Monday, October 26, 2009

The Road to Siem Reap

We started our day off right . . . with a pool-side breakfast! Some fuel for the long trip to Siem Reap that was ahead of us.

Believe it or not, this was one of my favorite parts of our vacation. We were lucky enough to get the front seats of the bus so we had a panoramic view of the Cambodian countryside for the entire 6 hour journey.

It took us a long time to get out of downtown Phnom Penh, due to the horrendous traffic, but once we crossed the Tonle Sap it was smooth sailing.

The trip was truly mind boggling! This tiny little road was the most well-kept highway in Cambodia and it was packed with travelers. The bus weaved in and out of traffic and there were too many close-calls to count. A little bit nerve-racking but it was a really neat experience.

The vans and trucks were jammed with people and cargo. Every square inch was accounted for.

How would you like to sit on the roof of a van in 90 degree heat with 10 other people for six hours? Well, if the price is right. . .

Those pigs were alive!!

We saw a lot of Monks out walking in their iconic saffron robes.

This guy had quite the ordeal when getting on the bus in Phnom Penh. He had a boat propeller that must have been 8 feet long. They tried every which way to get it in the luggage space under the bus but to no avail. Eventually, he was forced to manouver it on to the bus and lay it in the aisle. (Imagine the Greyhound employees dealing with that!) Well, he made it to his destination - prop in hand - and seemed quite content.

The bus ride was only about 300 kilometres but it took 6 hours because of all of the cows and tractors and tuk-tuks in our way. Plus, we stopped twice. These weren't the normal 'hit the restroom, stretch, grab a coffee and get back on the bus' type breaks, either. The people got off and had full on sit-down meals - rice, curry, turtles, and the works. Twice!
Well, we finally made it to Siem Reap and checked in to our guesthouse, The Golden Mango. Here's the view from outside our room . . .

That's right . . . it's a CROCODILE FARM!!! How cool is that??

Here's the view from our window . . .

Once we had sorted out our arrangements for visiting Angkor, we went out for some dinner downtown. This is called 'Pub Street' and is totally built for tourists. We didn't mind though - it was a chance to get some Mexican food (dont' forget that we've been in Korea for six months so any chance to get some fajitas is hard to pass up) and maybe see some Apsara dancers. . .

and we did . . .

Off to bed now - we'd have get up at pretty darn early if we were to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat tomorrow.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

S-21 and The Killing Fields

Our second day in Phnom Penh we went to visit some of Cambodia's horrific past. We decided it was really important to go see some of the museums and monuments dedicated to the millions of victims of the genocide. We wanted to learn about the Khmer Rouge and what they did to the Cambodian people - to better understand what they went through during the Pol Pot regime. Our first destination was Choeung Ek - "The Killing Fields"

There were hundreds of "killing fields" scattered around Cambodia. The best known monument is 'Choeung Ek', located at one of the mass grave sites outside Phnom Penh. It is the site of a Buddhist memorial to the victims of the genocide.

The Khmer Rouge regime executed approximately 17 000 people here between 1975 and 1979. This stupa contains more than 5 000 skulls which were found in the mass graves at Choeung Ek.

Men, women, and children were brought here to be beaten and killed. Some were even buried alive - thrown into the mass graves and left for dead.

There were thousands of bodies found here after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge.

Our next destination was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was a at a high school that was made in to a prison during the Pol Pot regime.

If you haven't read about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge I suggest you look into it. There are numerous books and even some movies dedicated to the subject. There were horrible atrocities committed and the scariest part was that it all happened in the not-so-distant past. The events during the 1970's have had a lasting impact on the people of Cambodia and it was evident in the stories we heard from the few people we met there.

(Here is a small introduction to the Museum at S-21.)

The first building we visited had large rooms dedicated to the interrogation and torture of the inmates. The rooms contained rusty shackles and beds to which the prisoners were tied. Each room had a photograph of a victim hung on the wall over their bed.

(Here are the 'rules' of S-21)

The second building contained photographs of the prisoners. When they were brought to the prison they were documented, photographed, and interrogated. It was estimated that 17 000 people were imprisoned here within 4 years.

You can see women, children, and even babies that were tortured and held captive here. It was really overwhelming to see all of their faces. There were so many photographs spread over the rooms in Tuol Sleng. It's difficult to imagine what happened in these very rooms. . .

These buildings also contained many small, 'makeshift' cells meant to increase the capacity of the prison. They were incredibly small cells - some were too small to lie down in . . .

This place was pretty scary. The barbed wire was to keep prisoners from commiting suicide. The guards were encouraged to keep prisoners alive because they needed to hear their confessions. The prisoners were tortured and forced to identify friends and family members who were subsequently captured and killed. There are only twelve know survivors of Tuol Sleng and only four are alive today.

These paintings were done by Vann Nath, one of the survivors. He was trained as an artist and he was kept alive in order to paint portraits of Pol Pot. These paintings are relfections of what he witnessed during his stay at Tuol Sleng.

This is the infamous Cambodian Map of Skulls that was kept on display at Tuol Sleng. It was taken down in 2002 becuase they feared it was deterring tourists from visiting the museum. Only a photograph remains in its place.

It was a really somber morning but fascinating nonetheless. It was important for us to see these places firsthand so we could better understand what Cambodia and its people went through. Its really amazing how, in such a short time, the Cambodians have rebuilt their spirits. The economy and infrastructure is not at all up to standards yet, but all of the people we met in Cambodia were extremely generous and we felt welcome everywhere we went.

Next, we decided it was time to 'lighten-up' our sight-seeing a bit and head to some of the places Cambodian's are proud of. The Royal Palace!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

That Afternoon in Phnom Penh

It was time for lunch!! We decided to visit the infamous Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia. From their website: "Since opening its doors in 1993 the FCC Phnom Penh has served a storied cast of journalists and photographers, diplomats, movie stars and intrepid world travelers. Renowned for its views, The FCC overlooks the convergence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers." It was a really beautiful place - we had a beer and delicious lunch and recharged ourselves for more sightseeing.

The tuk-tuk's await!

After lunch, we went to Wat Phnom. It was built in 1373 and is the most important Wat in Phnom Penh.

We saw 'Sambo' the elephant waiting to give a ride to some lucky tourists . . .

. . . and there were a ton of monkeys living here. It was really neat to see the monkeys up close and cageless.

Our next stop was The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda.

This little building was a gift from the French in 1876. It's called the "Napoleon Pavillion".

Another miniature 'Angkor Wat' - (we're really getting excited now!)

After the palace we returned to the Blue Lime for a swim, got dressed up and went out for dinner. You can see in the banana leaf on the right - Amok - the most famous Cambodian dish. A coconut curry fish. Super Delicious!!

Next - we go to Angkor!!