I’ve been a bit nervous about visiting Cambodia. I don’t know that much about the country’s history but I had heard about the Killing Fields and the land mines that still litter the country and continue to maim people.
A book I’m reading at the moment also paints a grim picture. The book is called Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land and I bought it from a land-mine victim who was selling them at the central market in Phnom Penh. It was published in 1998, so is ten years or so out of date, but it paints a dreadful picture of a paltry health-care system, little schooling for the population and disastrous governance from power-hungry, money-hungry leaders who care very little for the people of the country.
Despite the tragic history and the poverty, a Canadian man we met, who has been living in Phnom Penh for the past 5 years, told us that the city is a dynamic place to be at the moment. The economy is developing fast, tourists are on the increase and international organisations are putting a lot of money into Cambodia. I hope that at least some of the money gets to the people who really need it.
Sitting in elegant grandeur in stark contrast to the surrounding poverty is the Royal Palace which dominates the skyline along the river and is where King Sihamoni now lives. We visited a pagoda in the palace with a silver floor, a solid emerald Buddha and a solid gold Buddha covered in diamonds. There was also a throne room with more golden statues of kings and queens past and golden thrones for them to sit on.
However, the place that totally dominated my visit to Phnom Penh was the Tuol Sleng Museum. It started out as a school but between 1976 and 1979 it was used as a prison and torture place by the Khmer Rouge. The minute you step off the busy, bustling street and through the gates the atmosphere changes and you can feel the grimness and misery of the place. The buildings seem to have been left in a similar state to when it was a prison. On the lower floors there are rooms with a single wire bed and a gruesome photo on the wall depicting an unfortunate person who was a prisoner there. On other floors there are small cells where prisoners were also kept.
The most extraordinary thing about the place are the photos of the people who were prisoners. There is room after room of photographs, some people looking scared, some smiling a little, some with there hands tied behind their backs and some with cuts and bruises on their faces. Wandering through the looking at all these photographs you know that out of the 16,000 or so people who were imprisoned here there were only 12 known survivors.
The Khmer Rouge considered the people who ended up in this gruesome place to be the most dangerous people to the regime – people who supported the previous regime, Khmer Rouge supporters who turned on the organisation and class enemies such as wealthy people and intellectuals. Actually they included children, people who had been framed and ordinary people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is hard to understand how people could be so unspeakably cruel to each other. I imagine the Cambodians are also still coping with that question.
As luck would have it, we entered Cambodia at the end of a five day national holiday. The first we heard of this was when our bus came to a halt about a kilometre away from a ferry that would take us across the Mekong. The conductor of the bus explained that there was a traffic jam and estimated that it would take about 5 hours to get to the ferry and then another two hours to get to Phnom Penh.
Our first thought was to wonder why there was no bridge. We were on the main highway between Vietnam and Cambodia – the major trade route between the two countries – you’d think there’d be a bridge. When we mentioned this a little later to an expat couple they just said a resounding “Welcome to Cambodia”.
I pretty much resigned myself to spend the extra five or six hours reading my book. It wouldn’t be so bad – I like reading. Then I remembered that I was reading Moby Dick – a leviathan of a book if ever there was one. Still there’s not all that much you can do… Anyway, maybe the conductor was exaggerating.
After an hour and a half, it was clear that we were going nowhere fast – we’d moved maybe two bus lengths in all that time. There was an expat family with a young child one seat in front of us with a proposition. We could walk to the ferry with them, cross the river as foot passengers and they’d organise for a taxi to pick us all up on the other side.
We took them up on the offer – we really didn’t like the idea of arriving in Phnom Penh at three in the morning or worse. We walked for about twenty minutes and passed scores of overflowing vehicles. Minibuses were jam packed full of people with the luggage bulging out the open door at the back and additional people sitting on the roof. Cars were loaded with eight to ten people on average. Some of the passengers had left their transport and were setting up camp by the side of the road. There was a carpet of litter everywhere. As we got close to the ferry, the traffic spread out into six or eight lanes – as you can probably imagine there was no orderly queue. It was mayhem.
We walked through all the mess, got across on the ferry without any problems and climbed into a taxi on the other side. It all worked out fairly well in the end I guess. We got to meet some interesting people, learn a little about the current situation in Cambodia and see a whole lot of local people coming back from their holidays in style. It certainly was an experience.