A day at the beach

So you and your girlfriend decide you would like to go for a swim. You go to your hotel room and get everything you need –towels and water and such—and change into your swimming clothes. You had a waterproof pouch that you bought before to keep your passports and money in while you swim so you know they’ll be safe while you’re in the water.

You arrive at the beach and it is paradise. There are headlands in the distance either side of you covered in palm trees, and the sand is so soft you want to bury your face in it. The sky is clear and blue but the water is even bluer. You dip in a toe to find that the water is the same temperature as the air, beautiful and warm, with a hint of sun-derived toastiness.

You lay your things down on a nearby sunbed , with no other sunbeds occupied nearby so you have lots of privacy. You get undressed,  and run straight into the water. It’s filled with beautiful little jellyfish-like creatures that you’ve never seen before. You swim around and it is perfect for just a moment.

Just then, you realize that the pouch around your shoulder with the passports and money has burst and everything is getting soaked.

You run back to shore trying to get the water out of the pouch and sit down on your sunbed. As you sit there a barman comes over and tells you that the sunbeds are for customers only and you need to order something, but as you are preoccupied you decline and continue to try drying out all of your money and passports. The barman stands and watches as a beggar comes over and spots your wet cash lying in the open.

The beggar holds out his hat and despite your disregards he just stands and stares. A woman comes walking down the beach selling boiled lobsters and offers them to you, but, seeing as you have some rather pressing matters, you decline, so she stands and watches you dry your $315 and passports. You are really hoping the ink on the stamp doesn’t run or fade. If it does, you could be stranded in this country for a long time with lots of problems.

Another woman with a gold tooth strolls up the beach and asks you if you want to buy some brown bracelets. You are trying to guard your belongings (because you’re new here and don’t know if you can trust anyone or if there is much crime) while trying to dry out your passports with a towel. You tell the woman with the gold tooth that you don’t need a bracelet right now and ask her to go away as you are obviously busy.

She takes a small step back and laughs with the beggar and the lobster lady at your misfortune. Another man comes along and sits on the sun bed next to yours. He says he is a shoe salesman and wants to “try out” your girlfriend’s shoes. She declines to which the man replies “Why?” Upon deciding to not justify why a man shouldn’t need to try out a pair of women’s sandals size 8, you try your best to work quickly as water is still running from your passport.

The barman has returned and told you that if you don’t order some food or a drink right now he is calling the police, which in this country means being “fined” up to a few hundred dollars mostly to subsidize the policeman’s bad wages. We tell the barman we will be leaving soon to which his reply is “fine, I’ll call the police.”

You grab your belongings, shove them all together, wet and dry, into your bag and storm through the half a dozen beggars and hawkers away from there as quickly as possible before the police arrive.

We are not impressed with Cambodia so far.

4 Reasons Why Siem Reap is the Most Aggravating City on the Planet

We just spent two and a half days in Siem Reap, which in my opinion was far too long.  See, Siem Reap is a place that just gets to you. It has some inexplicable way of getting right to your nerves and giving them a little flick.

Cambodia: More annoying than this thing.

4. The Children
I know what you’re thinking. I’m some terrible person that hates children and is annoyed  by crying and whining. Well, all of that is true, but is not actually why the children are annoying.  Unlike the children in Phnom Penh, who were often smart and charming and actually selling things, the children of Siem Reap just hassle you.  They will come up to you, holding their “little brother” and a near empty bottle and say “Don’t want money, only milk!” Now, I don’t really get this scam, because obviously a baby needs to eat. But when one girl followed us down an entire street telling us to go into a shop and buy milk, we saw her blatantly pinching the baby so he would cry, because he was “hungry.”  And there were kids everywhere doing this.  Now, I’m not so evil that I would let a baby starve, but I also can’t give money to every begging child, especially when things don’t seem quite right. Still, it's hard to say no, despite how irritating the kids are.

