City of Dust

Arriving in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought it was likely similar to Bangkok but less developed, and I guess that was correct to a point. But to use the phrase “not as developed” would be an incredible understatement.

There were lots of immigration workers running around to get everyone their visas. Unfortunately, these workers sometimes like to get more money out of you if they know they can. I had forgotten to bring a photo for my visa, so I knew it would cost $35 instead of $30 to obtain it, but three different people offered to help me by moving me to the front of the line and asked for amounts close to $50. I just said, “No, thank you,” and waited patiently for my turn.

Several tuk-tuks and taxis offered to take me to my hostel, ranging in price from $7-$35. The ones that told me $35 I just laughed at and walked past, until I finally settled on $7. The drive took about an hour, and what I saw was incredible. Huts, heaps of trash, metal scraps and buildings made of air. The whole city was engulfed in a cloud of dust risen by the constant beating of the roads by coughing motorbikes and cars that slammed into the ground with every passing pothole.

 I couldn’t keep my eyes open for long while riding down the road, and even sitting still it felt like I was just waiting to be buried under brown ash. If I had seen chaos in Thailand, I was now seeing the effects of total destruction on a once great society, and the mad rush of unbridled capitalism where you either have something, or you have nothing at all.

That’s not to say it was terrible. It was dust– dust as far as I could see and my lungs weren’t happy about it, but in the center of the city are a few taller buildings, a lot of restaurants showing off prices for meals in the $1-4 range, and everything you could imagine was being sold in three or four or twelve streetside stores like a neverending garage sale. And meanwhile, everyone continues to honk and ride past one another wherever there are gaps between cars.

Originally I was headed to Cambodia to volunteer with a company called SOLS Education. The organization has different service centers all around Southeast Asia and after visiting the center in Phnom Penh, I’d be assigned to one of the rural provinces to assist another teacher in English education and community organizing. We made it to my hostel an hour after I left the airport, and it was incredibly nice and completely different from the rest of the city I’d seen so far– a little pool out front, a kitchen that served (overpriced) western and Khmer food, air conditioning… I was a little spoiled for $4 a night. I spent the night playing pool with some of the guys who were staying in my room and we visited a bar or two as well, which was another surreal experience. At least where we are in the city, the bars are chock full of scantily dressed women who are obviously there for one purpose. A waitress was giving one man a hand job under the counter, and as we looked at a drink menu at “Walkabout Bar,” a woman down the hall appeared suddenly from behind the bathroom wall and started mimicking choking on a penis, and repeated this several times before giving up on us.

I took the next few hours to mentally prepare myself for the next day, which I would never, in a million years, have sufficiently prepared for.

My first stop, which was on the way to the school, was the genocide museum. Here’s where I need to fill you in on some Cambodian history so that all this makes sense.

Cambodia is a country with a long and bloody history, which I encourage you to read about. The most pertinent information for now is that Cambodia was, from the beginning of the 9th century until the 15th century, an empire which amassed a lot of wealth and land until falling, at which point it was ruled over by its neighboring countries (present day Thailand and Vietnam). Continued war took most of the country until it became a protectorate of France in the 19th century. At this point it joined other French territories in the area before gaining their independence in 1953, but in 1970, a military coup threw a new ruler into power and the short-lived monarchy saw almost nothing but hard times and continued war. It is believed here in Cambodia that the U.S. supported the coup. Soon after, though, a rebel communist group known as the Khmer Rouge surfaced and began to war with the government of Cambodia and after several years of struggle they took control in 1975.

This is where things get really, really bad. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, ordered that everyone evacuate populated cities and work on rural projects. During this time, they systematically tortured and killed between 1 and 3 million people, targeting ethnic minorities, educated people, and anyone who had a skilled trade. The goal was to completely remove all western influence from Cambodia and imitate a system of governance and economic sustainability that had been abandoned in the 11th century.

