This is the last part of my daily blog that I need to complete. It ended up being my last one as it is likely the toughest one to write other than the one I did on debt bondage.
We awoke after sleeping about 4 hours at 7:30 am on Monday, July 8th. Feeling disoriented as I was still tired and trying to get my bearings to my new surroundings. I was quite cold last night from the air conditioner.
Today would be our first full day in Phnom Penh. We met for breakfast in the Indochine 2 restaurant which was connected to our hotel. Breakfast was westernized as there were some similar choices to home but not without some differences. I ordered the Indochine breakfast which comprised of freshly squeezed orange juice and an omlette with several slices of a french baguette. The baguette was done right and the French would have approved. Had some hot sauce with my eggs and thoroughly enjoyed my breakfast. Our program coordinator Rainbow asked each of us to share how we came to choose HOPE and make the decision to come on this volunteer trip. Each story was unique yet the same. We all wanted to do our part to try to make a difference in the world. We wanted to do something meaningful.
I was recently told by a life coach that people are desperate to find meaning in their lives and I agree with him. In our North American world of fast- paced lives, electronics in our every waking moment, mass consumerism and debt, it feels like the world is spiralling out of control. What counts and where is there meaning in my life and why am I here?
Just out in front of the restaurant which was out on the sidewalk, a man had a cart full of coconuts which he was selling for $1 US. I started my day with a fresh young coconut and enjoyed my coconut water. After drinking all the water we had our server bring the coconut to the kitchen to be cut in half. Now we would get to enjoy the coconut meat lining the inside of the coconut. What a treat and how special to start our day this way.
After breakfast we set off to the local bank to change some of our US money to Riel which is the local currency in Cambodia. The rate is currently
$1 US to $4,020 Riel but we generally received $4,000 Riel.
For foreigners, it is very reasonable to eat and shop in Cambodia. In an average priced restaurant you could have Pad Thai for $4. A set of 10 postcards at a vendor outside of the Ek Memorial were selling for $1 each. A t-shirt at the market was generally $2 US and the quality is good. At a higher end restaurant, Pad Thai would be about $8. A small silk cosmetic bag made by hand for $3.50.
While in Phnom Penh we had two drivers. One of whom is named Kevin and has a 5 year old son. A very nice and funny man. He would join us at our table. Usually he would not eat but would have a beverage. The other man was much quieter and we did not get his name. They drove us around Phnom Penh and our first stop that day would be to go to the Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields is now called the Choeung Ek Memorial http://www.phnompenh.gov.kh/phnom-penh-city-choeung-ek-memorial-139.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choeung_Ek and http://www.tourismcambodia.org/provincial_guide/index.php?view=attdetail&prv=15&att=5&page=2
After our admission was paid, we each received an audio player with a brochure listing the audio tour stop list. Often times I sat down in the peace and quiet to fully absorb what I was hearing. Some parts I couldn't finish listening to, such as what horrors were inflicted on babies. Many other recordings made me cry as it was heart wrenching to learn what people had to endure. Even harder was the fact that it was one human being torturing and killing another.
It was a sombre atmosphere and the group split up and walked around the grounds. People spoke in hushed tones in respect of those that died here. I knew about the genocide but had never learned more about it. I just knew that it had happened under the Khmer Rouge and I knew the name Pol Pot. Other than that, I had limited knowledge. I had never seen the movie The Killing Fields although I was certainly away of it, aware of the actor Haing S. Ngor http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0628955/bio and how he was tragically murdered. Much if not all of the memorial was fenced in. Outside the fences were bodies of water, people working in the fields and the occasional home. There was a family living in a shack of a home and a young boy was begging. People ignored him. I ignored him at first and then I didn't teach him the right thing, and I did give him a dollar. I realize that I wasn't doing him any favours but everything was so new to me and my emotions were raw.