3. The “Salespeople”
Just to be clear, everyone is selling something in Siem Reap. Ricky commented that he would like to meet one person that wasn’t a tourist that didn’t want his money. It’s impossible.  This town is a tourist town, and all the people want is the dollar. You cannot walk down the street without being shouted at by people whose soul job is to sit outside a business and shout at you. “Lady! You have massage! Mister, you eat here!”  And it’s not an offer, either. It’s a command. These people are telling you to buy their stuff of partake of their service. In their mind you don’t have a choice. But you do, and most often that choice is no.

2. The Tourists
As I said a minute ago, Siem Reap is a tourist town, and boy is it ever.  Pub Street is exactly what it sounds like and has the largest concentration of tourists that I’ve seen in a long time.  You can’t get away from them. Once again I’m sure you’re all thinking “Good heavens, that Talia is one anti-social nightmare.” Well sometimes. But mostly Ricky and I  like to enjoy a place for its local culture.  With so many tourists, there is no local culture, unless you count the locals who own the pubs, guesthouses, and restaurants that cater almost solely to tourists.

1. The Tuk-Tuk Drivers
We thought we had it bad in Phnom Penh. We had no idea.
In Phnom Penh, tuk-tuk drivers would shout at you as you pass, wanting to you to know that he was there and ready to take you wherever you needed to go. If you said no, he might ask one more time, just to be sure, but would otherwise leave you alone.
In Siem Reap, however, the drivers just won’t let you go. They rarely sit in their vehicle as they ask you where you want to go. Instead, they wander the street, especially Pub Street, walking by your side as you tell them yet again, that no, you don’t want a tuk-tuk. And they just don’t listen. Instead, they talk.
“Where you go, mister? You want massage? You want eat? I take you. Where you from, lady?  What time is it? Where you stay? I take you there.”
There really is no end to their chatter, until you either shout a very loud NO, or walk further away from the tourist crowd than they are comfortable with.

Now, for you non-travelers, some of this may sound kind of petty, and maybe it is.  Maybe I shouldn’t be bothered by people just trying to do their job, or other travelers having a good time.  Maybe I should learn to be a little more patient in my travels.

In any case, I’m glad to be out of Siem Reap.

Overcoming Tragedy: A Walk Through Phnom Penh

I didn’t know what to expect from Phnom Penh but from stories I’ve heard and what I’d read in guidebooks etc. that  it was going to be a city of corrupt cops trying to get money from me, lots of thieves, scams, beggars and swindlers.

Unfortunately a large portion of that is actually true, but I’ll get back to that later. Phnom Penh has so much to offer as a city and though it’s always easy to focus on the negative, in Phnom Penh it’s so much easier to turn the negatives into positives. Taking an experience at face value can be much better and a more fun experience than weighing out options and reading between the lines, and our experiences in the city of Phnom Penh truly helped us see that despite the tragedy these people have seen, they live and thrive. They are lighthearted and cheerful, with a good sense of humor.

On a walk through the city, we passed an open area where tons of kids and teenagers were playing soccer. I of course had to join in. Meanwhile, Talia met and chatted with a local man and his adorable son.
Just chatting with the locals.
Ricky having fun.

Then, while sitting at a bar on the riverfront we were hounded at least once every two minutes by a beggar or a young child trying to sell us twine bracelets or counterfeit books. It really was non-stop! But once we actually engaged some of the kids and watched how the community of beggars and hawkers interact it all became quite an interesting encounter.

 For example, when one 8 year old girl with incredible English asked Talia where she was from, and Talia replied America, the first words out of the girl’s mouth were “Ok, what’s up dog?” and then “Why aren’t you black?” Then, as she tried to sell scarves and t-shirts, we said we didn’t have any money. To that she had the philosophical reply of “No money, no honey, no baby!” 

Talia and the smartest, most charming girl in Cambodia.

