Friendly people, delicious food, warm sunshine, hours lounging by the pool, Christmas. Ahhhh vacation! I’ve had an absolutely wonderful time in Cambodia this past week. If I may be so bold to say it, I think it’s my favorite country so far.
The first bit of our stay here was not all smiles and relaxation though. The first thing on our agenda when we arrived into Phnom Penh was to visit the place where the Khmer Rouge murdered their prisoners during their revolutionary overthrow in the 70s. Brittle ivory white skulls, piled up in a stupa at least 50 feet high were the first things I saw. The remains of the millions of innocent people killed. There were mass graves with bones, teeth, and salvaged clothing. A tree marked with a placard indicated where babies and children were beaten to death. Next we visited Tuol Sleng, a high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and torture center. The cells and torture chambers were still set up. I walked through the rooms, looking at the rows and rows of pictures of prisoners’ faces displayed on boards. It was so hard for me to look into the eyes of the men, women, children, and even small babies that had been captured, tortured, and killed in that very place not too long ago. How could I never have learned about this in school? I was shocked and slightly infuriated that this genocide, which killed almost half of Cambodia’s population at the time, had been completely left out from my education. It was a pretty rough morning for me to say the least.
It’s very evident that the aftereffects of the revolution still abound here. Children on the street sell books about Pol Pot and the killing fields, and I fear that it’s even become a sort of tourist attraction. Case in point: our group. I think it’s a good thing that people are being made aware of the atrocities that happened here, however I hope that tourism and hype doesn’t make it seem any less severe.
We left Phnom Penh after three days and traveled by bus to Siem Reap. We had three day passes to the temples. The first day, we toured around by tuk tuk with a guide, who explained to us details about a few of the temples. My favorite was actually the temple the Tomb Raider was filmed at! The next morning, we woke up super early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. On the third day, I rented a bike and rode a loop around the temples. It was really beautiful to see all of the temples and scenery. And it was only one dollar for the whole day! I couldn’t believe it.
The rest of my time here has been spent relaxing. I alternate between jumping in the pool, reading in the sun, and exploring the city. Passing up the countless offers from the tuk tuk drivers—“want a tuk tuk lady?”—I like to walk into the cute downtown area. There are lots of restaurants and shops-- many of the restaurants advertise their use of organic and local foods! I have a hard time choosing where to go. But it doesn’t matter too much, because every one I’ve been to has been amazing. Another thing I was surprised about here were the “Dr. Fish Massages.” They’re everywhere on the streets. Basically, they’re a huge tank full of water and fish that, when you put your feet in, will eat your dead skin. I tried it with my hand for a few seconds, and it felt like little suction cups!
I’ve been amazed at the amount of English the Cambodians speak. I think it’s most likely due to the amount of tourism (lots from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.) On the streets, people will barrage you with offers to buy anything from books to bracelets to drugs…Always the same offer: “Lady, you want a…” Walking to dinner one night, one boy came up to us to try to sell books. First, he chased us with a cooked tarantula (they sell them on the streets here.) He then proceeded to follow us to the restaurant and kept talking to us, even as we sat down. The whole time we were conversing with him English, and he seemed very fluent. They’re very dynamic and cheery, and it’s actually really fun to have conversations with all of the vendors.
We spent our Christmas here in Siem Reap! We celebrated by playing games, performing in a talent show, and revealing our secret santas. Kasha even had a small Christmas tree for us to put our gifts under. I really missed my family and Christmas celebrations at home, but it’s hard to be too down when you’re lying in the sun and swimming in the pool in Cambodia.
We’re flying out to India this afternoon! I’m really excited, but also a bit nervous. It’s going to be quite a trek to get there, complete with a 6 hour layover (from midnight to 6 am) in Mumbai. The book we’re reading to prepare for India is The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m really enjoying it. So at least I have that to keep me occupied!