On what was the first of many excursions to architectural wonders (this one, Mughal):
Faced with the prospect of staying in Phnom Penh or traveling elsewhere while waiting for my visa to be processed, I chose elsewhere. Not knowing a whole lot about what to do (relax, duh!) or where to go, I asked the people at SuperStar Hotel, where I was staying in Phnom Penh. The owner threw out some ideas.
Do you want to go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat? (Been there, done that.)
Do you want to see the river dolphins in northern Cambodia? (I never went through a hardcore dolphin phase when I was younger, so that didn’t interest me.)
What about Sihanoukville? You could go to the beach. (I didn’t bring my swimsuit with me.)
Man, am I difficult.
“What about Bokor National Park?” I asked.
You will have to go to Kampot and take a daytrip from there.
So I went to my room, thought about it, and purchased a ticket early the next morning. (Well, not that early. By the time I asked around 7am or so, all of the buses until 2 in the afternoon were full. So I bought a ticket for a late bus and then went to have my great breakfast of ficelle and butter and jam)
The way to Kampot was wonderful. The business of city life melted away to quiet villages. The farther south we went, the more beautiful the architecture was. The French had quite a stronghold in southern Cambodia and as a result, many people live in French colonial-style cottages. They were so charming and the colors were so perfect that I couldn’t contain myself. I wanted to burst. The sun had set long before I reached my destination, so I never got a proper picture.
I had only one full day in Kampot and I knew exactly how I wanted to spend it. Touring the Bokor Hill Station! There’s a national park that houses the remnants of a French colonial settlement, perched high atop a mountain, with vistas of the ocean.
We were up in the clouds.
Before the French took over, parts of the hill were popular vacationing spots for the then King of Cambodia. There were remnants of his estate.
I fall in love with a new color every week or so, and naturally I fell for the deep, rich color of this moss.
There was an old temple, an interesting use of French architecture for a Buddhist house of worship.
Bokor National Park was equal parts decay and (re)construction.
Take, for example, this church.
By the looks of it, I expected it to be abandoned on the inside. However, the Chinese had purchased a significant amount of land in the National Park and were building casinos and hotels left and right. Now the church is home to squatters, people working in construction with no places to live. It felt intruding to go inside the church, in these people’s homes, so I chose not to.
Worse still was the old French casino. The reason I took a 6 hour bus ride to southeastern Cambodia.
This was as close as I got. I took a few steps closer, but was yelled at by construction workers. I had hoped for a chance to explore the old casino, room by room. I wanted to see how time and weather atop a mountain had aged it. Unfortunately, the Chinese has purchase the old French casino and are turning it into either a new Chinese casino or a hotel.
The whole day was a disappointment. I was looking forward to taking amazing pictures, but economic development (really, future hotels and casinos and construction workers) got in the way of that. I suppose that this is rather short sighted of me, feeling disappointed that I was unable to take enough pictures of remnants of French colonialism. But what got in my way was almost neo-colonialism, in a way. I wonder who will retain the profits of the massive, future hotels and casinos. Odds are, they won’t go to helping any of the Cambodian people.
On top of all of my disappointment and processing, I was feeling a little sick all day. And then I had to watch a feeble old woman in my group cough up a massive wad of phlegm. That didn’t make me feel better.
I was dropped off back in the town of Kampot, where I was supposed to go on a sunset cruise down a river (not the Mekong, for once). I was planning on ditching the cruise, but decided I had nothing else to do.
While I waited, I talked with a Vietnamese woman living in Kampot who shared her amazing story of
being kidnapped and almost sold into sex slavery. On her way to be sold, she was in a massive motorcycle accident and lost her leg. She then started an orphanage and a bakery. Of course, I was listening to this as I had Khmer iced coffee and lemon meringue cake.
I’m glad I went on the cruise. It turned out to be the highlight of my day.
And so I went back to the cozy room in my hotel for the night. I was getting hungry and I decided to have a nice meal, hopeful that I would feel better with some food in me.
No such luck! I ordered a small, beautiful eggplant parmesan and a salad an I could hardly touch it. This upset me more than anything the whole day! The owner of the restaurant asked if the food was alright. I explained that it was delicious, I was just sick. And if you know me, you know my propensity to cry. I shed a few, silent tears over the fact that I wasn’t hungry enough to eat this great food. Thankfully, I am totally fine and this is now just a silly story to illustrate how solemn and ridiculous I can get sometimes.
To finish my trip:
– I made it back to Phnom Penh (the bus broke down and I took a motorcycle taxi the rest of the way)
– I got my visa
-I made it back to Thailand after a 15 hour journey and a rather harrowing experience at the border
– and here I am, back in the boonies, where my updates will come from now!
Among friends, it’s an easy jab at me to joke about something Southeast Asia related. In the past few years, I’ve managed to travel around to quite a few countries of the geographic region. At 22, I feel fortunate to say that I’ve been able to see many of the places I’ve wanted to see within Southeast Asia. One such place, Phnom Penh, had been on my list to visit for a long time.
I’d been to Cambodia before, but only for a very short while, and only to see the Angkor temple complex. While the temples were varied and beautiful and historical and overgrown and crawling with tourists (but still surely worth a visit), I wanted to see something that wasn’t on most people’s bucket lists.
Tuol Sleng Prison.
Tuol Sleng Prison, commonly referred to in Cambodia as “S-21,” is a high school-turned-prison and torture center-turned-museum. I had spent a great deal of my undergrad grappling with issues of genocide and war and the subsequent reconstruction and capacity-building processes. This led me to a great deal of comparison between Timor-Leste and Cambodia.
I had first become aware of the history of Tuol Sleng after reading an article about an exhibition at MoMA of the Khmer Rouge’s prison photography, written by a professor of anthropology at RISD, Lindsay Cole French. The piece was haunting. I remember class discussion about it, 3 years ago now. I resolved to see the photography one day.
Last month, that day came. I set out for Tuol Sleng, ready to learn and reflect.
Housed in a former high school, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a prison used to hold and torture prisoners of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979.
Of the 17,000 to 20,000 people who passed through Tuol Sleng, only seven people survived.
Most prisoners where carted off to the Killing Fields of Choung-Ek, a few short kilometers outside the city. Choung-Ek was its own solemn visit.
Signage or restoration were sparse. The rooms were left more or less as they were found, with only necessary cleaning to be done before the museum was opened to the public.
Most rooms were bare, the shackles room and stored in one central location. In other rooms, instruments of torture lay in the places they were originally used.
Barbed wire, meant to keep prisoners from jumping to their deaths, was still strung up along the outside passageways.
Clothing from prisoners was displayed.
Like the perpetrators of torture and extermination before them, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous documentation. Part of the museum housed photographs of incoming prisoners. As I’m often moved by images, this was the most personally disturbing and memorable and valuable part of the museum.
The courtyard seemed bleak and pointless. There was no hiding its past as a place for hangings and torture.
The experience of visiting Tuol Sleng (and Choung-Ek) is a sobering one, but a necessary one.
One of the most interesting parts of my trip to Tuol Sleng was not the museum itself, but what was happening across the street.
It’s wedding season in Cambodia and these wedding tents are everywhere, everywhere. I found it interesting that a couple would choose to have their wedding right across from one of the most indelible reminders of genocide from modern history. Maybe this shows the resilience and healing of the Cambodian people.