5 Jul 2001
Bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (nee Kampuchea, nee Cambodia).

Cambodia is a battered country, years of war and civil strife have left the infrastructure in a pitiful state that is only recently starting to be repaired.

My guidebook called this stretch from the Vietnamese border to Phnom Penh, one of the best roads in the country and suggested it was the only one that should seriously be considered for use by foreign visitors.

Looking out the window it was hard for me to tell where the minefield ended and the road began. The driver laboriously picked his way around crater sized pot holes and occasional even drove through actual craters that were more navigable than the "road." Calling this route a "road" is an insult to dirt paths everywhere and I couldn't even begin to imagine what the section from Siam Reap to the Thai border, labeled by my guidebook as one of the top three worst roads in the country, was going to be like.

Phnom Penh has a reputation for drugs, sex, weapons, violence, and general insanity. Walking the streets at night isn't general recommended, but that's just what I decided to do when I got into town. It was a few hours past dark but I was anxious to try some local food, the restaurant didn't look that far away on my map, and I just didn't get a malevolent feel from the place so I headed out on foot.

I made it about two blocks from my hotel before I was stopped by a road closure. It appeared to be some sort of construction site, and there where a lot of locals standing around staring expectantly so I stood around and stared expectantly as well.

After 15 minutes of wondering what I was waiting for I gave up and wandered off in search of an alternate route. It wasn't until the next day that I heard a hotel had just been bombed in some sort of local business dispute and the crowd were all curiosity seekers. Welcome to Phnom Penh.

I eventually found my restaurant and settled in for some traditional Cambodian soup. A cauldron of bubbling broth was brought to my table along with heaps of unidentifiable vegetables and a small plate of mystery meat.

In these places beer is served by women dressed in beauty pageant style evening dresses complete with sashes identifying the brand of beer they provide. The guy at the next table had his own cauldron going, and for some reason all of the beer women were sitting with him, dipping, mixing, seasoning, and generally simmering up quite a soup. Given that I had enough food to feed 10 people but had absolutely no idea what to do with it, I tried to chat him up with the aim of acquiring a beer woman of my own to maintain my soup.

I'm not very good with languages, so it was a great coincidence that in Cambodia the people had an equal chance of speaking all the languages I've at one time or another tried to learn. With this guy I quickly cycled through English, my recent Thai, my college Russian, and my high school French. All with no luck.

That left us with gestures of which his favorite was "cheers" and I didn't have quite the confidence to try and gesture out, "can I borrow one of your beer women to help me with my soup." So, we stuck to cheers and I quickly found myself on the losing end of an arcane Cambodian drinking game.

After a few hours I managed to stagger back to my room, well impressed with Cambodian hospitality and in blissful ignorance of the bomb threats.

6 Jul 2001
A day spent walking around trying to get a feel for the city. It's quite a pretty place with an upscale district of colonial architecture down by the meandering river.

Lunching at a pleasant cafe I try to picture what it was like here in April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge captured the city and forced all its residents to march out into the countryside and take up lives as farmers.

The idea was to form an agrarian peasant state. Money was abolished, the people were formed into collective work units that effectively operated as slave labor camps. Disobedience of any sort was punished by summary execution and a massive purge of educated and formerly upper class people was begun.

Sitting down by the river, sipping a cappuccino, it's just too far a leap from the horror of the near past to what I see today. I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like.

7 Jul 2001
A visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields of Choeung Ek.

Tuol Sleng -- high school, torture center, museum.
Map of skulls at Tuol Sleng.

In 1975 what was then known as Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into the S-21 torture and detention facility.

It was here that the so called enemies of the Communist party of Kampuchea were brought to have so called confessions tortured out of them. In reality the "enemies" where often just anybody who had been mentioned in a previous "confession." The confessions were collaborative works of fiction prepared together by the torturer and the torturee, neither of whom really knew what the ultra paranoid party center wanted to hear.

In the late stages the party center began to feed on itself in a process that has been dubbed "auto-genocide." Seeing imaginary traitors at every turn in an all consuming search for more victims, even the torturers at Tuol Sleng themselves became victims and were transferred to the other side of the bars.

The memorial stupa.
It was a terrible and tragic process that was documented in excruciating detail. Prisons records list the exact tortures carried out day by day, and the resulting forms of the confessions.

When the confessions were deemed adequate, all inmates were sentenced to death and brought to Choeung Ek where between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women and children were brutally slaughtered.

Bullets were considered too precious to waste on executions so the victims were bludgeoned to death with ax handles; infants and children were smashed against trees before their battered corpses tossed into the mass graves.

Today, both Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng are chilling places. At the killing fields, a memorial stupa has been constructed. Inside, behind glass, are the skulls of more than 8,000 of the victims.

Displayed at Tuol Sleng are the "mug shots" of some of the victims. I spent hours staring into their eyes, examining their expressions, and contemplating their last few days of existence. Much of the property as been left as it was, checkered school floors with leg irons hastily drilled into the floor, it's a horrific, surrealistic, mix, like the set of a camp post-apocalyptic movie.

But it's real, 17,000 people were chained to these floors, beaten with electric wires, forced to eat excrement, shocked, drowned, had their fingernails pulled out and were eventually taken away to their deaths. And for what? To support the paranoid political fantasies of an insane ruling cadre? Some days, in some places, I just really don't understand anything. Some places seem to overwhelm my ability to think at all. I wonder even how my heart can keep beating knowing that there are places in the world like Tuol Sleng.

8 Jul 2001
Enough death and destruction. Catch a fast boat to Siem Reap the base for exploring the famous Angkor Wat temple complex.

9 Jul 2001
Visit Angkor Wat.

Shrouded in mists, looming up out of the jungle, you can almost hear the echoes from the slaves hammers as they labored to construct Angkor Wat more than 600 years ago. Especially in the context of Cambodia today, the temple complex seems the root of all adventure, the glorious and mysterious tailings of a devastated culture.

Shy monk at Angkor Wat
The enigmatic faces of the Bayon.

Jungle clad Ta Prohm temple.

The name Angkor Wat actually refers to the specific temple shown above. Built as a funerary temple for the Khmer king Suryavarman II to Honor Vishnu, a Hindu deity, Angkor Wat was restored in the 16th century as a Buddhist monastery.

Above and right is the popular Bayon Temple from the walled city of Angkor Thom. Soaring towers, dark narrow staircases, and everywhere the smiling face of Avalokiteshvara, the Bayon is stuff of Indiana Jones legends. Today the Bayon remains a mystery, archeologists are still not sure about it's exact function and symbolism. It's fun to find a quiet corner gaze out over the faces and wonder what purpose this was all for. What would someone have been thinking sat in this place hundreds of years ago?

For many, the highlight of their visit to Angkor is the temple of Ta Prohm. Unlike the other temples here which have received extensive restoration work, Ta Prohm has been left to the jungle to do with as it will. Scrambling over broken walls, torn apart over the ages by the slow but inexorable force of the trees, you get the sense of what it would have been like to be one of the original western explorers of Angkor.

10 Jul 2001
Pickup truck ride back to Thailand.

After my miserable experience on one the "best" roads in the country, I was nervous about trying my luck on one of the worst. Among the normal guidebook sidebars on cuisine, points of interest, etc., my book for Cambodia had a section on how to avoid landmines should your vehicle succumb to rigors of Cambodian overland travel.

It was all fretting for nothing though as this road has recently (maybe within as little two weeks of my traveling it?) been completely redone. It's still dirt, but it's nicely graded and culverts have been installed at all the streams. We whisked along at a brisk 60k and were quickly at the border and back in Thailand negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers.

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