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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Dark Histories

In 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime attempted to commit genocide of the Cambodian people. The countries best and brightest were gathered up, put in prisons, and slayed. No one was spared. Politicians, Doctors, Buddhist monks, women, children, everyone. Don’t be ashamed if you’ve never heard of this, I hadn’t either.

I’m not here to give you a history lesson, but I find it amazing how many people, myself previously included, have no knowledge of this travesty of human rights. Estimates state that 1.2 million people, one in four Cambodians, were killed during the slaughter. One in Four. Stop and think about that number for a second. This was only 30 years ago. Imagine how difficult it is to recover from this. Not only was 25% of the population wiped out, but most of the fallen consisted of the countries best and brightest. Centuries of knowledge and skill sets, destroyed.

My first taste of the massacre came at a place called S-21, a school house that had been converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge regime. Innocent people were brought here, tortured into confessing crimes they didn’t commit, and then slaughtered. Walking through the cells, I couldn’t help but feel slightly overwhelmed by the energy of the place. It is always unsettling to walk into a room where so much suffering occurred. The building is forever tainted, the sorrow will never cease to echo and resonate through the halls.

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Building A, S-21

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Cells

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Beds where the innocent prisoners were tied down and tortured

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What the bed looked like when S-21 was discovered

After S-21, we were driven to what is known as The Killing Fields. There were countless prisons like S-21 scattered around Cambodia, however very rarely was someone actually killed there. The prisoners would be shuttled over to fields, where they would be killed by blows to the head, or by having their throats slit. Bullets were too valuable to waste on these poor souls.

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The ditches are mass graves

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Skulls of the victims

The Killing Fields now serve as an eerie reminder of what can happen if we allow human rights violations to snowball. In my mind I like to think that nothing like this could happen again. Then again, if I was slightly older, this would have taken place in my lifetime.

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"Preserving and Conserving Evidence is to Prevent Genocide from Re-Happening"

Upon leaving The Killing Fields, the Tuk Tuk ride home provided some much needed comic relief from the day. First, the Tuk Tuk driver asked us if we wanted some “Happy Happy”, South East Asian-ese for whorehouse. Oh, of course, that’s exactly what anyone wants after having the veil of an attempted genocide lifted in front of their eyes. The rest of the ride home we would bob and weave through traffic, coming a split second away from smashing into another vehicle about 37 times. In the end, all you can do is uncomfortably laugh after seeing yet another motor bike with dozens of chickens hanging off the sides barreling down on you.

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S-21 and the Killing Fields are not fun to see. They do not leave you smiling at the end of the day. You’re not going to regale stories of the day over choruses of laughter. But I couldn’t feel more strongly about their importance. I know it’s cliché, but history tends to repeat itself. Keeping alive the memories of these atrocities maintains a level of awareness that will go a long way to preventing this from happening again.

Sorry to get a little heavy on you, I promise the next post will be more lighthearted. Sunshine and beaches await. Next stop, the South of Cambodia.

Posted by dpteitel 03:11 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Sihanoukville/Kampot, Cambodia

Different Strokes, Different Folks.

I find it is always a good idea to follow up a city with another that is as different as possible. This contrast maximizes the effect of the locale. After an emotional and sobering Phnom Penh, a beautiful sunny beach would do just the trick. Cue Southern Cambodia.

When I was planning this trip, I did not expect a place like Sinouhkville to exist in Cambodia. Beautiful beaches, rousing nightlife, a hostel with a dark and cool movie room, and for the first time this trip a decent burger. Exactly what you think of when you picture Cambodia right? Don’t let anyone tell you they come to Sinoukhville for a broad range of deep Cambodian culture. Everyone is here with the same intent, relaxation during the day, and late nights. Well, except for the old white man buying the Viagra that they sell next to the chewing gum in the impulse buy section of the local quick-e-mart, he may have a slightly different agenda.

Of the six nights we spent in Sinnoukhville, pretty much every day consisted of the same wonderful routine. Wake up, eat, discuss the previous nights shenanigans, beach, eat, shower, relax, eat, happy hour, monk bar, beach bar. The happy hour was 25 cent beers. The monk bar had a bartender that may or may not have been a monk. After various illogical inebriated conversations with the patrons of the bar, I reluctantly confess he probably wasn’t a monk. But he sure had the look, and he let us dj the bar, which gets him bonus monk points in my book. The only exception to our daily routine, was a one day excursion to Bamboo Island. Why would we leave a beautiful beach to travel to an island? To find an even more stunning beach, of course. Snorkling was also on the agenda, but the looming bus tire sized pink jellyfish floating menacingly around the side of the boat provided just enough paranoia to deter even the most motivated snorkler.

