Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Breaking your heart Cambodian style

Phnom Penh is a city of illusions. I arrived at night after an interesting trip down the Mekong and was enormously surprised to find a city with impressive colonial architecture and wide avenues teaming with cars and motorbikes alike. The pavements looked clean lit by the moonlight and large neons- this couldn't really be the city I had heard so may people dislike let a lone a city that was brutalized under an atrocious regime only 25 years prior.

In the morning light the city told me a different story; the glow of the neons faded by sunshine, the city began to come alive the way my imaginings promised.

I was greeted for breakfast at the hilariously named 'Okay Guesthouse' by my waiter Ruben- he was 25 years old and learning English and delighted to be speaking with an Aussie. Ruben also moonlighted as a motto driver and promised to be my driver for the bargain price of 6 USD for the day. We drove quickly out of the city and within a few minutes I saw the real Phnom Penh. The streets were muddied and comprised mainly of dirt tracks riddled with pot holes and the journey to the Killing Fields begun in earnest.

At one point along the way, we had to pull over and I had to walk as the road was completely unpassable, slipping in puddles, Ruben suggested I walk barefoot and I laughed vigorously as the mud squelched between my toes. Rice paddies surrounded me- and ducks roamed. Cows were in abundance too, an unusual variety that look extremely malnourished, their bones protruding through their white coats.

On arrival at the infamous fields, I was struck by the beauty of the place, the grass green; there was an inviting selection of flowers in bloom. It was easy to imagine the place as an orchid in the years before the Khmer Rouge.

In the centre of the fields stands an impressive tower (maybe 10 meters high), it is gold and Buddhist in design. From a distance if it were unknown you might think this was another regional pagoda built as a place of worship. On closer inspection you see that the centre of the building which is approximately a 10 meter square design is filled with skulls. Welcome to Cambodia!

The sight is littered with bones and cloths still partially remain underneath the wet soil, there are teeth sticking out of the ground and the horrific atrocities carried out at the sight do nothing for the imagination or the heart.

After spending some time in solace and deciding there was nothing to take pictures of- the memory of towering frangipani trees next to mass graves is etched within.

On the way to the brutal S21 prison/museum my motto driver asked if we could stop at his cousins place as he needed to drive her to the market to pick up some pineapples- obliging as ever and trusting we drove down some winding alleys until we got to the place where the factory workers lived- The units were like airport hangers painted white with blue trim and dived into single person occupancies with a narrow lane down the centre. I was greeted by 6 Cambodian men- they offered me shots of some brown alcohol- I refused but let the bitter taste touch my lips after I dipped my finger in to taste the spoils- Ruben's cousin was tall, beautiful and incredibly thin. She hopped on the bike and the three of us weaved our way back though the alleys till we got to the prison.

The museum used to be a high school and it was built in the 1960's- reminiscent of your typical American high school you see on TV except for the barb wire covering the fence.

I stepped of the bike and was hounded by amputees, burns victims and beggars and rushed inside for the relief that was not to come. The museum is a disgrace- the events that took place within the walls made me speechless. Kept as it was when the Vietnamese liberated the prisoners in 1980 it leaves one numb.

After wondering through grim cell blocks, torture chambers and a gallery that is a testament to the millions of people that lost their lives, the images of the victims haunted me. On arrival at the prison each inmate was photographed and the walls are lined with enlarged passport photos of thousands of people. Their eyes follow you- and then you realize that the skulls described earlier belonged to these poor souls.

Next stop the famous Russian market, a labyrinth of stalls crammed into tiny spaces over piled with t-shirts, lacquer wear and jewelry- I purchased only a couple of paintings and some post cards from some amputees.

Afterwards I decided to walk thought he city back to my hotel- feeling like a cross between Forrest Gump and Dora the Explorer my ramblings took up the better part of the afternoon. I really enjoyed the humidity and rain and the contradictions this place. Phnom Penh is a mix of everything beautiful and everything repugnant in one. The Cambodian people smiled as I walked past and the hassle that is Vietnam is erased by the warmth and kindness that the people optimize.

My driver met me back at the hotel and suggested that we visit an orphanage- he explained that there are 140 children and that they get no funding except from tourists. We stopped on the way and brought 20 USD worth of rice to contribute. Feeling like Angelina Jolly, I was unsure what to expect on arrival. The orphanage was extremely run down, consisting of building made from left over materials- it is ramshackle by design, muddy and grey. The children smiled at me warmly, the operator quickly grabbed me and made me some tea- thanking me for the rice and he then took me on a tour so I could distribute the lollies I brought with me.

After visiting the classrooms, tears crawled up my throat- each child graciously thanked me and posed for photos and sung out ‘thank you Miss Kathryn- goodbye’ the way only children can and I fear my life won’t be the same. I am humbled and heartbroken. On our way back to the hotel- my driver asked if we could visit his parents, and I was warmly hugged on arrival and taken to the kitchen for tea and a chat in my very broken French. Hospitable is this country.

Cambodia is an experience for the soul- and I feel a better person for visiting. Tomorrow I am going to Angkor Wat one of the true wonders on the world.

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