Monday, February 11, 2008

Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Capital

Over the last century, the Cambodian capital city has been through a lot. In 1953, Cambodia was granted independence from French colonialism. The country's economy flourished over the next fifteen years until the army overthrew the Cambodian king. The king fled to Beijing where he was influenced to support a small Cambodian communist party, the Khmer Rouge ("Red Khmer" in French). During the Vietnam war, U.S. and Southern Vietnam forces invaded the country to destroy Northern Vietnamese communist cells. This only gave the Khmer Rouge more support and five years of fighting led to the Khmer Rouge taking over Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge four year rule may be the most dreadful in history. They wanted to create a completely agrarian state, so people were relocated from cities to the countryside to work the land. Phnom Penh became a ghost town. Intellectuals were labeled enemies of the state and systematically killed. Thousands of families were separated and many died from malnutrition and disease in the countryside. In 1978, Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. This meant that thousands of Cambodians left the fields in search of their family members and subsequently, a massive famine killed thousands more. Estimates say nearly two million Cambodians died during the four-year Khmer Rouge rule. The Khmer Rouge fought a guerilla war throughout the 1980s and 1990s until 1998 when numerous defections led to the end of the party. There are lots of books and movies on the subject but the most well-known are "First They Killed my Father", a first person account of a child survivor of Khmer Rough child soldier camps, and "The Killing Fields", an account of an American reporter in Cambodia during Year Zero of the Khmer Rouge rule.

Today, Phnom Penh is a bustling city with monuments and museums commemorating its history. Independence monument commemorates Cambodian independence from French colonialism.

The walled royal palace grounds are located on a massive plot of land next to the Tonle Sap river.

Wat Phnom is one of the city's oldest Buddhist temples and a crew of monkeys reak havoc with its visitors. I bought a bundle of bananas to feed them.

As I fed one fat monkey to the next, one snuck up behind me and stole the whole bunch of bananas. That dastardly monkey displayed sharp teeth when I tried to get the bananas back, so he ended the afternoon with a healthy-sized lunch. I swallowed my pride and admitted I had been outsmarted by a monkey!

Of all the sights in Phnom Penh, the Tuol Sleng genocide museum and Choeung Ek killing fields are the most amazing. Tuol Sleng, also known as Khmer Rouge S-21 prison, was originally a high school. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge converted it into a prison to hold, interrogate, and exterminate enemies of the state. Windows were barred. Barbed wire was wound over walls and around window bars. Holding cells were created within former classrooms. At its operational height, the prison held 1,200 to 1,500 prisoners for two to four months at a time. Only seven people survived imprisonment at Tuol Sleng; over 10,000 died.

Today, Tuol Sleng has been left in the same state it was found to teach the world about the horrors of genocide. There are four stone buildings, each three stories high with about ten classrooms per floor.

Some classrooms were split into individual holding cells made of brick or wood.

Others had a bed frame, a metal bar for locking prisoners, and a horrific photograph of a dead body found in the room.

Most rooms were empty and had been used as mass prison cells. Photographs of the victims were displayed in many rooms.

One survivor of Tuol Sleng was a painter. He survived because the Khmer Rouge leaders needed him to paint their portraits. When Tuol Sleng was liberated, he created paintings detailing the atrocities that had occurred. These paintings are in the museum and are the most accurate representation of the prison life at Tuol Sleng.

From Rwanda to Dachau to Tuol Sleng, this trip has involved too many genocide memorials. When will humankind learn?

About ten kilometers outside of Phnom Penh are the Choeung Ek killing fields. Tuol Sleng prisoners were taken to these farm fields to be terminated. Mass graves have been unearthed and thousands of unidentified people were buried here.

A tall stupa memorial full of unearthed skulls greets visitors to the grim sight.

Signs explain the logistics of the mass killing. Even as we walked along the path through the fields, clothing and bones protruded from the worn pathway. A tree appeared to be a collection point for unearthed clothing.

The horrible stories and grim graveyard left us in a somber mood. Our tuk-tuk driver recognized this.

