w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
Phnom Penh kicked my ass. It was, hands down, the poorest place I’ve ever been. Not just like a perspective making, “Gee, I’m so lucky to have what I have and let’s move on” feeling of gratitude, but poor like "I have money, and I should buy a villa and get some of these naked babies and suffering people off the streets and give them a break because there is no freaking chance for them," kind of poor. Phnom Penh was mind-numbingly, heartbreakingly poor. So much so that I actually did the math and looked up real estate thinking I had to do something about it, except, I just could not bare the idea of living there, especially with my kids. Being in Phnom Penh, I have never felt so fully, positively bleak.
Yes, Cambodians are wonderful. They have lovely smiles and everyone is friendly, which does not make their suffering any more palatable. Cambodia is still a country in turmoil, actively living their history of mass genocide; of country person turning on country person which is about as big a mind fuck as it gets.
I could go on and on about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but here is the short version: Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar in March 1925 in Prek Sbav, Cambodia. While his little fishing village was modest, his family was well-connected so despite his flagging grades he was sent to the finest schools, finally “earning” himself a scholarship to a French technical college in Paris. As a young man in France, he became a follower of Ho Chi Minh, and joined the French Communist Party which esteemed the uneducated rural pleasant as the true proletariat. After flunking out of college, Sar moved back to Cambodia. In the 1960’s the Cambodian government was doing its best to quell the rising popularity of the Communist Party already thriving in neighboring Vietnam. Sar used this opportunity to align himself with the Viet Cong and the leftist leaders persecuted by Prince Sihanouk. He quickly moved up the Communist Party ranks, moved to the countryside and began to build the Khmer Rouge army. By 1975, Sar, now, Pol Pot, had chased Prince Sihanouk to France and begun his mission to transform Cambodia to a purely agrarian, self-sufficient society. His first course of action was to empty Phnom Penh by relocating its 3.3 million citizens to the countryside, confiscating homes and all material possessions. There, they were separated from their families, forced into labor camps, starved and brutally abused. People were often tortured and mass executions were common with prime targets being professionals (doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc.) and monks. By 1979, when the Vietnamese finally invaded Cambodia, chasing out the Khmer Rouge, approximately ¼ of Cambodia’s 8 million citizens had already been exterminated. Despite this the Khmer Rouge retained its seat on the UN for another 14 years and was still internationally recognized as the leading voice of Cambodia. Pol Pot transplanted himself to the Cambodian-Thai border and despite his many crimes, went on to lead a reasonably full life. He finally came under house arrest and is rumored to have committed suicide shortly thereafter, at age of 72.
I am not going to lie, we spent a lot of time reading and watching movies about Cambodia’s history, and while it was meaningful and important for us to understand, the genocide and the impoverished conditions of Phnom Penh made for a very somber visit. I had read conflicting reports that somewhere between 20-40% of Cambodians hover below the poverty level (depending on who and how that line is being determined) with the average Cambodian living on $1 per day. Regardless of what percentage you want to believe, the gap between poverty and solvency is paper thin: If the average Cambodian family made 30 cents less per day, the percentage of those living below the poverty line would jump by 40%.
While we were in Phnom Penh (and also in Hoi An, Vietnam), we had considered visiting the local orphanage to play with the children and bring them gifts. But after some research, we learned that most of the children are not in fact, orphans. Three-fourths of the 12,000 Cambodian children currently in orphanages have at least one living parent. These orphanages approach families, mostly in the rural areas where poverty hits hardest, and offer to take care of their children, providing free housing, food and promising them education and interaction with Westerners. In turn, the orphanages set up volunteerism opportunities, inviting wealthy tourists and well-meaning bleeding hearts the chance to hang out with the kids for a couple of hours or days while they blow through town, all for a hefty “set-up fee” (I’ve seen fees of $600-$700 for a three day visit). In the end, self-satisfied tourists get to post FB pictures with smiling Cambodian kids; the kids are separated from their families and without any sense of continuity get to (re)learn their ABCs or a couple of nursery rhymes (and not much else); and the orphanages get very, very rich. The business has grown so dramatically in the last few years that the number of orphanages has doubled. If you don’t believe me, just hang out in the parking lot of an orphanage and you can catch sight of the huge tour busses that pull up to the orphanages as part of a sightseeing package. In recent years, UNICEF has been campaigning against orphanage visits, discouraging well-intended tourists from funding a practice that keeps kids from their families. And to make an already painful situation worse: some of the tourists have been identified as pedophiles, visiting orphanages for the sole purpose of targeting new prey.
