I arrived in Phnom Penh in the late afternoon. I can't even remember what day it was because after a couple weeks of traveling I lost track. I had met a girl in Siem Reap the day before who recommended I stay at a hostel called the top banana. I was advised it was a great hostel to meet fellow travelers, that it was inexpensive and central to what I would want to do in the city. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The place was full of backpackers, expats, and cambodian natives meshing into a group of the most entertaining people I have met on my travels.
Prior to getting to know these individuals I took a walk around a small part of Phnom Penh. It was quite a large city. Very modern, full of expensive cars, high rises and monuments. Overall it was not so different from many cities I've visited before so I chose not to explore for too long. I met a traveler from Ireland named Barry and since we were both flying solo we thought we would do our site seeing the next day togehter since we wanted to explore the same areas.
Group exercises at sunset in the park in the middle of the city
The palace at night
The independence monument set on a beautiful city background
I can't say that my first day in Phnom Penh was actually "fun" given the nature of our activities. It was however very educational and eye opening and well worth while. For those of you out there who didn't know (like myself) Phnom Penh Cambodia was the site of a horrific mass genocide that is so fresh in the memories of its people that the leaders of the ruling party that carried out such atrocities are still on trial awaiting their fate.
In the 1970s Cambodia was taken over by the Khmer Rouge, led by a leader most commonly known as Pol Pot. The city was cleared out in a matter of days. Thousands of people were sent to Tuol Sleng (otherwise known as S 21) to be tortured and live out their days starving crammed into little cells that had been fashioned out of old school classrooms. Once they were no longer useful to the khmer rouge they were sent to Choeng Ek, or, the killing fields to be bludgeoned to death (so as to not waste money on bullets) and thrown into mass graves. These people included women and children as well as men of all ages. The justification for killing young ones was "if you plan to kill the weeds you have to kill the seeds as well". I would imagine walking through S 21 and the killing fields is similar to what one feels exploring the world war 2 concentration camps in Poland and Germany but its hard to imagine that this happened only 30 years ago. I brought my camera with me for the day but took very few pictures as I just didn't think these sites could be remembered or the impact portrayed through photographs. Its an intense feeling to see blood still smeared on the floor of a two by three foot cell and imagine someone was locked in thier for weeks at a time without ever enjoying a full meal or knowing where his family might be. After seeing what I saw I can only urge everyone to educate themselves on the travesty that was the leadership of the Khmer Rouge and teach others what you have learned.
One of the few picutres I took at Choeng Ek
Exhumed mass graves
Human bones are still surfacing from undergroud. Everytime it rains new bones work their way to the surface
The monument at Choeng Ek. Filled with bones and skulls categorized by age and gender
Quite horrifying to think what these people did.
After the intense few weeks I have had in South East Asia I decided a couple days in Phnom Penh enjoying my new friends was in order. I can't say I really did so much over the last few days that was photo worthy but the memories will stay with me forever. A lot of time was spent relaxing and chatting with travelers from Australia, Englang, Germany, the U.S., Canada, Holland and just about anywhere you can think of. Parties were held to simply celebrate and enjoy each others company. And I can honestly say as much as it isn't my scene at home I went to a drum and bass club and truly enjoyed it. It was most likely the people I was with and the free atmosphere.
I had planned to head to the beach in Cambodia before returning to Bangkok and realized that would mean being on a bus every day until I returned to the US. In the spirit of being free I changed my plans last minute and stayed in Phnom Penh for an extra few days, and I'm glad that I did. One of the things I hope to take home from my travels with me is a "go with the flow" spirit. I find I am much more rigid when at home to meet deadlines, do as I had planned, stress out over the small things, and stick to an agenda. While I will probably never completely let go of these traits (which I don't think is a bad thing) I would like to incorporate a bit more of a "take life as it comes" attitude into my daily living. Thus far nothing bad has come from mistakes or last minute changes that have been made during my travels. Only good things and memorable experiences have bloomed.
As I sit enjoying my last breakfast at the new siam guest house I can't help but think how happy I am that I had this experience. I am not full of regret that I didn't spend more time here. I am ready to return to life at home, return to work, and see my friends. I only hope that I can take what I have learned about myself with me and that I will come back a better person with fabulous stories.