Following this girl, whose name was Pov,  was another small girl and a pantsless boy, walking like a boss down the street with a straw in his mouth, junk swinging from east to west. Pov explained that they were her niece and nephew, the children of her older sister who was also selling trinkets. She and Talia formed a weird sort of bond and ended up chasing each other up and down the street throwing chunks of ice at each other as other tourists looked on in either amusement or confusion.

Talia, no-pants boy, Pov, and her niece.

Talia and her loot, because she doesn't know how to say no to children.

While walking down the streets in the afternoon you can also quite likely see rats the size of terriers dead on the roadside but in a strange twisted way it all added to a beautiful charm in an indescribable way!

Yes, that rat is bigger than that foot.

Another example of the city’s charm lies in the tuk-tuk drivers. A tuk-tuk can be a range of things from a trailer with seats towed by a motorbike to a van with no …”walls”. The tuk-tuk drivers will shout at random passers-by non-stop to try and get that important tourist dollar into their pockets, which can easily become very frustrating very quickly for the tourist.

To abate the annoyance, I made a sign that said “No! I do not want a tuk-tuk!”

It actually worked out really well! I didn’t have to say “no!” every ten seconds; all I had to do was hold up the sign and the tuk-tuk drivers would erupt in laughter! It was quite amazing to see their good humor at being refused.

In Phnom Penh a simple street encounter with a stranger can lead to anything from frustration to a huge laugh, from a hefty fine to a new friend. It really is a city of lightheartedness where we noticed laughing, playing children, and adult men indulging in a little horseplay  on the streets.

As we walked past the Palace of the late king of Cambodia we were approached by a group of kids on rollerblades and scooters selling postcards. As soon as I spotted the kids rolling down this four lane closed section of road I hi-jacked one of the scooters with the kid still on and rolled away at full speed!

Inside a temple near the palace we ran and played with a different group of kids who were just running around and playing in their Sunday suits, paying their respects to the death of the king.

You can never get too many high fives from children running back and forth past you.

Phnom Penh really is a city where the worst imaginable atrocities have happened and from the ashes sprouted laughing children and locals. It’s a city where an honest smile is the most valued currency among the lower class, where strangers can laugh together in jest until tears come from their eyes.

I really liked Phnom Penh and apart from the traffic and that police man who tried to ‘fine’ us (all he got was an earful of F-bombs and some tire smoke) I would definitely like to visit again so I can remember the seven days I smiled like a fool.

Understanding Tragedy, Part II: The Killing Fields

*Graphic content warning*

So yesterday Talia told about S-21, a school converted into a prison where the screams of innocent farmers and workers being interrogated, tortured and slaughtered can still be heard today through the palpable silence in the hallways and classrooms.

Well, the sad thing was that for most of the people who went to S-21, it didn’t end there.

Let me start by saying that words can’t do justice, and most certainly my small vocabulary won’t do justice, to how it feels to visit these places. Talia and I gave each other several looks throughout the two days immersed in genocide which almost converted into tears.

S-21 was a massacre, something humanity shouldn’t be able to create, but what came next was unspeakable. Today Talia and I visited the killing fields at Choeng Ek.

What are the killing fields? Well before today I thought they were small farms where people were often killed, but it’s a lot worse. The Killing fields is an area about two hectares in size, about a half hour from Phnom Penh. Before 1975 this was a cemetery for Chinese communities in Cambodia, but once the courtyard in S-21 filled with bodies stacked on top of each other, “Duch” ,The head of S-21, decided to start burying the bodies here.

Some of the pits.

The prisoners were stacked into trucks, blindfolded, and told by their executioners that they were being moved to a different facility or farm. Once the truck arrived at the killing fields the prisoners signed their names on a register, which was essentially their death warrant.

The prisoners were then lined up and marched to massive pits dug up to two meters deep. The prisoners were then forced to kneel down and wait while the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned them with rusting farm equipment found lying around, or cut their throats using the jagged bark of sugar palm trees or machetes. It really was the most gruesome scene imaginable.

