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Stories from Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Genocide Horrors

michelleThe images made my eyes physically hurt. Tim and I toured the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. The 3-story buildings, surrounded by thick walls and barbed wire, were once a children's school. But in 1976 the Khmer Rouge regime converted it into a prison called Security Office 21 (S-21). Used for interrogating and torturing those the KR deemed as opposition, over 17,000 people passed through the prison before being exterminated at the famous Killing Fields outside of town.

The museum grounds were peaceful as birds sang in plumeria trees and sunshine reflected off playground equipment sitting in a grassy area. Yet there was a disturbing quiet in the air. Disturbing because I knew in this place so many lives were silenced and that the present quiet seemed only to scream the past horrors.

Toul Sleng faceTouring the museum was a sad and sobering experience. On exhibit were rooms used for torture and classrooms converted into cells to house the prisoners. The Khmer Rouge took pictures of every person who entered S-21 and the museum displayed their black and white portraits row after row and room after room. Haunting faces of men, women, and children lined the walls, their eyes telling stories of pain, defiance, terror, or resignation to their fate. Tourists walked around the displays numbly, trying to comprehend how and why fellow humans could be so cruel to one another.

It was a sobering experience and a vivid reminder of the atrocities that had occurred not too long ago here in Cambodia.

Toul Sleng faces

Wild East

timOur guesthouse is in the middle of Phnom Penh, yet it sits on a dirt road so rutted and rocky that motorcycles can only weave past us at a slow crawl. And even at their slow pace, they churn up red dust clouds that permanently hover between the high security walls that line our street.

Phnom Penh is a living version of America's wild west. Except here, moto drivers are the new cowboys. They've traded in horses for Honda motorcycles, cowboy hats for baseball caps, and cattle for passengers, but their spirit is the same - harsh lives of long hours and hard work. Like horses in front of watering troughs, their motorcycles congregate outside of restaurants, on street corners, and near markets, patiently waiting for the next fare.

Like the wild west, there is a feeling of lawlessness in Phnom Penh that is both freeing and oppressive. It is a place where traffic never stops - the vehicles move into the intersections and right of way is determined by size and speed. It is a place where the low police salary of $20 a month forces every lawmaker to take bribes, so that a man with money can pay his way out of any small trouble with ease. It is a place where limbless land mine victims beg in the dirt street next to a corrupt official's new model Mercedes sedan. It is a place where "happy" pizzas from Happy Herbs Pizza are topped with a special ingredient that is illegal to posses in most countries, and where people can fire machine guns, throw grenades, visit huge brothel areas, and sing all night in the wild west equivalent of a saloon - the karaoke bar.

A sign on our guesthouse wall warns us not walk around after dark or with valuables. In this wild west, it is hard to see what trouble lurks around the next dark corner.

This atmosphere thrives today thanks to 30 years of Cambodian troubles - the American bombings during the Vietnam war, the Khmer Rouge genocide of 1-3 million Cambodian people, the Vietnamese occupation, the years of Cambodia civil war, and the current corrupt government. But now that peace has arrived, foreign aid and investment is slowly helping Cambodia enter the modern world. During our stay in Phnom Penh, we drove on a new US financed highway and heard much excitement about a new Japanese financed highway. We passed several new clothing factories that promise to offer new jobs, and conversely, met a newly arrived labor union organizer who helps these garment workers receive fair wages. Medical care in Cambodia is terrible - 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5 and life expectancy is a meager 51.6 years, but foreign funded hospitals are now beginning to offer free medical care to the needy.

The city is full of western expatriates teaching English, working for aid organizations, and setting up new business ventures. It is an exciting time to be here. top


timThe little boy in me laughed in giddy anticipation as we arrived to the shooting range. I'd heard it was actually possible there to shoot a rocket-propelled grenade and I obviously couldn't let such an opportunity pass me by.

"So how was it?" I asked a 20-something Brit as he was leaving. He replied, "The machine gun was brilliant, but I'd give the grenades a miss." This was definitely going to be fun.

We sat on plastic chairs around a folding table and took a look at the "menu". Thirty rounds with an AK-47: $30. Thirty rounds with an M-16: $30. One grenade: $20. (Could I get that to go? Maybe that would be a bad idea!) One hundred rounds with a tommy gun (think gangsters): $70. Various pistols and other weapons were also listed, but no rocket launcher. How disappointing! I was sure there was a juicy story behind the discontinuation of the rocket launcher option. Perhaps someone launched one at a car or fired it backwards. I asked three Cambodians and received three different stories - and none of the stories were all that exciting. One said the shells were too expensive and loud, one suggested that they didn't have enough room, and the last just said, "not possible." I wondered if it had anything to do with the go-kart track on the other side of the firing range or our close proximity to the airport. But for whatever reason, my plan was thwarted.

Tim with AK-47I ordered the AK-47 and received one Russian-made rifle with folding stock and a clip full of ammo. But then I was told I'd have to fire it in semi-automatic mode. So many rules here in Cambodia - I might as well be home! If I wanted to fire a machine gun I'd have to shell out $70, and that price was much too high for a few seconds of craziness. So I fired my 30 rounds at a target 50 meters away. I'm no Rambo, but I still hit the target 27 out of 30 times and even scored a dead on bulls-eye. The Cambodian who added up my score seemed impressed - apparently I scored really well for a tourist. top

Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Temple of Doom

timIt is easy to see why the movie Tomb Raider was filmed in the Angkor Wat area. The concentration of so many excellent ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples is staggering and, despite the thousands of tourists that visit each year, the mysterious Khmer ruins still offer travelers the opportunity to feel like Indiana Jones.

