t the most delicious thing I’ve ever tried. Maybe it grows on you?

Durian Fruit

Durian Fruit

There is some pretty exciting stuff happening politically at the moment as well. Apparantly last month they had elections and the military dictator that has been in charge for the last 30 years won, amongst rumors of corruption and rigged results. (Sound familiar Fiji PCV’S?) So this Saturday there is a march/demonstration in Phnom Penh- people are angry and want fair elections. Should be interesting to keep up with and I’m a little sad that I won’t be around to witness it.

Alas, my time in Cambodia has come to an end. I’m surprised by how much I have enjoyed my time here. This is definitely the poorest country I have been to since living in Fiji, I think maybe that is why I like it here so much- it seems more genuine, more real. It is a country that has been through hell and is trying to make a name for itself in the modern world. I see myself coming back in the future, maybe even looking for work here! Why not?

So, where to next you may wonder? Vietnam baby! Im headed to the island of Phu Quoc for a few days before I go on to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Updates will be along shortly!

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