Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Lighter Heart

Lest you think otherwise from the last post, Phnom Penh does have some lighter-hearted activities and entertainment, and overall provided a nice relaxing weekend.

One of the gems we stumbled upon - a hole-in-wall cafe located near the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The owner is Vietnamese and served us authentic Vietnamese iced coffee, which is iced coffee with lots of sweet condensed milk, a very rich drink. 3 large iced coffees, a pot of tea, and a quiet place to sit and relax out of the sun, only cost us $2.50 USD. 

One afternoon we made a stop at Wat Phnom, one of the top-rated locations in Phnom Penh. It is an large and ancient Buddhist temple that sits a top a hill. Gorgeous artwork covers the walls and the ceiling of the interior of the temple. Tourists from many different places roam around the grounds of the temple, though there were also Buddhist monks dressed in bright orange robes. 

Another fun night we spent at the Flicks 2 Movie House. Flicks Movie Houses are small cinemas that show a variety of films and only ask for $3.50 for a whole day of viewing. The screening room is really small and cozy, with big cushions and pillows to sprawl across. We showed up at the Riverside location for a 6:30pm showing of the indie movie Frances Ha, and basically had the whole room to ourselves. A great way to relax and get out of the sun or the hectic streets! 

We also visited the beautiful red National Museum, which contains many varieties of sculptures and carvings in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the interior of the museum. The museum could have been better curated, as little description accompanied each display, and I didn't feel as if I understood most of the context of the artwork. 

On another night we went to the Sovanna Phum Arts Association, where we saw a performance of traditional shadow puppets. The talented young artists treated us to an hour-long story of the epic Ramayana, using traditional dance, live music, and beautifully designed puppets. 

The Association promotes and preserves local art forms and provides opportunities for aspiring young people who want to work in art and dance. The performances are not only for the entertainment of foreigners, though. Traveling troupes also go around the country and hold shows with educational messages about health and domestic violence. What a great way to use art for the public good!

Besides these activities, we also found relaxation and fun in shopping in markets, sipping coffee at local cafes, and getting nice massages and spa treatments. I do think that Phnom Penh is a little underrated compared to Siem Reap. The capital city offers a variety of historical and artistic attractions, and isn't quite overrun with tourists yet. While the infrastructure needs a lot of work, Phnom Penh has undergone dramatic developments recently and I'm sure will continue to improve its sanitation and transport systems. It's an interesting, charming place in its own way, and is definitely worth a visit in my opinion. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Sobering History

Cambodia has had a very heavy history for the past few decades. After a civil war in the 1970s, the country was taken over by the Khymer Rouge led by Pol Pot. A staunch communist, Pol Pot forced citizens out of the cities and into the countries into agricultural collectives, where many of them died of starvation and strenuous labor. He also engaged in a campaign of violence, torture, and mass murder, eliminating those considered "enemies" of his regime. 3 out of every 8 people in Cambodia died during this time.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S 21, is an infamous site where many prisoners, maybe 20,000, were held and tortured. It had been a school before it was taken over by the Khymer Rouge and transformed into a place of horror. The original structure has been preserved as a musuem to honor the memories of those who lost their lives.

We took a short tuk tuk ride to S 21 on our first morning in Phnom Pehn. The site is quite chilling - the blocks are made of individual rooms, first used as classrooms and subsequently as cells for detainment and torture. 

All of the cells are open - some contain the metal frame of a bed and a photo of a prisoner. Visitors walked along in silence along the halls and pathways, peering into rooms, imagining the past.

I found myself unable to walk more than a few steps into a room, as if it were still haunted by the evils of the past. I did not go past the barbed wire in the second block of the prison, which housed tiny brick cells within each room.

The Khymer Rouge, like the Nazis, were quite systematic about documenting the records and lives of their victims. In the third block were entire rooms full of photos of these individuals whose lives were so cruelly taken. The museum is an important place to visit to learn about Cambodia's history, but I would caution those that are very sensitive to be prepared. 

We had planned to go directly from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, a site outside of Phnom Penh where the massacres actually took place and where the victims were buried. However, we decided to shelve the trip at that moment, in order to give ourselves some time to internalize and reflect upon the tragedies that we had glimpsed already.

Therefore, it was not until our last morning that we ventured out to the Killing Fields. Be warned - it is a very bumpy ride from town! We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us there, and travelled for about an hour over dusty, crowded, and bumpy roads. I recommend wearing sunglasses and a mask over your nose and mouth.

We took a very well-made audio tour of the grounds, which both explains the significance of different sites on the Killing Fields and some of the deeper history of Khymer Rouge. Interlaced with this information are personal stories of survivors.

The fields are eerily serene, with the green grass, beautiful trees, and chickens roaming around the paths. All of the original buildings used by the Khymer Rouge were torn down shortly after the Killing Fields were discovered, but the audio tour direct you to signs that indicate what had passed at the spot. 