A sugar palm tree and a stick of bark in leaning against it.

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, used slogans like “better to kill an innocent than to risk letting your enemy live” to spur on the murder that happened at Choeng Ek.

As we walked along the path through the memorial, we listened to our audio guide tell us about what we were looking at and what happened where and how.  At one point we stood next to a small fenced off area, and it took a very close look to see why it was fenced off. I got down on my hunkers and spotted some decaying teeth laying in the dirt. According to the audio guide every rainy season more and more bones and teeth get unearthed and surface all around the memorial.

450 corpses were found in this pit alone.

A decaying tooth (centre) uncovered by the rainy season that just ended.

On the east side of the complex there was a lake, the full length of the memorial. The guide told us that the lake had not been checked for human remains and the researchers that had worked on unearthing the corpses decided to leave the bodies in the lake so as not to disturb them.

It was a desperate feeling to know there were corpses all around this place as I walked through. Every now and then I could see a tooth on the ground close by, or a bone jutting out of the earth or lying next to some rags.

A bone and some clothing uncovered by the recent rains.

Not all of the pits were filled with random people accused of being CIA or KGB agents. One pit filled with 166 bodies was found, with each body’s head removed. It was later discovered that these were Khmer Rouge soldiers who disobeyed commands or questioned authority. This certainly brought to light how the soldiers got the motivation to slaughter hundreds of people every day in such a seemingly carefree fashion. Next stop was a tree with a pit next to it.

This was the one I didn’t want to see and a part of me wishes I hadn’t.

When the Vietnamese came and removed the Khmer Rouge and found Choeng Ek, they saw this tree. The tree was covered in blood, skull fragments, chunks of brains and cloth. It took the Vietnamese soldiers some time to realize what had happened here. Khmer Rouge soldiers would tear babies and children from their mothers’ arms, grab the babies by the ankle, swing them around and smash their heads against this tree. Other soldiers would throw the babies in the air and try to catch them on their guns’ bayonets. The mothers were then stripped naked, bludgeoned to death and dumped into the pit next to the tree with the bodies of other mothers and babies.

  “When removing a weed one must also remove its roots” –Pol Pot.

A pit where hundreds of mothers and their children were slaughtered and thrown in. You can clearly see some human remains inside the pit.

At the height of the atrocities that happened at Choeng Ek, there were more prisoners being delivered daily than the executioners had time to kill; the executioners efficiently killed around 3oo per day. So a small hut was built on site to house the prisoners who would be killed after the executioners got some rest and could continue the following day. In order to hide the screams of the prisoners being slaughtered, a speaker system was hung in the centre of the compound blasting out songs about the Khmer Rouge regime. To power everything there was also a diesel generator and most likely the last few sounds that a prisoner would have heard before death would be communist party propaganda music and a generator going at painful volume levels.

Finally we entered the last building on the site, which was a memorial stupa. Inside it were housed the skulls, clothing and bones of the 20,000 odd people who were brought to Choeng Ek solely to die.

Our visits to S-21 and the killing fields have really brought a darkness to the capability of humanity in my mind. I never knew people could do these things and to me genocide was just a word. But after what I saw it has become a reality.

Understanding Tragedy: A Visit to Khmer Rouge Prison S-21

*Graphic content warning*

So far, most of our sightseeing has been quite lighthearted. We’ve seen pandas and monkeys, temples and statues, and even a couple of palaces. It’s been enjoyable and culturally enlightening. However, one of our main sightseeing goals as we came to Cambodia was to focus on the horrendous activities of the Khmer Rouge.

The leaders of the Khmer Rouge, or the Cambodian Communist Party, instigated a terrible genocide, ultimately killing 3 million of Cambodia’s then 8 million population. I’ll spare you the history details, but if you want them, see the Wikipedia page.  For now, I’ll just tell you about our experiences in the main Khmer Rouge prison—S-21.