If someone wore glasses, they were considered a threat to the new communist movement of the Khmer Rouge because they seemed intelligent. Doctors, teachers… so many skilled people lost their lives to this regime. And the way that they carried out the murders is even worse. The Khmer Rouge would accuse someone of being a spy, and wait until curfew (which was semi-permanently enacted at the time) to invade that person’s home, take their entire family, and place them in a prison facility. At this point, they were asked to confess to their crimes. When they didn’t confess to conspiracy (working with the CIA, informing the KGB, something along those lines), they were tortured, chained to the floors, left in their cells, etc. Methods of torture included peeling nails and skin off and pouring salt water into the wounds, suffocation with a bag doused in water, dunking their heads in water while upside down until they were unconscious, forcing them to eat excrement before they could shower, starvation, locking peoples’ heads in boxes of scorpions, and a great many other things I don’t care to repeat. To kill small children and infants, they beat them against trees in front of their family. And this lasted for four years, resulting in the murder of about 1/4 of Cambodia’s population (and many others fled to Thailand).

The plan worked. The killing ended in 1979, only 36 years ago, and the country has still not recovered from its incredible loss. It lacks rule of law, it lacks medical facilities and schools, and it lacks order. The country still struggles to provide food to everyone and clean drinking water from the tap (and sometimes even just a tap) are pipe dreams in the rural parts of the country.

The facilies of the museum are actually those of a prison where people were murdered for the duration of those four years. It’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen. The cells are tiny and made of wood, or of metal bars. There are what look like dried blood stains on parts of the walls and floors, and messages in Khmer scratched into the surface of the wood that read “You must be quiet” and other haunting messages.

Each of the buildings is lined with pictures of the prisoners, looking concernedly into the camera, seemingly unaware of the horror that was about to befall them, and there were pictures of piles of bodies being thrown into ditches in a field, emaciated and bloody skeletons only barely clinging to life in their cells. And at the end of the tour, you find a whole shelf of skulls accompanied by a clear glass casket filled with human bones.
The worst part about the whole experience was not knowing any of this occured until I decided to go to Cambodia a few months back. And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg in terms of genocides no one seems to know about.

 Never stop learning, guys.

This happened on another day in Phnom Penh (July 6, actually) but it’s along the same lines of the above topic and I want to include it here. In the morning I met a couple English girls and a French girl who were headed out for the killing fields and I joined them, taking a tuk tuk south of the city to Choung Ek, a field that was essentially the Cambodian equivalent to Auschwitz. It costs $6 to get in including an audioguide ($3 without, but it’s not worth it) and you move from station to station learning about what occured there. It is just one of over 300 fields discovered after Pol Pot was ousted. Here, prisoners that were set for execution would come and be stuffed into a small room while loud music played. Then, they would be systematically murdered and thrown into mass graves. Here, thousands of people died, coming in on trucks that near the end of the 1970s were coming in at over 300 bodies a day.

Most people were killed the same day they were taken there. Sometimes, they would spend one night before being killed. The bodies were covered with DDT to mask the smell, and children were murdered in front of their parents. Women were often raped, and one of the stories tells of a woman who was raped by an entire group of young soldiers until she was unconscious.

In the picture above, if you’ll remember me mentioning this in a. Post back in Chiang Mai, the Garuda are mortal enemies of the Naga in Theravada Buddhist mythos. In the stupa erected here, the tails of the naga on each side coil upwards and become the Garuda further up on each edge to symbolize peace and harmony between two opposing forces.

 The babies and small children were grabbed by the feet and smashed into a tree until death. The tree itself was covered in bracelets left from other visitors, similar to the mass graves which have been mostly excavated. But as you walk around, you can still see bone fragments and leftover cloth from the prisoners. It’s horrible.

Anyway, with the death of 3 million people heavy on my heart, I headed for SOLS. Here’s where I learned the hard way that literally no one knows where anything is in this city. A motorcyclist picked me up off the side of the road (anyone will gladly do so here for $1-5, depending how far you want to go) and took me there, stopping halfway to signal to me he had no clue where we were going. I pulled out Google Maps and gave him directions from the back seat. Dripping sweat from an intense heat I’d never known, I walked through the gates into a complex formed from a little gray building and a larger pavillion to the right where at least 100 kids between 17-22 were walking around smiling to each other and at me.

“Hello, teacher! Where you come from?” I was asked several times on my way to the office.

This will be swell.

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