wander process


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Thoroughly Haunting: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

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.


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Tarantula Supper

Remember that time I ate a cricket?
Or that time my friend Karl paid me a dollar to eat a bug that had fallen into my mocha at brunch?
Also, there was one time when I discover that there was a worm in the apple I was eating and I threw it across the room (but let’s not talk about that).

Well I went WAAAAY far past that level of craziness last week.

I had just arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the week and I figured that the best way to spend my first night in the city was to have a nice meal and walk around. My friend (and fellow intern in Timor-Leste) Andrew lives in Singapore and makes frequent trips to Phnom Penh and provided me with a wealth of suggestions for great places to eat.

Andrew especially recommended Romdeng. Romdeng was located on a quiet street off a main road. There were lights strung all around and people milling about and I immediately got the feeling my meal was going to be great.

I sat down for a romantic dinner for one and poured over the menu. Looking at the appetizer section, I saw an offering I had read about online. It was so crazy, so scary, so strange, that I knew (and you knew too, let’s admit it) that I had to try it.

Tarantulas.

I was a little intimidated by the size, I’ll admit. If I saw one of these guys in real life, I’d head in the opposite direction. It was comforting knowing that I had power over them when they were dead and that they only crawling they would be doing was through my digestive system.

Imagine me, sitting alone in a restaurant in a city in a different country. The waiter brings a plate of tarantulas for me to eat and I receive looks of equal parts shock, horror, and amusement from a nearby table of save-the-world-girls who are about my age.

And so I dug in. I started with the legs. I braced myself for the bulging abdomen but I found it pretty nutty or legume-y. The flavors weren’t very strong. The chili lime sauce these spiders came with was helpful in adding flavor. After getting rid of the mental stumbling block, the weirdest part about eating all three of these suckers was the crunchiness of all of their insides! (I know you wanted that detail). I probably had serious looks on my face throughout the tarantula eating process, as I was trying to discern the different flavors and trying to process the fact that I was eating tarantulas. I would certainly eat one again. There’s a whole world of bugs that I have yet to try.

Here’s the history lesson I will leave you with – I heard that eating tarantulas was not a common practice in Cambodia until fairly recently. Under the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, food was as scarce as scarce could be and people turned to eating critters like spiders. Now, they certainly continue eating tarantulas, but this was a nice restaurant catering to tourists who were into the idea of Romdeng’s social enterprise (they provide job training to underprivileged children) and excellent fusion food so I think it’s more of thing to shock tourists than anything else.