Going to the stupa was the toughest part. http://www.war-memorial.net/Killing-Fields-Memorial-at-Choeung-Ek-1.80 Seeing all the skulls just reinforced the deaths and how many there were. You could light incense and purchase flowers by donation for the memorial. I wasn't in time to watch any of the video clips in the museum but did get a chance to read about some members of the Khmer Rouge. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge_rule_of_Cambodia Shockingly, many of the members were well-educated and educated in France. How could intelligent people commit such atrocities?
Our group did sit down and have some lighter conversation for a while. Kailey was overcome by a combination of dehydration, heat and maybe lack of food. Sitting down, eating something and cooling off made her feel better. It was very emotional for all of us and that likely contributed to her not feeling well. It was also a very hot day and we had barely gotten used to the heat.
After we had seen all we wanted to see at the memorial, we got back into the vehicles and headed out to have lunch at the Khmer Surin Restaurant. It was a little bit of paradise, lush and beautifully decorated.
After lunch we then went to visit S-21, which was the former security office 21 and is now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museumhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum. This was also a tough place to visit. At the entrance there were some beggars. Some of the beggars had missing limbs due to land mines I am guessing, as they were older. Sad to see. It was hard for us as some had never seen anything like this.
We visited the various prison cells, there were two buildings containing different sized cells. Some were larger rooms and the others were very small cells, about the size of a small bathroom. We also read about many of the prisoners. Those that survived had some sort of skill that made them useful to the Khmer Rouge. One prisoner was able to repair machinery, while another was able to paint portraits of the party members.
On the prison grounds were beautiful large plumeria trees and many of the flowers littered the ground. Such beauty in a place of so much anguish. We saw a jackfruit tree and I wasn't sure if there were other fruit trees as well. While we were here the weather turned a bit stormy and we had a heavy shower and then it was done.
A man by the name of Chum Mey http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chum_Mey had written a book about his story as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge Genocide. He happened to be there on the day that we came and we didn't know how often he is there. Rainbow and I had our pictures taken with him when we both bought copies of his book which he signed. I later found out that he is only one of 12 known survivors of S21.
We left the prison and headed back to our hotel where we had a little rest. A time was set for us to meet up again and we walked along Sisowath Quay which runs along the west bank of the Tonle Sap River http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonl%C3%A9_Sap. The wide promenade reminded me immediately of Nice. There was a lot of activity. People strolling along, while others sold food items. There was also an outdoor aerobics class which we joined in and had some fun. I think someone said that they do that for hours.
We saw the Royal Palace, many street vendors, wandered around and just explored our neighborhood.
After walking for a while we decided to stop for a drink at a restaurant along the Quay on the opposite side of the walkway. We also ordered a snack as by now we were feeling hungry. We had some pizza which was pretty decent. Lunch was later in the day and so we weren't hungry earlier.
We saw the ugly side of Phnom Penh as we saw older men with very young girls. Some were children for certain. It reminded us of how human trafficking thrives in a third world country. From the following Wikipedia link is the following excerpt:
"A UNICEF survey concluded that 35 percent of Cambodia's 15,000 prostitutes are children under the age of 16. Almost all of Cambodian brothels are Vietnamese-owned with most of its voluntary sex slaves being of Vietnamese descent and its captured sex slaves being of another ethnic group. Men are trafficked for forced labor in the agriculture, fishing, and construction industries. Women are trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labor in factories or as domestic servants." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_trafficking_in_Cambodia
We were soon bombarded by children selling gift items, scarves, wallets, bracelets, fans, etc. Some of the children were very young, maybe 4 or 5 years old. No one looked like they were older than 10 years old. I purchased a couple of bracelets from a boy and when my team member declined to buy anything he rudely called her stingy. We verbally reprimanded him and it didn't seem to faze him. There was also a sweet little girl selling there and we luckily saw her again the next morning at our hotel restaurant which was only a few blocks away. This little girl will hopefully go far in life. She called us my lovely and she was polite and respectful. She also didn't hustle or rip you off. She is rare. She told us her name is Pon which happens to be my Chinese last name. She said her mother told her to be polite. We were quite happy to buy from her and support her business.
A most eventful and emotional first full day in Phnom Penh. My adventure in Cambodia is just beginning.