Are you depressed yet? Because there is more. Chris and I searched for a place near the river where we could enjoy a refreshing aperitif, only to realize that many of the bars in PP are strip clubs or hostess bars. Despite recent regulations on Cambodia’s sex trade (mostly for taxation purposes), forced prostitution (mostly underage), human trafficking and professional girlfriending (kept mistress) are still a thriving industry. I had never heard the term “sexpat” until I visited Janice in Thailand. Since then, I’ve learned that as many as ¼ of visitors to Cambodia (as well to Thailand and Vietnam) are there to take advantage of booming sex industry.
So far, our travels have been (while not exactly luxurious), for the most part, enjoyable. PP was the first time we all felt incredibly saddened. Like heart-heavy-wanna-get-out-of-here sad. And yet, you feel like an asshole for wanting to turn away. I’m still trying to reconcile this for myself: How can I help? What are my responsibilities as a human being? What are my responsibilities as a traveler? Do my efforts help as much as they hurt? What do I want to see vs. What should be seen?
By the time we made our way to Siem Reap, I didn’t know what to expect. We should have known by its proximity to Angkor Wat that it would be crawling with tourists, but I didn’t expect it to be so Westernized, and relative to big city sister PP, so upscale. While I typically hate uber-touristy streets like Pub Street hawking baggy Khmer pants to backpackers and hippies, it was a welcome reminder that commercialism, somewhere in Cambodia, was alive and kicking. But moreover, the dozens of ancient wats were breathtaking and a true testament to the stunning cultural and religious history of Cambodia. We spent days exploring the gorgeous bas-relief carvings at Angkor Wat, the temple Ta Prohm consumed by overgrown trees, the sprawling Bayon with its many-faceted sculptures and our favorite, Preah Khan, with its piles of rubble and ruins shaded green and pink with moss and lichen.
Many tourists only venture to Cambodia to see Siem Reap and Angkor Wat and while I understand the temptation to do so, I’m glad I got to visit both PP and Siem Reap. If I’d only seen PP, I would have missed out on experiencing the extraordinary beauty its people are capable of producing. If I only saw Siem Reap, I would have remained blind to the country’s history of genocide and the nation’s active struggle for recovery. I think it’s important to see both to not only understand a place, but to realize the beauty, resiliency and challenges of its people.
Cambodia wasn’t the easiest, most relaxing or fun place to visit, but after 6 months of travel to 12 different countries, it stands out as the most memorable, not just to myself, but also the kids. Its a complicated country, and while I don't pretend to understand how to navigate it, it's a place I hope to come back to in a few years.
A Disneylandish looking momument for King Norodom Sihamoni. Cambodia is one of the few countries that rule by elected monarchy.
Kick the can along the Tonle Sap River.
Recent reports state that overfishing, overpopulation, pollution and industrial waste disposal have upset the Tonle Sap ecosystem, endangering both the dietary staple and primary livelihood of Cambodians.
It's hard to find an establishment without a sign for "Happy Ladies". Even mainstream websites like Tripadvisor openly review popular tourist friendly restaurants as featuring "nice girls".
It's like the kids missing the laundry basket except it's not dirty socks but trash, and lots of it. So much litter on the streets the smell and scurry of rats are unavoidable.
