Did I get your attention with the subject line? This profound realization came to me some time ago on one, of many, long bus/minivan/jumbo sangthaew rides. I have been blessed (and I mean that literally) with a system that, fortunately, seems to freeze up when I have any long, uncomfortable, journey ahead. Now you might be asking yourself, "But Gabriel, aren't there bathrooms either on the buses or at least rest stops along the way?".
Yes, there are indeed rest stops and even some buses with toilets on board. I believe that it is the state of the facilities that causes my body to make the decision to only allow urination during the course of travel. The toilets on the buses are cramped, soiled and generally both extremely foul smelling and looking--not to mention the fact that you're being bounced around in this hot, fetid mess as you attempt to do your business--no thank you. The rest stops are hit and miss with regards to the overall condition of the facilities and I believe that my body has decided to play it safe and freeze all activity until its arrival at its destination. Thank you body! For those of you who find this tid-bit to be "too much information"I apologize--as I said, it's just something that has been on my mind and I felt as though I needed to share. Thank you for indulging me.
On to my experiences in the wonderfully beautiful, dirty, friendly, raw, and never dull, Cambodia. I have had so many mind-opening, fun, sad, amazing and memorable experiences in this newly (and rapidly) developing nation. For easier digestion for you, the reader, I will attempt to break down my many stories into separate sections. I cannot guarantee the chronological sequence of events (I apologize in advance to anyone reading this that was there and remembers timing differently--I've waited too long to put this update together for complete accuracy) for the following bits of my life.
My first week in Cambodia was spent along the southern coast, first in a port/beach town called Sihanouk-ville, then a few days exploring the towns of Kampot and Kep further to the east. Sihanouk-ville is a bustling port and a holiday town that is split by a point of land that cuts off the port and starts the main beach areas that attract both Cambodian (Khmer), Asian, and Western tourists to their turquoise water and white sands. The Serendipity beach area is were I wound up nesting--I ended up spending ten days in Sihanouk-ville over three separate occasions--it's an easy place to stay. It is mainly built for Barang (like the word Farang in Thai and Laos, originally referred specifically to the French but has since been adopted to describe all white skinned foreigners) tourists. It is a funky place with lots of restaurants, bars and guest-houses both one the beach, as well as just inland. I had a fantastic time staying at the English run Monkey Republic guest-house where I felt at home with the staff (both English & Khmer), the food and the great many other travelers that made the "Monkey" the place to be most evenings before moving on to the late-night bars (yes, Sihanouk-ville was a time for letting loose and chilling out for me!).
My visit to Kampot was my first real connection to the horrors that this emerging nation faced under the brutal and oppressive rule of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. I wound up booking a tour of Bokor Mountain National Park one day through my guesthouse. I had heard about the ghost town (it was formerly both a French resort and Casino, as well as a royal retreat for former King Sihanouk) that sits atop the mountain and thought it would be an interesting day of exploring (it included hiking to a waterfall, a bit of jungle "trekking" and finished off with a river-boat ferry back to Kampot). After a harrowing two hour drive from Kampot--most of the last hour & a half spent navigating the muddy, rocky, miserable road that is being created, in a two-wheel drive minivan (yes, I did wind up having to help push us out of the mud)--we finally arrived at the top of the mountain.
Although the ruins were fascinating and intriguing, it wasn't the sight-seeing that struck a chord with me. It was our compelling, honest and engaging guide, Mr. Tri. Mr. Tri is a Khmer man that is roughly 50 years old and lived through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. He was kind enough (and emotionally strong enough) to share his story of survival during the brutal years of Pol Pot's regime. He was raised east of Kampot by his family of peasant farmers. In Pol Pot's world laborers and uneducated citizens were considered to be uncorrupted, and therefore perfect and pure, and were known as "base people". Mr. Tri's family continued farming but were forced, like all others, to grow their crops for Angkar (the new nation of Cambodia under Pol Pot) and not themselves.