I had one such Indiana Jones moment in Bayon - one of the most popular temples in the area.

We arrived before sunrise, a time when the darkness of early morning veils the massive stone monument in mystery. I walked past the famous bas-reliefs that depict historic wars and everyday life and approached the first level of stairs, which were as steep as the pyramid at Chichen Itza and worn uneven by 800 years of use and decay. They led me right into the maze-like passages and temple rooms that I had come to see. I began to feel like the first person to enter the pyramids in Egypt - a tomb raider, perhaps. In my fascination, I quickly lost Michelle and our friend John, but I didn't mind. I was grateful to experience this rare moment of solitude in such a heavily visited monument.

I ascended another flight of stairs to the third and top level, which features a large stupa surrounded by square towers depicting the face of King Jayavarman VII on all sides. In the faint light, I had to squint to see his soft features and wise smile. But with over 200 portrait carvings at the top of Bayon, his face greeted me at every turn.

Reverberating chirps from bats in the central stupa echoed from the stone walls and called me in through an eerie doorway to investigate. The smell of bat guano was a little overpowering, but I toughed it out and walked deeper into the cavern. The sweep of my flashlight across the high ceiling caused swarms of bats to flutter around inside. I watched nervously until one almost hit me in the face and I yelped like a little girl. After I finished laughing at myself, I ducked and ran through.

I found Michelle and John about the same time the other tourists arrived to spoil my fantasy, but Bayon was no less fantastic in the rising sun. The soft orange light of morning across the ancient rock stopped me in my tracks and forced me to sit in silent appreciation.

Siem Reap street in morning:

Siem Reap Crock Farm:

A temple inside Angkor Wat:

A temple surrounded by trees:


A Magical Tour

michelleTa Prohm is a favorite temple of Angkor Wat tourists and the second I walk through its gates I understand why. It is one of the Angkor temples left to the mercy of the jungle. Huge trees grow out of crumbling walls, roots and vegetation entwine with rocks, and green moss carpets carvings. The temple is a giant maze of fallen boulders, inviting archways, and passageways leading to small rooms and dead ends.

Tim and I split up to explore alone. Ta Prohm is a place that invites solitude. Walking through the ruins I get a taste of what the early French explorers found when they first encountered the Angkor temples. It's only nine in the morning but I am already dripping in sweat. The jungle air is hot, moist, and still. Even though thousands have visited this temple, the magic and mystery of the ruins make my heart beat faster, and I feel as if I am the first to explore it. Around each corner lies new discoveries - intricate carvings, toppled sculptures, rich textures, clawing tree roots, and dancing shadows along courtyard walls.

I enter a small room. Its roof is now a pile of rocks at my feet. Down a dark connecting passageway I see a young Cambodian man watching me. With so many doors and corridors inviting me through them I am not sure where to go next. The man beckons me towards him and in broken English tells me there is a beautiful carving nearby. Before I can answer he disappears around the corner. I hesitate to follow. There is no one else around and to follow this stranger might invite trouble. But the magic of the place has made me more adventurous and I follow.

As I approach him I realize he is more a young teenager than a man. His clothes are ragged and dirty and one of his arms is lame, hanging loose at his side like a thin, brown twig. He grins at me and points to a small nook. A shaft of light falls through a hole in the roof and perfectly spotlights a beautiful carvings of a Khmer dancer. She stares at me with a seductive and playful smile. In the sunlight the rock glows, as if golden. I snap a photo and my new-found guide continues on. Each of his steps is firm and sure while mine our cautious and slow. I wonder how many snakes live in the dark holes I am stepping over and how many rocks over my head are ready to topple. My guide waits patiently as I climb up and over huge rocks. Soon we emerge on top of a roof and walk along its arch. From this height I am face to face with carved horses and chariots, demons and gods, mythical creatures, and dancing women. In silence we walk as he points to beautiful sights I never would have found on my own.

When we eventually reach the main enterance again I can see Tim in the distance busily taking photos. This is a photographer's heaven. I give the boy a small tip and thank him for a tour I will never forget. top

Children of Angkor Wat

michelleOne of my favourite things about Angkor Wat were the many Cambodian children I met. Some were there because their parents worked at stalls, selling goods to tourists, and others were there working as tour guides. I questioned one 11-year-old boy why he wasn't in school and he explained he attends school in the morning and then gives tours in the afternoon. He is not supposed to work on the temple grounds so a large part of the money he earns goes to police as a payoff. I didn't hire him myself, but watched as he led a large group of American tourists through stone ruins. Facts and dates flowed from his lips and I found him articulate, funny, and bright. There is not a lot of opportunities for a poor village boy in Cambodia, but I hope this kid is successful in life. He captured my heart.

Here are some of the other children I also met:

A beautiful girl whose mother sells drinks along the road:

A chubby baby:

A group of boys:

A young boy drinking a tourist's leftover coconut milk:

A big smile from a little one:


Angkor Wat, the most majestic of the many temples in the ancient city of Angkor, Cambodia. This temple was built by the rulers of the Khmer people over eight centuries ago as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu. An outside corridor at Angkor Wat, the most majestic of the many temples in the ancient city of Angkor, Cambodia. This temple was built by the rulers of the Khmer people over eight centuries ago as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu. Beautiful carving of two dancing women on the temple walls of Angkor Wat, the most majestic of the many temples in the ancient city of Angkor, Cambodia. This temple was built by the rulers of the Khmer people over eight centuries ago as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu.