Today was a very introspective and
Our day started driving down the roadway
running along the Mekong River lined on the other side with shops, restaurants
and bars; most of which tried very hard to be Western in appearance and approach,
whether it be “$1 DVD” or “Heart Break Club” or the now well-known “Happy
Towards the end of this rather
ramshackle city is the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. Our guide (you note I intentionally never use
his name), as we entered the Palace Grounds, was far more “tour guide” than
normal and did not try to fill empty time with stories or reflective
commentary. I walked up to him and
asked him to turn off his microphone. He
complied. I said I didn’t think he liked
it here and he replied that is was fine.
I knew what he was saying…and it something he later confirmed.
At the Royal Palace in Phnom Phen,
Cambodia, just as when visiting Ho Chi Min’s Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam the
people that are supposed to be casually walking around are actually listening
to be sure the tour guides deliver the required message. When you travel to places like this and see a
number of people “just there” or sitting in a uniform doing nothing they may
well be listening. Fear and intimidation
still exists in Cambodia.
While there were many people in our
group were very impressed with the Palace and the Silver Pagoda (named so
because about 50 years ago the floor was lined with 5,239 silver tiles each
weighing about 1.5 kilograms. (You can
only see a few as the tiles are mostly covered with carpets and rugs.) I, on the other hand, was thinking back to
the villages we had just visited and the people who are eking out a living
farming a small plot of rice who are paying taxes for this place.
Photos are not permitted inside the
buildings at either site.
Phnom Phen is starting to show me the
corruption that I had suspected, but had not really seen. As you quietly talk and listen you find the
businesses favored by the government are very successful, but you also see the
government cars are the nicest ones, such as Range Rover I saw having a
military uniform swinging from a hanger by the rear door.
Afterwards we headed off to the National
Museum. We had a special guide for the
tour of this small, but very good, museum of Cambodian history, focusing on the
religious aspects of it. Just as we
started it was mentioned that many of the relics were lost or broken during the
time of the Khmer Rouge because the museum was left abandoned and, being semi-open,
was overtaken by birds and animals. But
what was there was impressively preserved and presented.
Our charming guide spoke with great
knowledge and humor of the artifacts and of the Buddhist/Hindu
interrelationship. It was fascinating
and well worth the visit. I was
surprised it was such an informative and human experience.
I must note that even though this is supposed to be the rainy season it was very sunny and hot. I mean really hot. Like so hot that my daughter had a bit of heat exhaustion. Be prepared!
After that it was back to the Central Market as part of a tour…and for us a quick visit to top up on some t-shirts and re-visit the food market to see if my first impression could be changed. There were some interesting things that were not there in my late afternoon visit, but I am still of the “Look but don’t touch” opinion.
After a short rest and lunch it was time
for visiting the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng (or S21)
Detention Center. Due to traffic we
apparently did the tour backwards, visiting the Killing Fields first. I thought it was the better way after
reflecting upon it.
Arriving at the Killing Fields you are
not met with anything which you would consider well-preserved or of noted
monument. In fact, getting to the site
is difficult and poorly marked. After
walking into this non-descript area you are faced with a tall white memorial
where you can see, even at a good distance, 9,000 skulls neatly stacked.
As we walked around the relatively small
area there are signs about what was here or there; as not much was preserved in
this former Chinese cemetery. (Because
Cambodians are fairly superstitious they do not like to be near cemeteries;
hence it was a good choice to secret the horrors that were to occur there.) There are a few areas cordoned off with crude
bamboo fencing marking mass graves designated for those who were women or who
were decapitated. There is a Plexiglas
box with bones and teeth inside and another with some clothes.
There is also what is referred to as the Killing Tree where the Khmer Rouge would literally beat infants against to kill them.
What I found to be obvious, and as was also subtly explained to me, is that the King and majority of the government (who are former/still Khmer Rouge) wanted the Killing Fields to be destroyed so as to make their existence a distance memory…and then not at all. What exists is shockingly small and unkempt (compare to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda in the morning); noting that every other Killing Field has been removed from existence – save a small memorial marking.
I leave you with this thought: The monument houses a mere 9,000 skulls of those murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Can you imagine the size it would need to be if it housed the 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 Cambodian people that they killed?