They were actually not allowed to eat anything that they grew. They would grow a crop, give it to Angkar and Angkar would redistribute "equal" rations to all of the people of Cambodia. This may very well may have worked if Angkar wasn't sending the bulk of all farmed goods to China in trade for weapons to fight against Vietnam, as well as the people of Cambodia that didn't believe in Pol Pot's insane vision of a homogenized agrarian society that had no class stratification. So, because the redistributed food rations were barely (and often not) enough to survive on, it lead many citizens to do whatever they could to get ahold of any extra food.
Mr. Tri's family grew sweet potatoes and, one day, he snuck one of the largest sweet potatoes he harvested into the woods. He cooked and ate half of it in secrecy and, knowing his father had been starving too, brought the other half back home share. The young Khmer soldiers (Pol Pot's army consisted predominantly of children--easier to brainwash and manipulate) witnessed his father eating the sweet potato and accused him of stealing from Angkar. The soldiers rounded up Mr. Tri's family, tied them all up and blindfolded them. They were lead along in a group for some ways and eventually stopped at some point.
Mr. Tri was at the end of the line of his family--his father, mother and younger siblings (I don't remember how many). Although unable to see, he heard the horrible sound of something hard crashing into flesh and bone and the screams and gasps of the ones he loved. With his hands tied behind him he managed to slide his blindfold partially aside. To his horror he witnessed the child soldiers using the buts of their rifles (bullets were considered by Angkar as too expensive to "waste") to go down the line and smash his families skulls as they went. Unable to do anything to help his poor family, he made the decision to get up and run towards the woods in hope of somehow surviving the nightmare he was faced with. Miraculously he got away--he thinks the soldiers must not have even had bullets in their weapons.
He stayed in to woods until nightfall and then crept towards the area where he had escaped in hopes of finding someone in his family alive. Tragically, he instead came upon an open pit grave containing his entire family, slaughtered and, thrown in like waste. Devastated, but with the innate instinct to survive, he spent the next year living in the woods off of whatever food he could find (fruit, berries, bugs, slugs, roots, rats, mushrooms--literally whatever). He made the decision early on to attempt to walk to the safety of Thailand. Somehow he wound up walking east, instead of west (the only funny part of his tale) and after a year wound up in southern Vietnam. He eventually ended up becoming a liberation soldier fighting alongside the Vietnamese to end the Khmer Rouges bloody reign of terror.
It stunned us all when he told this insane tale of his life to the group. I had been aware of the tragedy in textbooks but was taken aback by the gruesome reality that was experienced by this sweet, diminutive man before me. He was so open and gracious with his relating his experiences--he even encouraged us to ask as many (and any) questions we had about his experiences as well as the current state of affairs in Cambodia. I think it was only myself and one other person who felt compelled to ask a few questions. He was thoughtful and succinct in his answers and was adamant that he was happy to share the tragedies of his life so that we can all understand what should never happen again, anywhere. It really puts some perspective on the life that we are all blessed with in our worlds--no matter how bad we think we have it.
Here is a link to some photos that I previously linked to that some experienced difficulty opening...they include pictures of Bokor Mountain and Mr. Tri:
After my visit to Bokor Mountain, Kampot and Kep I made my way back to Sihanouk-ville for a day of rest and reunion with a new friend that I had made who was likely going to travel with me to Phnom Penh. Anneth (my Norwegian friend) and I wound up taking the bus to Phnom Penh and stayed at a funky and wonderfully relaxed (albeit in a constant party manner) guest house on the Boeung Kak "lake" (more like a large pond undergoing intense eutrophication). We wound up making the Lazy Fish our home base for six days (sadly five for Anneth, who's Cambodian visa was expiring) while exploring the sights of Phnom Penh during the day.
Phnom Penh is a crazy, intense and exciting city that, for the brave (or slightly stupid--of which I suppose I'm a bit of both), is a great place to cruise around on a moto-scooter. The streets are filled with scooters, cars, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and random animals following a rule of road laws that would, at best, be described as extremely lax. That is, unless you're white. I was warned about the police extortion schemes by Mr. Happy (my travel agent/moto rental agent/orphanage guide), who told me to avoid police and pay them as little as possible if pulled over.
