Phnom Penh bewitched me instantly. I can’t really say why. We didn’t really know what to expect, so everything was kind of surprising.
We rolled into the bus “stop” next to the Old Market…and simply picked the first guesthouse we saw. Thus settled, we struck out to explore the city, armed only with our ability to count (all the city streets are numbered. On that first walk, we saw a monkey walking on the telephone wire, Wat Phnom sitting atop its hill (“phnom” means ‘hill’ in Khmer), street kids sleeping on the post office steps, and vendors of every kind along the Tonle Sap river esplanade. The city hums with life, its personality oozes from the cracks…but it is conflicted. There are the higher prices and the striving toward luxury, with new hotels and fancy phones showing up…but there are also the homeless families quietly living out their lives on every block and the way everyone gets jumpy when someone raises their voice. The city is growing its new skin, but the scars from the past 40 years are still clearly visible in the cultural psyche.
That first day, we set about finding tasty treats…from coconut encrusted sweet potato, taro, and banana to sugar cane juice to noodles to lotus seed pods. With the Old Market just across the street, we were spoiled for choice. Some things we tried, we didn’t even know what they were! But they were delicious! Thus fueled, we went to test the Cambodian salsa scene at the Groove.
The next morning, we hiked across the urban landscape to Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, also known as Office S-21 during the Khmer Rouge Regime. When Pol Pot decided that he wanted to restart Cambodia with his ideal “Old People,” the farmers from the countryside, he set out to dismantle any of the educated or upper classes in the country. And that centered on the capitol…almost anything could make you vulnerable…having a college degree, speaking more than one language, being a teacher, wearing glasses, being a dissident. Or if they just didn’t like you. So you would end up in this brutal prison…and probably the rest of your family, especially as the regime’s paranoia increased.
About 20,000 people passed through this prison, most on their way to die. The fourteen white graves were the last 14 people to die in the prison before the Liberation Army came through. Each room is a record to the atrocities. There are still blood stains on the floors. The very air grows heavier entering each chamber. And then, you come to the photos. The Khmer Rouge were almost obsessive in their detailed accounts and photos of each prisoner that came through the system. These were the people they tortured. And there was no sparing the old, the young, the innocent…even a few foreigners passed through on their way to death. One was born in Minneapolis. A conscientious objector from Vietnam who “admitted” to being a CIA spy under torture in the water barrels.
At the end, we saw pictures of the few Tuol Sleng survivors…and then we got to meet one! His name was Buo Meng and his captors allowed him to live because he created a photo-accurate drawing of Pol Pot. You can read more of his story here. Finally, we looked at art created by Cambodian students…works that dream of healing and forgiveness.
But we still had more scars to see. We went to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields the next day. We walked the paths and saw the graves, the horrors. I am still speechless. The only thing that echoes in my head over and over, a whisper to the people who did this: “How could you?” And to the victims: “I am so sorry.” I will not try to tackle the cracking of the heart that happens as you walk the grounds and listen to the merciless recounting on the audio tour. So I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
We rode back into the city in silence. That night, we were glad to find happier thoughts, in swing dancing (Sangbyeong’s first lesson!) and finding a vegetarian cafe. Like every night that we were in Phnom Penh, we walked along the river, looking out at where the Tonle Sap and the Mekong meet (you can see the color change in the photo)…and we wondered how much more developed, how much more vibrant the city would be without the deep scars of its past.
Our last couple days in “Penh” were spent wandering the streets around our Old Market neighborhood. We put new value on each and every person we saw…the elders we saw as survivors, the younger people we saw as blessings and new chances. Friendly passersby struck up conversations with us in temples, as we sat in the shade to escape the brutal midday sun. Cats and dogs sidled up to us looking for love, food, or both.
But my favorite memory came from our last evening. After our usual meal eaten in the street stalls of the Old Market, we walked toward the Royal Palace…because a little bird had told me there was a live Latin band playing a show at a venue called The Mansion. Luckily for us, the band was playing in the courtyard of the building, loudly enough for the whole street to hear. Which was great, because we didn’t want to pay the cover charge. But as we sat on the curb, bopping to the familiar songs…we noticed that the homeless family with four kids sitting on the same curb…they were loving the music, too! Merengue, salsa, bachata, Latin pop…those kids were grooving to it all and with big smiles on their faces. Here was the poverty, the hunger, and the dirt…but here, too, was the innate sense of fun, the lack of fear, and the instinct to get up and dance! Yes, there is hope, even with the scars. That is the memory of Phnom Penh I want to keep.