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Travel is the Ultimate Education

Phnom Penh, Center of Cambodia’s Darker History
Royal Palace
Another eight-hour grueling bus ride brought us to Phnom Penh, the
capital of Cambodia.  The journey was like all the others, except for
one added bonus.  In addition to the rough roads, horn blowing and
Khmer music videos, it featured a television episode of a slapstick
comedy that made the Three Stooges look like Oscar nominees.  The only
thing funny about it was watching the locals on the bus laugh
uproariously.  It reminded me of a Cambodian version of the old
television show Hee Haw, which I never found funny either.

Penh is a sprawling city with more than 1.5 million people, and is
located where three rivers including the Mekong meet.  It is also the
country’s center of government, culture and industrial production.  One
of the city’s main attractions is the Royal Place complex, which is
located across the street from the riverfront area, and near the
National Museum.  The Palace is home to the King, and has a variety of
ornate buildings that showcase Khmer architecture and folklore.  In
addition, there are numerous shopping venues throughout the city
including the Central and Russian Markets, where tourists can purchase
almost anything for any price.

Getting around the city is easy, as tuk-tuk drivers are everywhere. 
Their insistence and persistence is equal to that of the kids hawking
souvenirs at Angkor Wat.  Sometimes it’s easier to say yes than to keep
repeating no every few steps.  The tuk-tuks in this part of the world
consist of a two-wheeled carriage fastened over the back of a
motorcycle by a high fifth-wheel type hitch.

on the passengers’ size, tuk-tuks can hold up to four people.  Always
the frugal family, we would cram five people in to save money.  On the
flat streets of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh the small-engined motorcycles
were challenged, but persevered.  In Sihanoukville, however, we
sometimes caught a tuk-tuk at the bottom of the hill of a sometimes
muddy-dirt road.  On several occasions the extra weight and lack of
traction required that we get out and walk until the driver reached the
top of the hill and was on the paved road.  As a result, I tried to
negotiate a discount, but without success.

In addition to being renowned for its art, culture and magnificent
temples, Cambodia is known for one of the darkest periods in history. 
Between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979 more than two million
Cambodians were killed at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. 
Men, women and children experienced unspeakable brutality in equal

in Phnom Penh, we visited one of over 300 killing fields found
throughout the country.  They are locations in rural areas where people
of all ages were taken and butchered for one primary offense . . . they
were educated.  Just wearing glasses was enough to create suspicion,
imprisonment, torture and in most cases death.  Teachers, doctors,
professionals and anyone who could read or write were considered
enemies of the state.  Men, women and children were tortured until they
confessed, and then killed using a variety of means.  The lucky ones
were simply shot in the head.  However, babies of the educated were
hurled into the air and shot or impaled on bayonets.  Others were held
by their ankles and their heads bashed against a tree.

Our guide at Choeung Ek Memorial began the tour at a structure with
seven levels filled with human bones, which were excavated from the
surrounding area following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  The first
level contained clothing of the dead and the remaining tiers were
filled with skulls and bones.  Even 30 years later, the dead will not
let us forget.  As we walked around the site, our guide pointed to bits
of clothing and bone fragments that continue to work their way to the
surface from the mass graves under our feet.  It was a surreal
experience that left us both somber and emotionally numb.

next destination was equally as disturbing.  It was the notorious Tuol
Sleng, the former S.21 prison, which was previously a high school.  It
is now a Genocide Museum and looks much the same as when it was used in
the late 70s by the dreaded interrogation unit of the Khmer Rouge. 
Every form of torture was used to coerce information.  Men, women and
children died at the prison from maltreatment, starvation and disease
in large numbers.  Prisoners were shackled at the ankle side-by-side in
rows.  When not shackled or being tortured, they were kept in makeshift
cells no larger than 3′ x 6′.  Between 1975 and 1979 more than 10,500
people saw the inside of S.21.

Several of the rooms at the museum had long displays of pictures of the
victims.  It was haunting to look at them and know there was a time
when they were happy, healthy and enjoying life.  Their blank stares in
many ways foretold the horror that was to come, and the pain and
suffering they had yet to experience.  Even after 30 years, the wounds
have not healed and most people prefer not to talk about the Khmer
Rouge, and for good reason.  A majority of the people living today in
the country either experienced the atrocities firsthand or knows of
family and friends that did.

one should go to Cambodia without visiting both the Killing Fields and
S.21.  Although unpleasant and uncomfortable to witness, they are stark
reminders of the brutality humans are capable of inflicting.  Both must
be experienced in person; reading about them in a book or on the
Internet is hollow, and a disservice to the millions of Cambodians that
paid the ultimate price.

Before moving on to Vietnam, our next
destination was the small costal town of Kep near the border between
Cambodia and its neighbor to the East.  Kep is famous for pepper
production, and the spice from this locale is prized by French chefs
all over the world.  It was also home to some of the friendliest people
on the planet, especially the children.  Regardless of whether we were
being chauffeured in a tuk-tuk, riding a moped or walking, kids would
come running from everywhere waving and yelling hello in English.  We
shouted hello back, and received huge smiles and waving hands in return.

And remember, “Travel is the ultimate education.”

Categories: Travel
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