I could not come up with a good title for this post until Dan Brown’s best selling novel came to my mind, and it is exactly what you will find in Phnom Pen, Cambodia’s capital. No place in the world has ever stirred so many emotions in me like this rusty yet somehow appealing city, and if you ever come here be ready to see the best and worst human kind has to offer.
Cambodians are genuinely friendly, helpful and smiling people, yet only two decades ago they were victims to one of the most brutal, violent and opressive regimes any country has ever seen: Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Appearing as a Cambodian’s equivalent to the VC and Vietnam’s communist party, the Khmer Rouge gained power by overtaking the government of the time and was expelled by the invading vietnamese military less than ten years later. Soon after Pol Pot began his “return to the rural” scheme; first by forcing all city people into the countryside to work in farms. And second, he attempted to “clean”society from possible rebel leaders and capitalists. Under these conditions between 1.5 and 2 million people were tortured and executed, for reasons as vain as wearing glasses, knowing more than one language, or having attended university. Many times reasons were non existant or necessary: “It is better to eliminate 5 innocent people than to let a guilty one go”would say the chief military officer.
Thankfully the regime is over (some leaders are still pending prosecution in The Hague for crimes against humanity), and to learn more about what happenned we visited the Killing Fields of Choenung Ek. You can still smell death in the soil of this place, where thousands of people were killed, and today a stupa (something like a temple) holds hundreds of skulls of victims burried in mass graves. Most of them have cracks, proving the the Khmer Rouge killed most of its victims by clubbing them to death to save bullets. Babies were killed by grabbing them from their feet and swinging their heads against a palm tree. Families were forced to walk into the mass graves and were killed while relatives had to watch. Did any escape? Very few did, because when taken from the field hundreds would have a hole drilled in their hand and have a rope placed through it: running away was not an option.
This was not all though. Our next visit was camp S-21, what once was a school was transformed into a prison and torture ground. The somber building is very much empty today, but still holds the beds where the innocent people were tortured to confess non exitant crimes, as well as pictures of hundreds of faces of them, many children. A few other pictures are of victims that never made it past their torture.
The suffering of the victims caught up with us , and Liza and I left the building in a sad and depressed mood. Our tuk tukl driver was right there, waiting for us with the smile that most Cambodians have. How could he smile , I wondered, with all the tragedy still palpable in his country? Wondering what to do next, we remembered that a traveller had recommended we visit any orphanage in Cambodia. We did. And it was the best thing we could have done.
The tuktuk driver suggested we visit the lighthouse orphanage (www.lighthouseorphans03.org), and on the way we stopped to buy them palm oil and a huge box of cookies. As soon as our tuktuk made it past the entrance gate, we realized that we were in a for a good time. 6-13 year old children ran to us saying hello and waving their hands, and as soon as we stepped out they warmly grabbed pour hands and took us to where the supervisor was, a dutch lady who had settled there many years ago. We gave them the cookies, spoke with them, and a few kids wanted to show me their rooms, never letting go my hands when going there. Liza went another way with the girls, experiencing the same charm and love as I was. I learned that some of the kids were sponsored by foreigners, allowing a better education and future: one of these kids already spoke 3 languages at the age ot ten. About two hours and many pictures later we left, feeling very optimistic and happy thanks to these wonderful children who had given us so much love for nothing.
Phnom Pen is a mysiterious city that never leaves travellers untouched. Be it because of its tragic recent past, the contrasting wealth of a selected few versus the poverty of a majority, the splendid architechture of the Royal Palace versus the mostly dirty streets, or the warmth of the children of an orphanage, there is something that will affect you somehow.
Have you visited Cambodia? Are you from Cambodia? What do places like these mean to you? How do they make you feel? Please remember to share this post and “Like” it as well (Facebook style) – if you did!