Within minutes of Anneth and I pulling into traffic we were flagged down by a police check-point for no apparent reason. The Cambodian "police" officer asked for my license and I gladly handed over my California drivers license (which has a motorcycle endorsement). He scrutinized it, indicated that it wasn't a Cambodian license (duh) and proceeded to speak to me in Cambodian with some strange expectation that I would understand him. Anneth stayed quiet and I played extremely stupid. It was obvious that he was trying to explain that I had to pay a fine but I just kept up the act and kept pointing to the M1 (motorcycle endorsement) on my license, insisting that it was, indeed, okay for me to be driving on the streets of Phnom Penh. Apparently my act wore him down and he relented, giving me back my license and waving us on our way...whew, we thought.
On the way back into town I was a little slow catching a green light (it was red for straight but green for left turn) and was flagged down by another group of police officers. This time I knew that I was in the wrong but I figured I'd go ahead and attempt the same dumb act. Sure enough the officer asked for my license, commented (speaking only Cambodian again) that I needed a Cambodian license, and told me that I had run a red light. I played stupid and insisted (neither of us spoke the same language so I figured I could go on arguing without any real repercussions) that the light was green, going as far as picking up a green leaf that was on the ground to demonstrate the color of the light that I went through. I think that this foolishness actually helped. They started off demanding a $20 fine (yes, in Cambodia they predominantly use dollars--they have their own money (Riel) but seem to like dollars more--weird) and eventually I wore them down to 10,000 Riel (about $2.50). I only offered this much because he had my license on his clip board and was insisting that if we didn't pay something he would impound the moto-scooter and I would likely have a hard time getting my license back...extortion, isn't it!?!
Photos from Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, etc.:
While in Phnom Penh Anneth and I visited the tragic memorials that remain from the Khmer Rouge era. The first day we visited Tuol Sleng Prison (known as S-21), a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into its largest detention, interrogation and center for torture of those deemed against "Angkar", in Cambodia. It is was a horrible and graphic reminder of the terror that the people of Cambodia faced under the reign of Pol Pot. The government has set up the prison as a memorial museum, leaving the cell blocks and grounds much the same as they were when occupied by the Khmer Rouge. In the group detention areas they have set up graphic photographic displays of thousands of "prisoners" that were processed, photographed and, almost all, eventually murdered by the Khmer soldiers. The faces are haunting and it was a very difficult place to wander and absorb the atrocities that took place there. It was too much to process and it is nearly impossible for me to put into words sufficient to give you an idea of how it felt to be there. We left the prison after sunset, the last to go, feeling stunned and without words to express our sadness.
The next day we visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where most prisoners at S-21 met their end. It too was a difficult and emotional place to visit. The government decided to break with the Buddhist tradition of cremation of all remains and instead decided to build a memorial stupa that houses over 8,000 skulls from the bodies that were exhumed from the multitude of mass graves that cover the area. In all nearly 9,000 people were exhumed from Choeung Ek with not all of the mass graves being unearthed. Choeung Ek had a strangely pastoral feel to it the day that we were there. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we felt great sadness for what had taken place there but also felt like we were in a sacred place (I would say it is kind of the feeling that I usually experience when visiting any cemetery). The truly difficult part was when we made our offering of flowers, incense and a prayer at the memorial stupa itself. It is overwhelming to be faced with the grim reality of so much senseless death.
Photographs from Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) & The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek:
Okay, I have quite a bit more to tell you all but I'm going to save it for my next email. I've been horrible about keeping this updated (I've been "working" on this email for a week--a little here and there) and can't do it all in one fell swoop! I've made my way to Ha Tien in southern Vietnam (as of yesterday) and am doing well but adjusting to the drastic difference in culture between Cambodia and here. It's very interesting here...I'll tell you more later!
With Love and Warm Wishes,