Saturday, March 13, 2010

Into Phnom Penh

After two days on the airplane and a 12-hour layover in Tokyo, I finally arrived in Cambodia last night. Ali and Jeremy were waiting for me at the airport and whisked me away in their tuk-tuk to Kambuja Inn, the gorgeous place we're staying in Phnom Penh. ("I" for the purposes of this blog post refers to me, your guest blogger, and the mysterious newest addition to A Dream, A Chance, A Great Adventure whose identity may remain forever unknown.)

Traveling by tuk-tuk is a good way to see the city, since the rickshaws move so slowly and every side is open to the air. There's a liveliness and happiness to the city here that I felt instantly in the street clamour and motorcycles whizzing around us. The feel is foreign but familiar, or as Ali put it, we could live here. Not for five years, she said, but maybe for a year.

Something magical about Cambodia, I think. And I don't just mean the temples of Angkor Wat. Something about the vibrancy of the people contrasted with the history of the mass killings that took place only a few decades ago. There is little evidence of that dark past in the day to day drum of the city. It's only when you've been walking around for the better part of an afternoon that you notice something, like that you haven't seen any old people all day.

Today we traveled by tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields, one of a smattering of sites where hundreds of thousands of women, children, and intellectuals were murdered under the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. It was strange, we had some trouble finding a driver perhaps because of a language barrier, but perhaps because the driver we were talking to--and a large group of teenagers standing by--didn't seem to know where the Killing Fields were. Much of the country's bloody history seems to have been buried along with the dead.

At Choung Ek Killing Field they talked about everything in numbers. There were 20,000 grave sites; 1,112,898 executed; 7 survivors. A commemorative stupa was filled with the skulls of victims, and all the bones were neatly sorted by type, and by the age of the people that died. Exhibit A: skulls, women ages 20 to 40. Exhibit B: femurs, teenage girls, ages 15 to 20.

Just outside the barbed-wire fence surrounding the Killing Field, children chatted and sang songs. It was uncanny, these children playing so carelessly alongside tragedy. Maybe it's a testament to the strength of the human spirit, and our ability to stay light even in the presence of great adversity. Or maybe it says something about our phenomenal capacity to heal. Or maybe it's just disturbing...


Stacey at LAKBAI said...

oh wow! too bad we haven't blogged about our trip to cambodia. we could have given you guys some great tips on where to stay! the killing fields and the school were definitely chilling experiences wouldn't you say? i didnt know anything about it really until i actually went there to learn about the history and how recent it happened. i hope you guys had fun! the hostel we stayed in phnom penh was me mates place and in siem reap was Bou Savy Guesthouse (one of the best guesthouses we stayed at!) it's air-conditioned, clean and very nice rooms!

Ali and Jeremy said...

Hi Stacey! Thanks for the comment, the school and killing fields were truly horrific, but also important to see. It was shocking that it all happened only 30 years ago! Thanks for the hotel recommendations, we ended up splurging in Siem Reap for a hotel with a pool- much needed in the heat, it was called the Golden Banana and it was really nice.