Sunday, April 26, 2009

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh April 25, 2009
When I came back from Siem Reap I was met at the airport by the bell boy from the hotel who had befriended me. I thought he'd have a car. Silly me, he had a Honda 125 which I hopped on with my two bags and we chugged into town through streets flooded from the downpour while I was in the air.

I was disoriented as the day began. Thought I slept badly, loud air conditioner and general anxiety. When I woke up I was convinced I had overslept by hours as my watch read two forty five. Then I looked at the clock at the hotel registration desk and it said almost nine. Then I realized my watch had stopped because I forgot to push the stem back in last night. So I didn’t oversleep or miss my tour. I was really glad I didn’t because the guide was a really marvelous woman. She took me to the Kings Palace and showed me all about the Cambodian royal family, took me to the art museum and to a major Buddhist shrine. Then she took me to genocide museum and the battery in my camera died. The place had me close to tears. As tragic and horrific as the worst atrocities of The Holocaust, Rwanda, The Congo, Bosnia, shall I go on? There’s more to add. We live in the most incredibly comfortable country in the world and have no idea what it means for a little country like Cambodia with lots of identity and pride to be constantly under some kind of assault from bigger more powerful countries. At Angor Wat I was shown botched restoration efforts that had irreparably ruined sections of a temple. It makes it easier to understand why they seem so nearly militant about making tourists pay nearly American prices for many things. I don’t really mind all that much and I gave the guide and the driver each ten bucks at the end of the tour yesterday and today. They really worked and gave their all. I couldn’t recommend either one of them higher and you probably could do no better.
So we go to the Genocide Museum to see where Pol Pot did his dirtiest work. An old school complex turned into a torture and detention center. I was so pissed that my camera battery died and I didn’t have an extra (it was charging in the room) that I decided to go back tomorrow. The place made me cry and I didn’t want to leave it out because I didn’t charge my batteries on time. Photos of the detainees, photos of corpses, manacles and a series of graphic paintings documenting what one of the rare survivors saw with his own eyes and illustrated after being freed. The woman who was my guide was very emotional about the subject and told about being relocated to the country side when she was five and about not having enough food to eat. It made me think of the Museum of Terror in Budapest that I regret not visiting. These countries are right to enshrine these horrors lest they be swept under the rug of history. Americans are good at that, tomorrow is exciting and yesterday is passé. Onward to the next new thing and forget about the past. One reason I intend to return to the Genocide museum is there are several illustrations of “waterboarding” variations and I think it’s a good idea to have a document on hand of what our last president and his henchmen were defending. We must not forget that he dirtied Americas reputation in the world. Now we’re no better than those our leaders have sneered at, not that more than a few of us didn’t know that anyway, or at least suspect it, but now it’s come to life in lurid black and white. The stark truth. I intend to go have one more look to make sure I don’t forget.
So my guide and driver kindly adjusted the schedule so I could drop by the hotel to pick up a fresh battery and then took me to the public park where the origin of Phnom Penh is enshrined. The city is traced back to one woman who found a stature of Buddha by the river and came and made a shrine to it on top of this knoll. Thus in Cambodian Phnom means knoll or hill and Penh was the woman’s name. Pol Pot dumped the statue but the shrine on the hilltop was one of the few he spared. The park around it is bucolic, wild monkeys beg for food and there is an elephant named Sambo, which means something in Cambodian that I’ve forgotten. The shrine on top was lovely with a gorgeous Buddha and dozens of smaller ones, a statue of the woman Penh and vendors outside selling little birds to release as good luck after a prayer. I asked how much and they were fifty cents so I suggested I pay for two and my guide and I could each release one. It was a thrill to wish, like on your birthday, but instead this day, and just because. I commented to my guide that she had brought me from a place of hopelessness to a place of hope and peace, each with it’s own mural illustrations of it’s story, the one as demonic and nightmarish as any fiendish blood bath dreamed up in Hollywood and the next one as serene and calm and beatific as the other was not.
Then we drove outside of town to The Killing Fields themselves. This has to be seen to be grasped. It is so simple, so stark, so utterly mind numbing in the inevitable banality of evil. If there ever is evil in the world then this kind of thing is it. I tend to write a lot of stuff off to psychosis or sociopathology of one form or another and there is nothing to be said here other than the simple facts. There is a “stupa” in the field, with glass windows filled with skulls. There are excavations dotting the site, with rain water in the bottom, nothing overtly horrific. That is until you notice the clothing in the mud here and there, sort of like clothes we see in the gutter in a poor part of town, except these are next to paths between the excavations that periodically have obvious bone fragments showing through. There is nothing to think of but sorrow and suffering, of people who fell through the seams of life and into the hands of a madman as insane, chaotic and blood thirsty as any of the dicatators that have spiked the stew of history in the twentieth century. I couldn’t help but feel weird that Pol Pot rolled into town and began his reign of terror on my birthday in 1975. This is really serious stuff and we’re so insulated in America from these bald faced realities that it doesn’t hurt us to extend our hearts and minds to these people, any people who have had to endure atrocities such as these. At least that’s how I feel, you’ll have to make up your own mind.
I went back to the Genocide Museum today first thing took a Tuk-Tuk that waited for me while I took pictures. I was glad I did, it felt like an important thing to do some how, and it’s totally subjective.
At the airport I had to pay another fee to leave the country, $25 to leave! There are obviously some frustrating aspects for a westerner to life here. It has it’s own version of being half way in and out of the third world, at least at a glance. I am actually glad to be leaving and eager to be home. I’m almost broke and made some foolish expenditures and was ripped off a time or two. Oh, well. I’m a “rich” American who is not sure how I’ll generate income when he comes home. Now there’s a violent electrical rain storm outside. I wonder if I’ll leave on time. I hope so.

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