"So, you've seen Tuol Sleng and now killing fields. You feel sad?"

"Very sad."

"Would you like to shoot Pol Pot (Brother #1 of Khmer Rouge)?"

"Of course."

"Alright, let's go."

From there, we were driven five kilometers down a dirt road in the Cambodian countryside. We arrived at a huge green gate. Our driver knocked on the gate and spoke with a man in camouflage pants with a green shirt. The gate opened and the driver pointed us to a table. A man handed us a menu.

Lucky Strike Shooting Range
AK-4725 shots$30
M-1625 shots$30
TommyGun25 shots$30
Colt456 shots$15

The list was long, maybe 25 different weapons on the first page.

I flipped the menu.

Hand Grenade1 shot$6
RPG1 shot$220

When they say anything goes in Cambodia, they mean anything. Like a good American, I signed up for the AK-47.

They led Laura and I to a long cement corridor that was terminated by a pile of tires with Pol Pot pinned to them. The camouflage man set up the AK-47 with a full cartridge in single shot mode. I sat down at a desk, aimed for Pol Pot's head, and fired.

After six of seven shots, I wanted to feel the automatic power of the AK-47. The man showed me how to switch it over, and my cartridge was over in a second. The gun was much more difficult to control. Dad and Greg, what is my grade, A, B, C, D, or F?

After days with guns, genocide, and torture, we explored Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh. The Cambodians call any sport stadium Olympic stadium; it hasn't actually held an Olympics. The massive arena had a soccer field, track, swimming pool, and most importantly, a basketball court. It was even complete with an Olympic torch holder. The massive arena is loaded with people running, doing aerobics, and playing sports in the afternoons. It has to be one of the most amazing rec centers I've ever seen. It took months, but I finally got my first game in Southeast Asia.

We travel to Bokor National Park for our last stop in Cambodia.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss the search for the superbowl. The New England Patriots were on the cusp of football history winning their first 18 games. They could be the first team to go 19-0 and the second to finish an NFL season undefeated. To top it off, they could do it all against my father's beloved NY Giants and add another Manning to their victim's list. I had missed nearly the entire NFL season this year; I couldn't miss the crowning moment. Laura and I adjusted plans so we would be in Phnom Penh for the superbowl morning. We encountered an American restaurant owner in Kompong Cham that ensured us the game would be on in Cambodia. Upon arrival to a guesthouse in Phnom Penh, I asked for the television remote. Cleanliness, hot water, and butthoses were now completely irrelevant; how many sports channels did they have? They had two channels sporting the ESPN moniker and three others showing soccer games. We took the room. At 6AM the following morning, the alarm went off and seconds later the TV was on. Flip, flip, flip, soccer, flip, flip, flip, soccer, flip, flip, golf... Despite our efforts, the game was not on. UGGGGHHHH! As I was fuming and pounding the TV remote, Laura diligently searched the Lonely Planet guidebook. Voila, a bar called "The Gym" carried all big farang sporting events. It was a long walk, but Laura convinced me to go for it. A twenty minute walk got us to the bar where a huge whiteboard advertised "SUPERBOWL. Giants Vs Patriots. 6 AM." Sure enough, it was full of farang and we were there for the second quarter. It was an extremely good game with a terrible result. My father's NY Giants defeated the, until then, undefeated NE Patriots. In the form of a Cambodian bar full of NY Giants fans, I felt my father gloating from miles away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

we ask ourselves how these genocides can happen; yet the same thing is happening now in the Dafur area and inthe aftermath of the rigged elections in Chad. If not for our U.S. presents in Iraq, it would probably be happening there in the name of Sunni or Shiite Gods. It must have felt a little bit good to fire that AK-47 at the image of such a horrible man. From an AK-47 to a basketball in an "olympic park" must have felt great--don't know if those Southeast Asian countries will ever experience what real freedom is with the giant China sitting right next to them. Perhaps something like the real Olympics happening in China will westernize that country a bit more and give their people hope. DAD