Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Good Morning Cambodia

Yes, it was Good Night to Vietnam as we crossed the border into Cambodia, adding another passport stamp to our collection.

And what a way to collect it, halfway through a 5 hour speedboat trip up the Mekong River we stopped at a border control and sorted out our visas. Sitting back reading our intellectual literature (Ann - Barack Obama biography, Jeff - Beginner's Guide to Swedish) we rode the lazy waves of the river that starts in China and in some parts has dolphins, crocodiles and catfish that can reach 3 metres long. Not really what we're used to back in Europe then, though sadly we saw none of the above creatures. Only mosquitoes!

We were soon taken by bus into the crazy city of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The Lonely Planet book marks it as an area of contradictions and so it proved.

The city itself is a vibrant, energetic place full of lively bars, great restaurants and a buzzing riverfront that is being upgraded for the increasing number of tourists that arrive each day. But Phnom Penh's main attractions are less joyous and more unsettling.

On Sunday morning we took a tuk-tuk the 12km south to the Ek Cheong site, better known as the Killing Fields. It is this area where large mass graves were found in 1979 holding victims of the Pol Pot genocide that took place between 1975-79. The genocide killed 2million people, a quarter of the entire population.

From Ek Cheong we went to Teol Seoung, an area that has an even deeper intensity and is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Teol Seung is a former school but the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot turned it into a detention and interrogation centre, a prison from where most victims were taken to Ek Cheong to be executed. I can honestly say the traumas of 30 years agoi can still be felt while quietly walking around the corridors and into the rooms, most of which still have the beds, iron bars and handcuffs that assisted in so much pain and suffering.

Rows upon rows of photos were pinned to walls, simply showing snapshots of the victims before they suffered between the walls of Tuol Seung. The seemingly neverending unsmiling faces of children, men and women was difficult to follow. That same questioning gaze from each Cambodian that even now in 2008 is met with so few answers.

We learned a few staggering facts.

That Pol Pot was never tried for his crimes and died naturally in 1998.

That the Khmer Rouge continued to sit at the United Nations up to 1991 meaning that the criminals were representing the victims.

That the United Nations itself criticised Vietnam for attacking Cambodia in 1979 even though Vietnam was merely putting an end to the awful situation in its neighbouring country.

That Cambodia has sold the Killing Fields site to a Japanese private company, thus making a profit out of the tragedy of 1975-79.

So from these intense experiences, questioning how horrific humans can still be to their fellow citizens, we staggered back into the Phnom Penh nightlife and restaurant scene, once again caught up in the buzz of 21st century Cambodia and its energy and vibrancy but feeling signifcantly more unsettled by it all. That deep stare from the old men and ladies in the market took on a whole new meaning.

So our 'Good Morning' in Cambodia was certainly a wake up call to the secrets in this part of the world, one we won't forget. Thankfully Cambodia's other big secret, which we will visit in a couple of hours, is Angkor Wat and it promises to be incredible and intense in a much more positive way.

We just hope the camera will still be working when we get there!

No comments: