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I Haven't Been Everywhere But It's On My List I love to travel and experience the world but part of the fun for me is documenting those experiences through photography and writing. Follow along with me and enjoy the ride!

The Faces of War: Part II

CAMBODIA | Friday, 31 July 2015 | Views [408]

Located in the haunting halls of an old school was the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in remembrance of those tortured and killed during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge Regime

Located in the haunting halls of an old school was the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in remembrance of those tortured and killed during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge Regime

Hello again!

On Wednesday, we left pretty early and hopped on the bus to Cambodia!  We got picked up at our hotel and escorted to the bust station where we threw our bags in the cargo hold and hopped on a cool, air conditioned bus.  The ride was pretty easy and the scenery was beautiful.  It took us about 2 hours to reach the boarder.  When we got there, we had to grab our backpacks from the cargo hold and were pointed in the general direction of an office.  We walked into a room filled with at least 100 people and stood in what vaguely resembled a line.  The line wasn't moving but I was actually a bit relieved by that because the bus company employee had taken our passports and our immigration forms when we got off the bus so we didn't have any sort of paperwork.  After what felt like forever, I started getting a bit nervous but I had no idea where we were supposed to go or what we were supposed to do so standing and waiting seemed ok until we could figure it out.  There were 2 British girls that were on our bus and we just stuck with them hoping something good would happen.  All of a sudden, our guide comes through calling names and handing out passports then walks right past the government officials at the desk and all 4 of us girls pushed and squeezed our way through the crowd, barreled by desks, and we were through!  No one even looked at our paperwork until we got to the door at the other end of the building and looked is a strong word.  We were then ushered back onto the bus, which drove about 100ft over the boarder and had to get back off again.

It felt like déjà vu because again, we were pointed in the general direction of the office with no identification or immigration paperwork.  We were more comfortable with waiting this time and confident that eventually someone from the bus company would show up and we would be on our way.  Sure enough, he came in, handed me my passport with a brand new visa for Cambodia, and we were on our way.  From the boarder, we were still about 4 hours from Phnom Penh, but luckily I was able to sleep most of the way.  When we got to the bus station, they had a tuktuk waiting for us and he took us to our hotel.  It was perfect timing because we got to our hotel before the rain but just barely missed the downpour.  We checked in, got to our room and took out the maps to start figuring out our plan in the city as the rain pounded on our roof and windows.  While I was looking at my map, I felt a drop on my shoulder and when I looked up, I saw there was water coming in from our light fixture above my bed.  I grabbed my rain coat and rain back down to the lobby and told the manager that our ceiling was leaking.  We ran back upstairs 2 steps at a time and when I opened the door he gasped in what seemed to be complete surprise and a bit of embarrassment.  He apologized profusely and said his staff would have to look at it but he was all booked for the night. I had already set up the trash can underneath the light where most of the water was coming out and a cup under a smaller leak and I thought it would be fine until the rain stopped.  It is the rainy season after all and and short rain bursts are pretty common.  He left and a few minutes later we heard a loud noise above us and I jokingly told Jeanette he was up on the roof right now trying to fix it but that turned out to be exactly what was happening because he came back to our room, soaking wet, to see if the roof was still leaking (it was).  He was so kind and set us up in his friend's hotel a few blocks away and apologized a dozen times.  He called a tuktuk and paid for our ride over.  We got settled in again, I started writing and catching up on some blog entries and Jeanette took a nap.  I let her sleep for a while but knew that Nathan was coming in and she wanted to meet him at the airport.  Nathan's flight was delayed a few hours and he took a while to get through customs so by the time he and Jeanette got back to the hotel, it was time for bed.

For our first day in Phnom Penh, we decided to go to the famous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum first.  Tuol Sleng is the former site of the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) during the Khmer Rouge's rise to power from 1975-1979.  They were a communist party who aided the Viet Minh during the Vietnam war (which spilled over into Cambodia).  They came into power after their victory in the Cambodian Civil War and were infamous for their brutality, ethnic cleansing, and widespread famine and death.  While in power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that isolated the country from all foreign influences, closed schools, hospitals, and factories, abolished banking, finance, and currency, outlawed all religions, confiscated all private property and evacuated major cities by having their inhabitants march for days into the countryside, thousands dying along the way, to collective farms where forced labor was widespread.  The purpose of the policy was to turn Cambodia into a classless society and turn Cambodians into "Old People" through agricultural labor.  Scholars, artists, merchants and religious people, as well as the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham muslim ethnic minorities were fiercely targeted and in their 5 year reign, almost 2 million Cambodians were killed (about 25% of the population).

Tuol Sleng means "hill of the poisonous trees" and it was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country and as many as 20,000 prisoners were held, tortured, and later killed there.  It was built as a prison and interrogation center in 1975.  In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Long Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, monks, engineers, etc.  Later, however, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. 

Much like the Nazi's at the concentrations camps, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of all of their detainees.  The entire school has now been converted to a museum to honor those who lost their lives.  I walked through the individual cells and torture chambers, with gruesome pictures on the walls, and old dried blood spatter on the floors.  The old chalkboards still had math problems on them and it was just room after room after room of cells that once held thousands of innocent people.  I couldn't make it through the entire museum as I was just overcome with so much sadness over the senseless, awful, and inhumane acts that had been carried out in that former place of learning.  As I walked down the haunting halls, with tears welling up in my eyes, I knew I couldn't finish the museum so I went outside in what is now a beautiful courtyard, sat on a bench and silently cried by myself for 20 min.   Jeanette and Nathan eventually met me outside and with heavy hearts we left Tuol Seng.  

We saw a few more things around Phnom Penh like the Independence Monument, the Royal Palace, and the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship monument but it was hard for me to shake what I had experienced at the museum.  We had a beautiful dinner with an old co-worker of Jeanette's then went home and packed up as we were leaving for Siem Reap in the morning.  

The 6 hour bus ride was pretty uneventful as we had no boarder crossings.  We got to Siem Reap around 3 and decided to go to the Angkor National museum, which gives some thorough background information that is really helpful to know before you visit the ancient ruins.  After the museum, we went to what I thought was going to be the circus.  I had no idea what was in store for me when we walked up to the big top tent of Phare Ponleu Selpak. 

Phare Ponleu Selpak translates to "Brightness of Art" and is a Cambodian cultural organization that uses art as a means to help young people to deal with their war trauma.  The specific show we saw that night was called "Sokah" and is based on the true story of one of the founders of Phare.  Sokah is a child haunted by visitors of the atrocities and destruction by the Khmer Rouge and her memories form a surreal weave with myths and facts. Cringing in darkness, consumed by her fear, Sokha discovers her strength and resilience and gathers all her determination to fight despair.  Thanks to her trust in human nature, her choice as an adult is to believe in social reconstruction by young youth using art as a healing and solidarity factor between generations.  

The show was stunningly beautiful and I was taken on a journey of emotions ranging from painful tears of sadness to celebratory tears of happiness.  The people in this country are strong and resilient but more than anything they are beautifully joyful.  They are always smiling, laughing, playing and joking and it warms my heart to be with them in the home they are so proud of.  They are a people that are simply happy and you can't help but be enveloped in their happiness and it is a wonderful thing to experience.  I am sad that I cannot truly express how amazing this place is and I know I have said this for every place we have been but you must come visit because the second you step foot on Cambodia soil or catch a smile from a local you will forever be in love.  For a country that has seen so much violence and destruction, it is inspiring to see how they have collectively chosen to move forward in love rather than hatred.
With all my happiness,



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