It has been easy to feel comfortable in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, as it is the most Westernized city we have been to as of yet. Even the large supermarket that we have already visited three times for measly items we can buy closer to our hotel is a comfort. In addition, the ATMs spit out US dollar bills and purchases are made with a mix of dollars and riels. Besides its Western features, this city is remarkable in so many other ways.
Since we plan to go to Myanmar (Burma) later in our trip and knew we would be spending some time here, we decided to go ahead and apply for our Myanmar visa which would take nearly a week to get back. Thursday morning we purchased our airline tickets from Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar for a little more than a month from now and made our way to the embassy. The application process was a breeze and they never did ask for our proof of entry and exit (airline tickets) as we expected we would need. This morning we picked up our passports complete with Myanmar visas! We are very excited we will have the opportunity to visit a country that is currently in the process of opening more to the outside world and changing drastically every week.
We spent Friday in the heart of the city where we visited the National Museum and the Royal Palace. The National Museum had an impressive array of Khmer art and sculptures, with fantastic educational resources to better understand the meanings to images we see repeated on buildings and sculptures everywhere. It is a shame pictures are not allowed inside most museums. We were able to take some outside in the courtyard though.
The Royal Palace was even more spectacular, with its grand buildings, temple, and related Buddhist structures. One building contains a silver-tiled floor and an emerald Buddha statue, the two main draws of the Palace. The silver tiles, bent, dinged up, and worn, were mostly covered by rugs. Not the wisest flooring material it seems! I couldn’t understand the fuss over the emerald Buddha, which was placed so high on a pedestal that we could barely get a glimpse. It was so much smaller and less beautiful in my opinion than many of the marble and stone Buddhas we have seen. I guess glitz and glam just aren’t my thing, because I was more impressed with the landscaping and shrubbery sculptures! Bryan and I couldn’t help but discussing, while walking through these grand structures and sculptures dedicated to Buddha, what the man who taught modesty would think of all this.
Saturday we decided to pay our respects to those who were massacred by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. We first visited Choeung Ek Killing Fields outside the city where we were given a headset tour guide. Prisoners from elsewhere were taken to these fields only to be killed. It was a very moving experience as we walked around listening to personal stories from survivors on our headsets. A large memorial sits in front of the entrance where the excavated bones from the mass grave sites are visibly stored. The exhumed graves remain as massive pits dotting the fields, with signs warning to keep an eye out for bones and clothes that regularly surface. We next visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, aka S-21, which was originally a school. The Khmer Rouge did not believe in education, so the school was closed and turned into prison and torture chambers. Shackles and torture tools remained on display. One of the buildings was left in the same condition it was found, with barbed-wire netting covering the front, and single cells partitioned with brick or wood. One of the 7 survivors from this prison was on sight, now an old man, signing his book. He survived because they found out his profession as a painter and they used him for portraits of officials and so forth. The Khmer Rouge took vigilant records and photographed each prisoner. As we were walking through the thousands of photos, three local women brought tears to my eyes as they lovingly caressed and mourned each of the faces photographed. As I take it all to heart, it is quite emotional for me to visit sites like this, but it is important to me. We must remember and learn from such events to prevent recurrences, but most importantly, we must recognize the beauty, courage, and strength within one another that shows up in the worst of times.
Friday night we had checked out the weekend night market, with its loud nightly concerts, super cheap clothes, and variety of foods. We had a pretty good sized dinner for $3, enjoyed on a grass mat rolled out on the cement. At breakfast on Saturday morning, our waiter asked if he could tag along with us to the Night Market on our second visit. He introduced us to something called nime, which we previously thought were eyeballs but they were just a spicy snack in little bags. Bryan ate a lot of them that night! He invited us to go to Dreamland with him on Sunday afternoon. Dreamland turned out to be a small amusement park where we rode a few small rides, and one which we had never seen in the U.S., and we found out why! It spun around in a horizontal circle like so many others, but you were in a round cage that rolled like being inside the tire of a monster truck. After one long ride, we were screaming and involuntarily laughing so hard that they must have thought we hadn’t had enough. To our horror they started it all over again (probably to amuse the crowd we drew)! It spun so fast we were profusely sweating, couldn’t see straight, and could barely walk for awhile afterwords. That was rough!
On Monday we volunteered at a small school outside the city for some of the poorest children. The school has a kindergarten, computer lab, and a vocational class that teaches English and German to older students in addition to what the public school teaches. Speaking a foreign language is very important for success to many Cambodians, and the public school nearby has no computers either. I spent time in the morning with the kindergartners while Bryan worked on a couple donated computers. At lunch time we went out with a truckload of kids to drop them off at their 10’x8′ grass huts built on the side of the road and to fill water jugs with clean drinking water for families in the area. It was beautiful to talk to these happy children that didn’t even have clean clothes but were doing so well in class, speaking clear English, and working towards bright futures. We were told one student is being sponsored by a German company and is set up for more education in Germany and possibly a job through that company.