Visitors wander up the paths and around a peaceful lake, and everyone is silent because they are listening to the audio guide, with the exception of a occasional school tour. It's difficult to believe that nearly 10,000 people were killed and buried on this site. 

Most of the graves have been excavated, though after each rainy season the soil gets sifted around and bones and pieces of cloth surface. Museum guides clean up these remains every few months, so it is very likely for visitors to spot remains on the ground. We found a tooth half buried in one of the dirt paths.

The tour, which lasts about an hour, takes you around the entire area. The last stop is the stupa that memorializes the victims. If you take off your shoes, you can enter the inner area, which contains 5,000 skulls that were found on the site.  

Again, an important place to visit, but not for the especially squeamish. 

It's hard to imagine how people could do this to each other, and to their own countrymen. Pol Pot was never punished for his crimes - he lived to past 80 years of age. The Khymer Rouge continued to be recognized as the official government for a number of years after the genocide had occurred. At that time, this outrage could have been partially due to the fact that little was known about what had happened in Cambodia. 

We hope that by learning about these atrocities in history, we can be better informed to make sure that they do not repeat themselves, yet there is still much amiss in the world today that cannot be blamed by lack of knowledge. I wonder if in 10 years, 20 years, we will look back at events that are happening now and question how we could have let it happen.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Colorful Cambodia

This is the view from our hotel, the Frangipani Living Arts and Spa Hotel. 
Last weekend I spent three days with a few friends in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It was a good experience for me to again be in a place in which I was unfamiliar with the language, the culture, and the food. Phnom Penh is an "edgier" place for tourists compared to the popular destination Siem Reap, where one goes to see the temple Angkor Wat, a wonder of the world. It is small for a city, with few high rise buildings and poor road construction - though apparently it has developed in leaps and bounds in the past year. 

I'm still struggling to try to describe what the city is like or how my experience was. Phnom Penh contains so many contradictions and divides, partially due to its historical legacy as a neglected French colony, and then the destruction and violence that occurred during the civil war and the Khymer Rouge a few decades ago.   

For one, there are at the same time many and few western influences in the city. On the one hand, an interesting dual currency system exists - the US dollar is officially accepted, and businesses, from the nicest hotels to the street side vendors, all deal in USD. The Cambodian Riel (4000 to $1), also is used, though mostly for small amounts. Another example of western influence is in the cuisine. Many restaurants serve French foods, such as crepes, cheeses, and salads. 

At our first dinner in the city I ordered a ham and cheese crepe at a place called Cafe on the Corner by the riverside.

Delicious nicoise salad from a cafe called the Blue Pumpkin.
However, we found that very few people speak English besides those that work in the tourist industry, and even then vocabulary is limited. Additionally, certain large global chains such as Starbucks and McDonalds have yet to enter the Cambodian market. This may be a good thing, since it allows local businesses to flourish, but it surprised me how limited the reach of globalization has been in Phnom Penh so far. 

A large and obvious class division also exists in Phnom Penh. Living standards for the majority of people we saw and met did not seem to be very high, and there are a lot of sanitation and infrastructure issues with the city. Roads often are clogged, dusty, and full of potholes, and roadsides are littered with trash. Safety becomes an issue late at night in certain areas, and we had to keep an eye out for purse snatchers. However, certain neighborhoods have gorgeous and modern multi-storied houses, gated off from the streets, and luxurious hotels and bars cater to the local elite and expats. 

This above photo is taken from the Foreign Correspondents Club, a fancy bar and restaurant by the riverside frequented by tourists and expats. In my experience, I also saw a sharp divide between expats and locals. It seemed that businesses cater to either one or the other, and I don't recall seeing much interaction between Cambodians and tourists except for those that worked in the tourism industry. 

We really wanted to experience how Cambodians live in Phnom Penh, but it was difficult. We don't speak the language and look very different. One night, when we insisted that our driver take us to a dinner place where locals eat, he took us to a nice restaurant that served local food, but there were no Cambodians eating inside. 

One of the central aisles in the electronics section of the Central Market. 
Markets, like the Central Market above, also seem to have differentiated clientele. The Central Market and the Russian Market both are touristy, selling souvenirs, silks, and clothing. Vendors will engage with you in English, and offer high prices that you then must bargain down. I found that I could usually bargain down the price to about 2/3 of the original offer and the seller would still be very willing to sell. 

We also went to a market near the old Olympic Stadium. This marketplace is geared towards locals, and sells a variety of household items, food, and beauty products. The tuk tuk driver did not know how to get to this market from the hotel, and likewise it was difficult to find a driver at the market who knew how to get back to our hotel. Vendors were uninterested in hawking their wares to us or bargaining. I didn't pay too much attention to prices but I'd bet that goods are cheaper. 

Sunset from the rooftop bar of our hotel.
These are just some of my initial thoughts on Phnom Penh. It is a vibrant and difficult-to-explain place, but I have lots more photos and experiences that I'll be sharing soon.