A view of S-21 from the top floor of Building D

As a brief introduction, S-21 used to be a high school, but was taken over by the KR and used as a prison. Classrooms were either divided into small individual cells where prisoners were held, used as pens for up to 70 people all chained together by iron shackles around the ankles, or as interrogation/torture chambers. Prisoners were accused of being a danger to the state and tortured until they confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, or died.  For more information, see here.

S-21 is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, open to the public for a mere $2. The rooms are open as well, and visitors can walk the halls where murderers and their victims lived and died.

As Ricky and I entered the grounds, I immediately felt a sort of heaviness, as if the air was just a little thicker here.  I wondered if I could do this. I had heard about how graphic and harsh some of the displays could be. But we pressed on.

The first room we entered housed skulls in glass cases, with descriptions of the injuries showing how the person died, how old they were, and what sex they were. More skulls and bones lined the walls.  I wondered again if I would be able go through with this.

Skulls and bone fragments fill the room.

Next, there were displays of the torture items used.  Popular forms of torture were removing the fingernails or teeth with pliers and waterboarding. Graphic paintings showed how the tortures were done.

Waterboard used for torture. The watering can on the right was used to pour water on the victims' faces.
Shackles used to hold prisoners together by the ankles in one large classroom.

The rest of the first and second buildings featured displays both victims and perpetrators.  Mugshots of victims that were taken when they arrived covered walls of several classrooms.  When I saw them, I thought of the skulls at the beginning and I was reminded that those skulls were these people, and these people were dead. It was a very sad feeling that washed over me as I looked into these people’s faces. 

Photos of victims, taken by their captors when they arrived at S-21

  But their own expressions were more complex. There were some faces that showed sadness, yes, but even more that showed fear, anger, defiance, confusion, hatred. But even worse were the blank stares of those who felt nothing, as if they expected nothing more or less than what was happening, as if they were resigned to their fate. 

  It made me wonder what kind of expression I would have on my face. Would I be strong enough to feel anything more than simple acquiescence to injustice?

Along with pictures of the living, there were also pictures of the dead, of those who were starved, beaten, and tortured. They had fallen victim to the injustices of their own people.

In one display, photos of the surviving leaders that were arrested in 2007 are accompanied by their personal biographies, a few statements about their involvement, and the crimes they are charged with. They are all defended by both Cambodian and western lawyers (Dutch, French, British, American). Most, with the exception of "Duch," the leading officer in charge of S-21, were unapologetic, often saying that they had no knowledge of the atrocities going on in S-21, or even that it existed.

The second to last building we visited, building B, was the home of the small celled rooms. They were made by constructing shoddy brick walls to partition areas of about 3 feet by 8 feet. As we looked in the cells, we saw that bloodstains still remained on the floor. I could only imagine the horrors that took place here, in these small dirty cells, their occupants chained to the floor by rusty shackles. 

A classroom, divided into individual cells.

A cell with blood on the floor.

Building A, our last stop, was the main torture center and remained nearly unchanged. Each room contained a bare bed frame and torture elements. Some had chairs where the interrogators would sit and question the victims. On the walls were photos of those found dead when the horrors of S-21 were discovered. Each room contained bloodstains and a sense of overwhelming sadness and we decided it was time to go.

Before we left, however, we were stopped by an old man selling books. As we looked closer, we saw that the sign below him said that he was a survivor of S-21. He was a tiny old man, named Bou Meng, and of course I bought his book.

Bou Meng, third from the right, is one of the 7 survivors of S-21

Bou Meng and his autobiography, which he signed for me.

Ricky and I left the museum silently, pondering what we had just seen. We both felt the weight of what had happened here and chatted vaguely about justice and fairness. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole thing, the nightmare of what happened there, and after our visit to the Killing Fields today (Ricky will tell you more about that soon) I don’t know if I’m closer or further away from understanding anything about it.   

Recommended Posts