Phnom Penh is not a desirable city by any means, but I did appreciate learning about the Cambodian Genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge less than forty years ago. During the late 70s, the Khmer Rouge (a Communist political party in power at the time) killed between two and three million Khmer people in an attempt to “purify” the population. Victims were detained because of racial, political or social status.
The Killing Fields
A visit to the Killing Fields, a place where thousands of people were executed and buried in mass graves, is an intense exhibit detailing the horrific tragedy that occurred. An audio tour provides stories from victims that survived the genocide, prisoners and soldiers. Many soldiers were forced to serve or be killed, while most prisoners were tortured and starved until they confessed to crimes they did not commit. Confessions then led to execution.
Loud music blared over speakers across the fields in hopes of muffling the gun shots that were heard each night. Many victims were tortured at the S-21 prison (a former high school converted to hold prisoners) before being trucked seventeen miles outside of town to the fields for execution. More often than not an entire family was killed to avoid any members returning to seek revenge. Eventually, blunt force trauma became regularly enforced to save on bullets.
A Buddhist stupa was built to honor those that perished, being constructed amongst the biggest collection of mass graves discovered throughout the country. The building holds over five thousand skulls that are categorized by age (each level) and cause of death (colored tags signify the common causes).
To fully experience the life and culture of Cambodia, one must witness the good and the bad. This includes historical and current events. My introduction to Cambodia was not necessarily a culture shock, but an understanding. Life is different here than home. As general as that sounds, I cannot find a better way to phrase it. With the right amount of money, one can achieve anything desired in Cambodia. As I mentioned earlier, good and bad, anything is possible. Take a tour of an orphanage and see how poor, underprivileged children live each day or pay three hundred bucks to shoot a cow with a rocket launcher. No joke. And if that is too much, I am sure you can haggle for two hundred and fifty. Not sick enough? Two to four dollars will get you a child prostitute ranging in all ages, even as young as two years old. Sick perverts paying for this have influenced parents to send their own children on the streets in hopes of earning little money to help support the family.
I know it is completely disturbing and sickens me beyond belief; however, this is reality. Past and present woes had all became apparent to me within twenty four hours of being in Cambodia. The whole situation truly bummed me out for a solid day. I figure the least I can do is make people aware of how the Western world is exploiting these areas of poverty for pleasure. Corruption and prostitution is not just a problem, it is a way of life.
My only hope with Westernization invading Cambodia is that it can improve life overall, providing people with job opportunities and education. I believe this is a realistic dream because of the many programs that already exist to help those in need. For example, the NGO (Non-Government Organization) provides education to many that would never have had the chance. I met heaps of volunteers from Australia that are teaching English in Siem Reap for at least six months. They told me about many NGO sponsored programs, involving education, medical, and even the local circus.
The Phare Circus was established to not only educate youths, but to develop their talents as well. Acrobatics, music and acting are taught to those involved, which are blended together to create a unique, memorable show. It is inspiring to see the hardworking ethics of the Khmer people shine through its youth in an artistic and modern way. Other Khmer youth allow tourists to access the natural realm that is the deep jungle.
Every guide that I trekked with in the jungles of Cambodia spoke English quite well and my one buddy, Ratti, explained a detailed overview of Cambodian history. I was fascinated, hanging on every word. To hear a native describe his culture’s history was so much more genuine than any textbook or wikipage I could have ever read. The emotion within his words, his eyes, told me another story. It was not sadness or despair, but pride and honor.
Friends are easy to make while traveling and it is always a pleasure getting to know those that live where I visit. One can only wander so much in a small town and with that, a familiar smile repeatedly seen in a single day may quickly become a friend. This was the case when I met a few locals in the town of Banlung, Ngoun and Van. My fellow jungle trekkers and I found ourselves at the same restaurant every meal and soon began chatting with the hospitable servers. I have found it rewarding to become a regular wherever I am because I get some good advice, conversation, and hooked up. A few meals and jungle trek later, I was invited to dinner at the grand opening of a new restaurant (well same restaurant, different location).
A muddy motorbike ride and two minute walk brought me to the fully packed establishment with a table of welcoming friends, food and drinks there to occupy the evening. An assortment of dishes made up of vegetables, seafood, and spices were passed from left to right. Celebration broke out every few minutes as everyone slammed beer after beer.
The Khmer believe everyone is a friend and that friendship lasts a lifetime. They highly cherish friendship and I felt the sincerity of each person I interacted with. Being the only Westerner present, I was comfortable because there was not a bombardment of questions from every direction, yet I was not awkwardly ignored because of communication. We were all ecstatic to share one another’s culture and language amongst friends, laughing and smiling throughout the night.
Traveling early on in Cambodia, I developed an idea about happiness. I was curious if I would feel the same after a month there and I do. After an entire generation was basically slaughtered, a hole was left within the culture. Pieces of a cultural puzzle suddenly vanished with the loss of different traditions and stories. Having family, friends, and many other familiar faces executed years ago; the Khmer today feel blessed to even be alive.