Cambodia: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
48Trip End Nov 28, 2006
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When most people think of Cambodia, Angkor Wat (the largest religious building in the world) comes to mind. Angkor Wat and the Angkor complex are truly impressive, with so many majestic and elaborately decorated temples clustered together.
Ed and I spent 2 full days visiting many of the temples, arriving at the complex before sunrise and leaving just before sunset! It was completely exhausting, and I actually got sick from it. Angkor Wat was beautiful, but a little too big to take it all in and fully appreciate it. Our favourite site was Bayon, a temple with over 200 faces carved into the stone.
Behind Angkor Wat as the 'symbol' of Cambodia, there is another piece of Cambodian history that you won't likely see being promoted by the country's tourism literature. The mid-1970s was a dark and disturbing period in Cambodian history when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia under Pol Pot (they called this time 'Year Zero' because it was a new beginning for the country). About 2 million people were killed for the communist cause, not just peasants and workers, but also government officials, educated people (teachers, students, engineers, doctors, etc), monks, foreigners (including Canadians!), women, and children/babies. People were forced out of cities and into the countryside to work the fields under the watch of the Khmer Rouge, and all money in banks were burned. People had nothing and were so poor they had no food. Those who were accused of going against the revolution (most were false accusations) were put into jail to be interrogated and tortured and then eventually executed, with the bodies dumped into mass graves. In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we went to visit the largest prison during that time, called 'S21' or Security Office 21. It was an old high school that had been converted into a prison.
It was really eerie being there and seeing the prison cells and torture rooms. You could almost feel all the pain and suffering that had occurred there, and blood stains could still be seen on the floors of some cells. I was most saddened when I saw the photos of all the prisoners as well as actual photos of torture and execution. We also read statements from relatives of some that had died, and it was really shocking how many innocent people died. If someone was accused of being against the revolution, there was no way of undoing it - if necessary, false 'confessions' would be written up. It was completely ridiculous - even those within the Khmer Rouge regime were executed. There were two things that were very disturbing to us. First, many of the guards at the prisons were young boys and girls, some as young as 12. They were hateful and disrespectful of prisoners, and participated in torture and execution. I had read a description of these children as having the faces of humans but the hearts of devils. The scary thing is that those children would now be in their mid- to late-40s. Secondly, till this day, not one person has been charged, so these monsters who committed unspeakable atrocities are now walking amongst society as adults. The thought of this chilled me.
We moved on to visit the 'killing fields' where prisoners from S21 were brought to be executed. Many of the people who were brought there had no idea they were being taken to their death. A memorial has now been built which houses all the remains that were found.
Coming from Thailand, we thought that Phnom Penh might be similar to Bangkok, but boy were we completely wrong! Phnom Penh is nothing at all like the modern and cosmopolitan Bangkok. There is nothing flashy and fancy about Phnom Penh - even its royal palace is not as beautiful and grand as Bangkok's. Phnom Penh had been destroyed during 'Year Zero' and people are recovering from it, but many are still very, very poor. The city is a sad sight and poverty can be seen everywhere. We saw an entire family sleeping on the sidewalk and so many homeless children roaming the streets begging for food. We had just arrived at a museum and were immediately surrounded by a bunch of young children who were barely clothed and wanted the food we had in a plastic bag. The same thing happened to us another time as we walked back to our tuk-tuk and were again surrounded by a bunch of boys who had seen our plastic bag of food hanging from the roof (we did this to keep the ants off) and wanted "nyum-nyum". When we ate on the streets, kids would come up to us with their outstretched hands, and eating in restaurants didn't do any good. One time we were sitting inside a restaurant and a kid came up and put his hand in front of me. When he didn't get anything, he stood 2 feet away from the table just staring at us for a couple of minutes - I have to say this freaked me out a bit. After the waiter shooed him away, two MORE kids came up to us! Needless to say, it was difficult to really feel comfortable in Phnom Penh. I've been to many cities and I've never wanted to leave any city as much as Phnom Penh.
Though we've experienced the good, bad, and ugly in Cambodia, we still really enjoyed our time here and would definitely recommend a visit. We've booked ourselves out of Cambodia on a highnote as we will be spending the next couple days cruising down the Mekong River into Vietnam.