We walked from our hotel in the central tourist district to Wat Phnom, one of Phnom Penh's prized Buddhist temples. The route took us through a squatter's park right outside the temple. We saw dozens of similar encampments all over town - naked children, emaciated adults seeking solace under trees, mats or modest bedding strewn on the sidewalk. Absolutely heartbreaking.
Oona was desperate for a playground. This one outside Wat Phnom was supposed to be the best. Again, littered with piles of garbage. Lots of broken equipment. To think, people in Evanston get mad if you don't have a public water fountain.
The day we visited Wat Phnom just happened to be a Buddhist holiday. You can feel, despite the poverty, the deep religious devotion. All over the city, altars like these were heaving with beautiful fruit and offerings.
One of the few truly sparkling places in Phnom Penh is the grounds of the Royal Palace. Sprawling, well-kept gardens and beautiful pagodas. Unfortunately, most are closed to the public.
Just outside the Silver Pagoda.
Could you imagine having to post a sign like this in a hotel in America?
Both kids were deeply affected by Phnom Penh, but Isoo most of all. It was the first time he was able to truly witness poverty on such a widespread level. I didn't want to hit him over the head with it, but I do hope the perspective stays with him.
While in Phnom Penh we visited Tuol Sleng, an elementary school campus converted by Pol Pot into a prison where inmates were routinely tortured with beatings, water boarding, organ removal and in some cases, skinned alive. The lower floor rooms have single cells, however, as torture became more common, the larger upper rooms were also employed, allowing for multiple beatings to take place at once.
The most common charge of the guilty was espionage. Most just happened to be teachers, doctors, journalists and monks. Others were brought to the camp simply because they caused "disturbances" at the labor camps. One such example: a man beaten and tortured because he was so hungry he was caught eating a rat.
As Pol Pot's power grew, so did his paranoia. It was reported that he never slept in the same bed two nights in a row for fear that he would be murdered. As his distress escalated, the killings became more frequent and widespread. Jails like Tuol Sleng lost favor over more efficient mass graves. We visited Choeung Ek, just one of 20,000 killing fields uncovered since the genocide. This is Oona listening to the mesmerizing audio guide.
The Khmer Rouge believed that if you killed one person, you had to exterminate the entire family for fear of retribution. Not even infants were spared. I won't even tell you about this tree.
Thirty-six years later the grounds of the Killing Fields continue to tell the story. Heavy rains sometimes unearth bits of clothing and bone fragments of the victims.
The commemorative stupa features 17 stories of victims' skulls. During this time of travel, I've seen a fair share of witless tourists straddle sacred religious symbols, pretend to shoot weapons at the Vietnam Remnants Museum, take flash photography of fragile works of art. But at Choeung Ek, there was nary even a baseball capped head. It was eerily and startlingly pin quiet.
Bullets were precious and reserved for fighting enemies. With so many bodies to execute it was more cost effective to use hoes, machetes and sticks. You can see the telltale wounds on the skulls. Even more remarkably was the fact that the soldiers doing the killing were usually teenage children taken from their families and enlisted in the Khmer Rouge army.
New beginning. New day. After all the heartbreak we inaugurated our first day in Siem Reap by getting up at 4AM to see the sunrise over the famous five towers of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is famous for its amazing bas-relief sculptures. This one tells the Hindu tale of the gods and demons working together to churn the Ocean Milk to release the nectar of eternal life.
Oona at Ta Prohm (a.k.a. the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed). The massive trees grow over, atop and through the temple ruins.
Isoo gets blessed by a "wat granny", elderly women who have taken monastic vows to care for the temples.
The rubble at Ta Prohm.
The multi-faceted stone faces of Bayon Temple.
The lesser known (and blessedly quieter) Preah Khan temple. Love the pink stained stone and overgrown trees.
More beauty: the gorgeous Apsari dancers do their thing.
Dinner on touristy Pub Street. Bolognese and margaritas anyone?
Our lungs are black. Time to move on. Hope to see you in a few years Cambodia!