Christmas Morning - 12:09am:
Santa: "Ho ho ho.. Merry Christmas!"
Vern: "Hey Santa, you found us in Phnom Penh huh?!"
Santa: "I sure did. Now let's see here... hmmm.. says here you two haven't been very good this year?"
Vern: "Really? I mean we're rather nice people."
Santa: "Yeah well, it says you've been galavanting around the world... on a really long holiday. Contributing nothing to society."
Vern: "Uh.. hmmm... well what about our blog, that's a contribution?"
Santa: "You're not really Perez Hilton are you?"
Santa: "And it says you just left all your friends and family behind."
Vern: "Yeah, I suppose we did... so are we getting lumps of coal then, or what?"
Santa: "No, no ways! Coal's up to about $70/ton! Besides I've given all the lumps I had to bankers and politicians. They've been very bad."
Vern: "Okay, well thanks for stopping by..."
Santa: "Wait, wait.. Here we go. Here are two tickets for The Killing Fields. Just down the road from here."
Vern: "Gee thanks, sounds very Christmassy. You shouldn't have. No really, you shouldn't have."
Santa: "Ho ho ho.. Better be good next year, else I've got a pair of tickets to Mama Mia 3D burning a hole in my pockets!"
A while later:
We'd shown some self-control the previous day, and woke up on Christmas morning to an unopened box of cinnamon twirl cookies we'd bought at a bus station but hadn't tucked into. Nothing would have felt more festive than to dunk these into a big mug of the Gingerbread coffee which was certainly brewing in Andrea's mum's kitchen at this time, but tracking down any java on the streets of Cambodia's capital, never mind a delicious seasonal blend would prove challenging. Three different types of Chinese tea - no problem. Bird's nest drink - would you like that fresh or from a can? But coffee, no. Coffee was scarce.
Eventually I did find a lady with sachets of Nescafe instant coffee 3-in-1 (coffee, creamer and sugar) hanging from the wall of her garage and she was willing to make up two cups to go. Her husband was a bit stingy on the water though and I had to ask him to boil the kettle three times, because each time he boiled it, he filled up the cups with the boiling water and the coffee level hardly rose. He was afraid that if one mixed more that a shot of water with 150g of the 3-in-1 coffee mix, it wouldn't be sweet enough. I was afraid that the small taster sip I took had so much sugar in it that all the enamel on my teeth was irreparably stripped away. Once both cups were around 3/4 full, I slipped them into their cradle--two plastic handles coming off a loop which the cup is inserted into--and ran back to our guesthouse with the loot.
While we dunked our cookies, we decided that despite Cambodia being primarily a Buddhist nation, and despite Santa scheduling in some tough museums to be visited today, it was Christmas and it would darn well feel like it. Cambodia is the poorest country in South East Asia and its people could certainly benefit from some giving whether they acknowledge the holiday or not.
Phnom Penh's streets were busy, but its intersections were a lawless gridlock. Hundreds of locals on motorbikes (some with full families on a single bike), a scattering of boxy tuk-tuks moving tourists or locals with much baggage, and a few gleaming Lexus SUVs crammed into the quadrant between the ignored traffic lights and honked their horns furiously. Like bees panicking around a disturbed hive, the mass was continuously in motion, but there was little individual progress.
We were in one of the tuk-tuks and somehow our driver manoeuvred us through chaos after chaos and over the broken roads to the Chou Ek Memorial, aka The Killing Fields.
From 1975 to 1978, while the Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge were in power, and undertaking a chilling campaign to restructure the entire country into a peasant-dominated commune, all people seen as enemies (or potential enemies) of 'The Organisation' were executed in quiet fields and buried in mass graves. This included teachers, doctors, soldiers and employees of the overthrown government, intellectuals, people who wore glasses or had soft hands, and often their entire families so that there would be no-one left to seek revenge. 2-3 million Cambodians were murdered out of a population of 7 million. Most of these killing fields are rural and inaccessible, but Chou Ek is close to the capital and a memorial has been built here to remember the dead. Over 10 000 prisoners were beaten to death here (bullets were expensive) and the largest grave contained 450 bodies. Another grave contained 150 headless corpses - clothing fragments reveal that these were soldiers, probably decapitated to set an example. Other than bone and clothing fragments in the soil, there isn't much there other than an uneven field, but a chilling audio tour which includes interviews with both surviving victims and Khmer Rouge cadres made it an enlightening and troubling experience.
Our first two bouts of Christmas giving were not particularly heart-warming. Outside of the memorial, I'd given a large bill to an invalid beggar who was mildly grateful but unknowingly I'd been marked and a second one-legged hobo hounded us down pleading desperately for us to help him too as we left the memorial. Other poor people waited in the periphery, and I felt terribly guilty at not being able to help them all. Secondly, we decided to tip our tuk-tuk driver generously, but as soon as I handed over his inflated payment with a, "Keep the change, mate. Merry Christm-"
He interrupted me and demanded more. He'd been trying to con us, and was now after double our agreed fee because now he argued that it was per person. We winched our jaws up off the floor and gave him a pavement lecture on how being deceitful is despicable and bad for Cambodia.
Tuol Sleng Museum, the S21 Detention Centre during Khmer Rouge rule, was once a school but the buildings were wrapped in barbed wire and tiny cells were built out of wood in the classrooms. Prisoners were interrogated here, and were meticulously logged and photographed before being taken to the killing fields. The victims' photos, some of them so very young, are now posted throughout the museum and fill wall after wall after wall. Other exhibits include the war crime charges against the four living Khmer Rouge leaders, and the pathetic excuses from lower ranking Khmer Rouge cadres who blame the atrocities they performed on their superiors. It was a devastating and infuriating visit which left me with little faith in mankind. The only bright side is that these horrors have not been brushed under the carpet, and that hundreds of local and foreign tourists are moved by this horrid history daily. This could only make the world a little wiser.
With heavy hearts and a desperate need of some festive cheer, we caught a tuk-tuk across town, out of the grey Lego brick neighbourhoods and over to the river-side district where families fly kites in the well maintained parks. We sought out a 'good cause dining' restaurant called 'Friends' which trains former street kids to be professional waiters and chefs and aims to place them in hospitality jobs. (This turned out to be only the first of a dozen good causes this charity busies itself with). We indulged in both Asian and western dishes, tapas style, and were delighted to find eggnog on the menu. It's possible that we were the first people to ever have ordered it though, because it took an age to come out and was VERY boozy but at last our day started tasting and smelling like Christmas, and after we donated a modest amount to the cause, it started feeling like Christmas too! It was an odd Christmas but it was a good one and it'll certainly be a memorable Christmas.
The following day we traveled south to a dusty riverfront town called Kampot, near to the Vietnamese border. We explored it on remarkably uncomfortable bicycles but other than the appearance of ground black pepper, which is grown in the area, on restaurant tables--a first in 10 months--our visit was quiet and uneventful. Vietnam beckonned! (Vern).