Tuesday, August 5, 2008

SE Asian Adventure--On to Cambodia!

The monument built at the killing fields of 8000 skulls from people murdered by the Khmer Rouge (the skulls are inside the building).
At the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Some Buddhist monks on their way to school. The woman in the picture on the right is the Queen of Cambodia (although she's actually from Vietnam!).
Independence Monument, celebrating Cambodian independence from France. Those big gray clouds burst about 30 minutes after I took this picture and there was a lot of rain!

Abby and I spent the morning in Saigon going to the cathedral and old Post Office before flying to Phnom Penh. After checking into our hotel, we went out for dinner at a restaurant specializing in North African and French cuisine. One thing that amazed me about every place I went in SE Asia was the huge variety of food available! Things like hummus and good baked goods, which are next to impossible to find in Seoul, were everywhere.

The next morning we met our guide and headed out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where around 17,000 people were killed during the Khmer Rouge time of the 1970s. It's certainly not an uplifting site, but I think it's important to remember what happened during that time period. It's just incredible to look at the older Cambodian people and think about what they went through not all that long ago. Today the killing fields are grass covered, but there are mass graves that are still dug up and are marked with how many skeletons were found there. There's also a big monument to the dead made out of 8000 skulls of the victims and some of their discarded clothes, found in the mass graves.

After that, we headed back to the city and Abby and Heather went to the Tuol Sleng Museum (I'd gone there when I went to Cambodia before and it's a very powerful place that I felt like I only needed to see once). This building had been a school, but then was taken over by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge forces and turned into a prison and torture chamber. Up to 100 people were killed a day. Pretty much everyone held at this prison who didn't die there went to Choeung Ek to be killed.

After those two depressing places, we were ready for something different, so we went to the National Museum, Wat Phnom (built on the only hill in Phnom Penh), and the Royal Palace. Being at the Royal Palace was surreal after going to the Khmer Rouge stuff in the morning. It's a beautiful complex with amazing buildings, including the Silver Pagoda, which has a floor made with 5000 silver tiles. There are also all sorts of Buddhas made of gold and decorated with diamonds and other gems at the palace. We asked our guide why none of that stuff was taken by the Khmer Rouge and he said that Pol Pot had been planning on moving into the palace eventually (the royal family was in exile during that 1970s, but they're back now, although they have basically no power).

One thing that was interesting about being in Cambodia when we were is that an election happened during that week. The ruling party of Cambodia is communist, the same as in Vietnam, but the differences were obvious very soon after we arrived. Vietnam certainly has its problems with poverty and corruption, but it seemed to me to be not so bad compared to Cambodia. Driving out to Choeung Ek, I saw the worst poverty I think I've ever seen. Our guide told us about the various factories that employ child labor. On the way to the killing fields, we saw groups of 100 or so Cambodians squatting or sitting in the dirt, listening to people speak into megaphones. Our guide told us that the communists paid (either with money or with food or clothing) the poor people to come to these rallies and to vote for the communists. He took quite a risk by telling us about the corruption he has to face every day. He told us that teachers only make $35 dollars a month or so, so they accept bribes from families and if a family doesn't bribe the teacher, their child may not be able to continue in school. He said that education isn't valued by the Cambodian government because "they don't want anyone smarter than they are." I saw a lot of street kids begging for money too, which was tough because I had heard and read that giving money to kids really only benefits the adults who are in charge of those kids. But it's hard to say no when a young girl holding an even younger naked baby is begging for a dollar, or a little boy comes up to your car window when you're stopped at a red light and taps on the glass, asking for the money.

Because of all the problems Cambodia faces, there are tons of NGOs in the country, especially in Phnom Penh. The expat community is quite large for such a small country, largely because of the NGOs. I'm sure that some of the NGOs aren't doing much good, but some of them seem to be doing really good work, helping to get kids off the street, training them in various jobs, etc.

The next morning wen went to 2 markets, the Central Market and the Russian Market, for some souvenir shopping. The rest of the day was spent wandering around the city a bit and taking advantage of our hotel's pool. Unfortunately, our hotel, which quite lovely, also didn't have sealed doors, so we had 5 big cockroaches in the room at various points that night, which didn't make for the most restful sleep!

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