After motor boating around for an hour or so, we would arrive at the island. The first spot had a few too many Japanese tourist scampering around for our liking, so we decided to wander around until we were sufficiently secluded. Wise choice.

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Boy Band Album Cover

We would eventually leave Sinoukhville, but not because we were bored with area. I could honestly stay there for months without batting an eyelash. But we had 3 guys in an extremely hot, small, and increasingly smelly bungalow. Six nights in that room can certainly try a man's ability to secede from western comforts. There was no air conditioning, of course, and the fan was broken, barely spinning and pointing straight at the floor. Or so we thought. On the last night Sam informed us that we were idiots. On the fan’s scale of 1 to 3, 3 was the lowest power, and 1 was the highest. We had it on 3. And after a few hearty wacks, it began to oscillate and point upright. Sam got the fan working better than the quick-e-marts over the counter Viagra makes the old man work. It would be our last night, and the only night not spent sweating from the moment we stepped in the creaky front door.

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Tom and Jerry Mattresses, as comfortable as they look

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The Fan. Bastard.

We left Sinnoukville for Kampot, a once bustling river town that may only be a few decades away from rising back to prominence. The town was quaint, but seemingly deserted. The roads were well paved, but there were barely any cars in the city. The river lay quiet, with only the occasional row boat passing by. Nightlife? Good luck.

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Prisoner

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There are a lot of ridiculous statues in Asia, but this one takes the cake. A giant Durian.

Kampot was delightfullly charming in its minimalism, and nice change of pace from Sinoukhville, where you couldn’t find an ounce of true Cambodian culture. And for the foodies out there, Kampot peppercorns are acknowledged as being some of the best in the world. Hard to explain how pepper can be so much better in one place rather than another, but after sampling various meals covered in whole peppercorns, ranging in color from black to pink, I definitely understand.

A short bus ride from our hostel would take us to Bokor National Park, a territory with a rather tumultuous history. We would spend a few hours trekking before arriving at a small ghost town, a colony first developed by the French in the 1920s. However when the Khmer Rouge regiime began the slaughtering of Cambodia, the town was evacuated. Certainly beautiful, if not slightly eerie.

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Trek to the Top

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Almost there

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Made it.

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Abandoned Hotel

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View from the Top Floor

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Lookout Tower

Unfortunately the Cambodian government, like so many others, has succumbed to the almighty dollar. It has sold the National Park to Japanese businessmen for a mere 100 million dollars. They are going to knock down the ghost town, and build a casino. I hope this bothers you as much as it bothers me. One of Cambodia's treasures taken away by a few greedy businessmen, taking advantage of Cambodia’s desire to rapidly develop. It’s a shame, and I wish it weren’t happening, but I am not ignorant of the realities of a struggling economy. Oh well, what’s done is done, and I can only hope the money gets put toward rebuilding a once mighty empire, instead of simply padding the pockets of the current administration.

After trekking back down the park, we would hop on a small boat to take a ride through the river. Four of us sat on the boat waiting to depart, wondering where the last two guys in our group were. We would quickly find out, as we saw Sam and Chirs running up to the boat holding a bag filled with local beer. They received the MVP vote for the day, a great start to what would be an amazing boat trip.

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Chris and Sam, coming through big time.

Storm clouds were rapidly approaching, making for an ominously beautiful backdrop to the countryside. A few minutes later, the sky would open up, pelting us with some of the largest raindrops I’ve ever felt. The meager canopy over the seats of the boat was no match for the torrential downpour, so if we were going to get soaked anyways, then we would do it in style, yelling from the front of the boat.

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Storms a' brewin'

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We eventually pulled back into the harbor, the crew feeling a mix of adrenaline and relief. Everyone was soaked from head to toe, but everyone was laughing and smiling. Backpackers willingness to always make the most out of these kinds of situations is part of what makes travelling so satisfying. Generally speaking, one doesn’t want a sunset cruise to consist of torrential downpour. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Kampot and Sinoukhville where both incredibly satisfying for completely different reasons. Sinnoukville provided for ample relaxation, wild nightlife, white sand beaches, and the first good cheeseburger I’d had in Asia. Kampot had no nightlife, busy days, cheap local food that would satisfy any foodie, and a look back into Cambodian culture. A lot of people I meet on the trail will ask me where my favorite place was in a certain country. I tell them it really depends on what they want. How do you compare two places like these? Each is brilliant in its own distinct way, and that’s exactly how I like it.

One final stop in Southern Cambodia before heading over to Vietnam. I would eventually leave this final spot with a large scrape down my right side, a very sore back, and possibly a cracked rib. Stay tuned, next stop, Kep.

Posted by dpteitel 08:21 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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