May 9th, 2015 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Day 268

Big Pete's POV

Today was our first day in Cambodia and because we are spending the remainder of our time here working with a charity (Cambodia Care) we knew we had a difficult day ahead of us.  The one thing we knew we had to do while we were in Phnom Penh was to visit the killing fields.  After having been to Auschwitz while we were in Krakow, we knew this would be a difficult day, but an important one.  

We arranged for a Tuk Tuk to take us out to the fields and then to the infamous Prison S21.  After a wonderful breakfast at the hotel we went up to our room and got ready and headed out.  This was our first Tuk Tuk ride and it was quite the adventure.  The driving in Phnom Penh is by far the craziest we have seen on the trip.  It is like Vietnam but with a ton more people.  There are no real rules, but everything just seems to work out - especially because everyone goes about 15 miles an hour.  

We made it to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, which is the official name for the killing fields, about 30 bumpy minutes later.  The road there was rough and so were the sights and smells.  Since I am writing this several days after we actually went I can tell you that Phnom Penh is a mix of highs and lows that is a place you have to see to truly understand and appreciate it.  It is a city undergoing a huge transformation and is still recovering from the genocide which ripped it apart only 40 years ago.  

When we arrived at the center, our tuk tuk driver - Mr Vira, told us he would wait for us in a cafe and showed us the entrance.  We paid $6 each, which included our entry fee and an audio guide for each of us.  We plugged in and started the tour.  

The audio tour was excellent and was narrated by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime.  We slowly walked through each of the 19 stops and listened to what happened at each location.  It was heartbreaking and maddening at the same time.  

The most moving part of the audio tour was hearing survivors tell their story.  

The sights were difficult to see as well.  Mass graves were enclosed in simple structures, and people had left bracelets there as prayers for the deceased.  

By far the most emotional location at Choeung Ek was the killing tree, where the Khmer Rouge killed babies by holding them by their feet and hitting them against the tree.  It was simply terrible.

It was shortly after this that we learned Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, stayed in power until 1997 ruling a small faction of the Khmer people in the jungles of Southwest Cambodia.  He and his party was even nominally recognized by the UN, the US, Great Britton and many other countries as the ruling party of Cambodia during this time.  They mention him being able to play with his grand kids and live a full life until he was finally put under house arrest in 1997.  He died one year later.  Most theories think it was either suicide or poisoning, but the fact that he lived a full life after causing the death of up to 3 million people is beyond comprehension.  

After the killing fields we had our driver take us to Tuol Sleng Prison - called S21.  This was the prison where people were interrogated and forced to confess to their crimes.  These were usually educated people; monks, teachers, doctors reporters - anyone who was part of the oppressing class.  

It was a dark and depressing tour and while not quite as well done as Choeung Ek, it was moving in its own way because of the photos.  Many of the rooms were lined with mug shots of the victims which were taken when they arrived at the prison.

After the long emotional morning at the two sites we were ready for a break.  We headed back to the guest house and escaped the heat (which is completely oppressive here) and then headed out for lunch.  

We went over to Sugar and Spice, which is a restaurant operated by the same organization that runs our guest house.  It seems so many of the businesses here are purpose driven.  Everywhere we go we seem to find organizations trying to help the individuals who are being victimized here - its amazing.  

Sugar and spice is a fantastic place with smiling faces greeting you for every interaction.  

Peter at Sugar and Spice

We had a great lunch and then headed back to the guest house to rest for a while during the heat of the day.  After a good rest Stacie and I decided to head over to the Russian Market to check it out.  The market gets its name because the Russian ex-pat community shopped here during the 80's - not because the goods are Russian.  We wandered in and were immediately overwhelmed by the size and mass clutter surrounding us.  They sell everything from angle grinders to underwear here and most of it is of questionable authenticity and quality, but it is ALL very inexpensive.  

We bought a few things just to sample the quality including some headphones and then headed back to the guest house.  The headphones (Beats), which cost $10 were extremely good and set off a frenzy with the kids, who had always wanted Beats, but the market was closed, so they needed to wait until tomorrow.

We then headed out to dinner at K'nyay, which we found in Lonely Planet.  The restaurant is in a really charming old french colonial house which made us feel like we were in the Bahamas.  The food was great, the service was tremendous and we were even entertained by a frisky little cat who came to sit with us.  The cat had a nasty little streak in her and at one point while I was relaxing with my arm draped over the back of my chair the cat decided to give my hand a little love bite.  I nearly jumped out of my skin because I was not expecting it at all.  Everyone got a big kick out of dad being scared by a little kitty including me.  

It was a massive day, but a really good one.  So far we are all loving Cambodia, especially the people - they are so kind and always have a smile ready and waiting to give to you.