Phnom Penh

We had an arduous day of travel from Phi Phi to our final destination for the day Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We took a ferry back to Hat Yow, then a van to the airport in Trang, took a flight to Bangkok, which was late by an hour.  I’d booked a connecting flight to Phnom Penh three hours after we were to arrive in Bangkok.  This was enough time to get from the domestic airport to the international airport in Bangkok’s maddening traffic, but because we were late by an hour, we now only had two hours to get to there.  We arrived at 6 p.m. and our flight out was at 8 p.m. Good thing I had befriended a friendly English-speaking taxi driver and arranged to have him at the domestic airport when we arrived.  We then flew like a bat out of hell to the other side of the city, rushed into the international airport, which is gigantic, checked our bags, flew through customs (thank god I spoke Thai to the main officers and was taken to the front of the line), and walk/ran to our gate.  We could see the final call had come and gone. Alas, the ticket taker called to the bus waiting outside the gate that would take us to the plane. They held it for us – the two final passengers.  One hour later, we arrived in Cambodia!  It was a maddening rush, but we made it. Phnom Penh’s immigration officials were incredibly unfriendly and rude, but we secured our visas, withdrew dollars from the ATM and made our way to the guesthouse.  Our heads hit the pillow and we crashed.  It’s strange to be using American money in Cambodia but their monetary system isn’t strong so you pay in dollars and they give you change in Cambodian Riel.

Child Victims of the Khmer Rouge

The next morning, we awoke early.  I had a goal of seeing the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, followed by a tour of the Killing Fields and planned to leave for Siem Reap by noon.  We essentially had three hours to fit all this in. Our guesthouse arranged a tuk tuk driver who was incredibly friendly and informative.  We went straight to the Tuol Sleng – one of many sites where Cambodian people were imprisoned, tortured and interrogated by the evil regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  The cells contained the torture devices and haunting photographs of victims.  I had to leave and nearly puked on the cement outside.  I have never seen anything so daunting.  I left after 20 minutes, tears streaming down my face.  Pol Pot decided he would ethnically cleanse the country of Cambodia in the mid-seventies.  He killed villagers, scholars, intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, women, babies, and monks.  His regime was responsible for horrifically killing over 3 million Cambodians.  He wanted to destroy money and religion and create a new society of subordinance that he could control through fear.

The Khmer Rouge ruled for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days.  They systematically changed the face of Cambodia and left the country and people in ruins. Today, Cambodia is trying to rebound but it is still broken and corruption and poverty are rampant.  The regime was taken down by Cambodians with the “help” of the Vietnamese who stole Cambodian land and made huge profits.  Many of the former Khmer militants went into government and are still in rule.  It is also important to understand that the U.S.  supplied weapons to the Khmer Rouge and were complicit in the devastation.  Cambodia lost the majority of what would now be its middle-aged population.  The median age in Cambodia is now 22.  Pol Pot eventually died a natural death, escaping any sort of real justice.  It was not until last year that some of the main leaders were brought to court and convicted, sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment. Cambodia has not seen justice for the heinous crimes committed against its people.  Many escaped any sort of conviction at all.  The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979.  Justice was not brought until 2010.  And it has yet to be fully obtained.  This is unspeakable.

Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng, musée du génocide

We then headed to the Killing Fields outside the capital by about 20 kilometers.  Cambodia is not unlike India.  It is dirty, riddled with trash and bad smells, the water is polluted and many people are poor.  It has a vibrant pulse despite all this and reminds me a lot of India although it is easier in many respects.  We arrived at the Killing Fields within 45 minutes.  Mass graves covered the area.  You can still see fragments of bone and teeth.  The monument resurrected at the center of the fields in honor of the victims contains the skulls of hundreds of those who perished under the Khmer Rouge.  It is daunting to say the least.  There really are no words.  I had to leave after an hour.  I couldn’t bear the horror and tragedy.  I was overwhelmed with sadness and disgust for the entire human race.  War, genocide, violence, suffering.  Maybe we’ll never figure out nonviolence.  Maybe it’s a lost cause.  They told us never again after WWII.  But then we had Cambodia.  And then Rwanda.  And now the DRC.  Humanity must either experience a quantum leap in evolution or I’m convinced it will destroy everything in its path including the planet.  It certainly makes a person question the idea of god and karma.  I’ve always thought hell was right here on earth.  This experience in Southeast Asia has only cemented that notion for me.  The paradox is that humanity is also good, caring, compassionate and productive.  Therein lies the rub.  It was extremely strange to support the tourism of the Killing Fields.  If the Cambodians are truly honoring the victims, I support that wholeheartedly and I’d like to believe they are.  If corrupt government officials and/or the Vietnamese are benefiting financially from the tourism, well, that, I just can’t get behind.

We then left on a bus that would take us six hours north to Siem Reap – the jump-off point for the temples of Angkor.  On the bus, I finished reading Somaly Mam’s autobiography, The Road to Lost Innocence, about her experience being sold into Cambodian sex trafficking, routinely raped and beaten, living as a prostitute in brothels for numerous years before escaping with a French humanitarian, and then becoming an anti-trafficking activist.  She now heads Somaly Mam Foundation and works to rescue girls from the same circumstances.  She is a brave pioneer who keeps fighting despite raids, threats of violence and the long, continually uphill battle.  I cannot be in Cambodia without continually thinking of the girls and young women locked in brothels here, forced into submission and forced to have sex with numerous men – both Cambodian and foreign.  Their suffering is unimaginable; they are treated as property.  Violently raped, beaten, burned, lied to, sold again and again, and infected with disease. They are treated as subhumans without any hope of escaping, existing in perpetual slavedom until they are dead on the inside.  Women in this part of the world are considered property.  Owned by their husbands and families and used as collateral to repay debts and/or support the family financially.  There is absolutely no humanity in sex trafficking.  The men who purchase sex from prostitutes whether local men or tourists are the worst on the planet in my opinion.  They are paying to rape girls and young women.  I am not opposed to severing their penises with a machete.  Given the chance, I would do it myself.  Maybe I’m becoming a militant feminist after all.  I just have zero tolerance for violence against women.  I want more than anything to be a part of the rescue missions happening in Thailand and Cambodia. I want nothing more than to see these torture prisons raided and obliterated.  I want mothers to stop selling their daughters.  I want police and government officials to stop buying cheap sex.  I want to uplift these girls from their personal hells and help heal their wounds.  I want to show them that a better life can be had.  One in which they are respected and loved.  Given opportunities through education and job training.  I encourage men the world over, even the ones I know in Missoula, Montana who have traveled to Thailand for the “dirty old man tour” to think before they act.  To investigate.  To understand the realities of sex trafficking and prostitution.  And to clearly assess the ramifications of their temporary pleasure however innocent they may think it is.

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2 thoughts on “Phnom Penh

  1. Hi Noel,

    I hope you are alright. I just read about the earthquake in North Thailand and in the article I read it talked about a 53 year old woman killed in Mai Sai. Please post an article when you get a chance.

    -Big B

    1. Big B! I am okay. I’m currently in Cambodia so I missed the earthquake altogether. Mae Sai felt it quite strongly. But everyone is okay. One reported death of a woman trying to protect her son. A few strong aftershocks were felt last night as well. No major structural damage that I know of. Heading back to Thailand tomorrow. Will be in Mae Sai on Sunday. Posting current updates on Facebook. Thanks for checking in. All is okay with me. Hearing from my students in Mae Sai. They are all okay but frightened. Will keep you posted. The world is scarier and scarier these days…

      Big love to you, Tim, Joom and Sonja!

      Miss you guys!

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