History Lessons

I got off the plane in Phnom Penh a bit delirious from the long flight and could not believe the blanket of humidity that smacked me in the face at the airport. It felt like walking into a wall of heat that simultaneously had me by the throat so that I couldn’t breathe. No joke. However, there was little time to decompress as I was getting on a dinky plane to get to Siem Reap. All I could think as I struggled through the nausea, meat sweats and visions of crashing into the ocean was that this temple tour better be damn well worth it.

I finally made it to my hotel after my tuk-tuk ride, which was an interesting lesson in bypassing dust and avoiding exhaust smog. As I laid on the king size bed and felt the air con work its magic, I couldn’t help but wonder how my hotel was so ridiculously cheap as it was one of the nicest I’d ever been in for the price I paid. I surmised it was due to being there during the off season, but I still couldn’t understand how a place this popular with tourists even had an ‘off season’. Well, it’s called monsoon season folks, which I soon learned about first hand. Why the hell would I go during that time? I was lucky enough to get invited to a conference in the capital and of course managed to swindle a few days to see the incredible temples of Ankor Wat. Come hell or high monsoon water.

I don’t know how else to describe Siem Reap other than saying the place is crazy. It’s super safe and there are tourists everywhere but it’s a frickin’ mad house 24 hours a day. From the driving (if you can call it that) to the nightlife to the insane heat/humidity to the barrage of people trying to sell you things EVERY SINGLE MINUTE, the place was on wheels.

And Angkor Wat…holy moly. Despite the fact that I had to wake up at 4am to start my tour at 5am (yes, 5am…which gets you to the main temples for sunrise) as well as the torrential downpour and stifling heat I endured for most of the day, it was surprisingly well worth it. Having to drag around an umbrella and rain poncho as well as getting a few soakers in the heat, which also made everything stick together sure beat trying to get through the droves of crowds that descend on the temples in better weather. It was still a little too busy for my liking, but at least I could wander some of the grounds alone and take a few pics that didn’t contain a dozen or so chopped heads and fanny packs.

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I visited about a dozen main temples/areas on the first day and then another four or five the following day (my faves being Bayon and Beng Mealea). It was amazing but pretty overwhelming, so I actually had to tell my guide after seven hours of temple-ing on day one and four hours on day two that enough was enough. How many temples does one need to fit into two days!?

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I knew I had to quit when I started to sigh heavily when he’d slow the car down to tell me we arrived at another site. So, in place of another barrage of temples on day two, he took me to this landmine museum near Banteay Srei which was actually one of the highlights for me.

For you history or Genocide enthusiasts, the Cambodia Landmine Museum was established in 2008 by Aki Ra, an ex-child soldier who has been feverishly trying to clean up his country in the wake of the Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979) that left millions of landmines littering the countryside.

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For those of you that know me, know that I am all for adventure and seeing everything there is to see in a place, but it was so damn hot and humid in Siem Reap that I sat in my hotel on the day I was leaving to “hide” from the heat and wait for my flight. I knew if I’d have ventured out, I’d be soaked in minutes. Literally, everyone there was. After my Siem Reap temple blitz, I was more than ready to get back to Phnom Penh to act like a grown up and conference my little head off. With air con, of course.

As part of the conference, different groups visited local projects, and I signed up to go a huge orphanage and school, Pour un Sourire D’Enfant (http://pse.asso.fr/) run by a couple from France. There were probably a few hundred kids ranging from toddler to teenager, and we played with the little kids in the morning and played sports with the big kids in the afternoon. I also played girls’ soccer – foreigners against the Cambodian girls. We got smoked so bad that they finally ‘gave’ us a few players so we could score. We also got a lesson in traditional Khmer dancing. The dancing was beautiful and the girls were amazing, which is why I included a picture of them. Notice I don’t have one of any of us Westerners dancing? Enough said….

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I skipped out on the conference one day to do a tour of Phnom Penh and visit both S-21 Prison museum as well as the Killing Fields. During the Khmer Rouge-led Genocide, almost 20,000 people died at the notorious S-21 prison by torture and starvation and conditions not fit for rodents. Only seven people survived. I was lucky enough to meet two of them, now elderly men, who are on the grounds each day to sell books, give talks and meet visitors.

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The Killing Fields, just outside Phnom Penh, was generally used as a final stop for prisoners who were generally shipped there to die and be buried because there wasn’t enough room for them at S-21.

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Both sites were ominous and eerie although there was something strangely peaceful about them at the same time. Perhaps it was because so many deaths occurred in those places. I don’t know. It was hard not to reflect while walking the grounds though, hoping that the souls of those that died there are at now at peace.

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Of all the things I learned about the Genocide, I was shocked to learn who was targeted – intellectuals, professionals, religious people, artists, even those who wore glasses were targeted because it was presumed they were intelligent. The Khmer Rouge basically wanted to strip the country of its progress and modernization and strived for a communist model that insisted everyone work on massive farms, usually until their death. I came across one chilling quote by Pol Pot, the Hitler-esque leader of the Khmer Rouge regime that has stuck with me: “To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” Not much you can say after that.

The smallest of silver lings was to see how resilient Cambodians are now, considering it was only three decades ago that over 1/4 of their country was in shambles and almost 4 million people were killed.

There were many things I didn’t love about Cambodia. I could have done without the smog, pollution, humidity, and gangs of street kids which chipped away at my heart each and every day. I did, however, leave there with a profound respect and admiration for what they have managed to do to move forward and prosper as a people.