Our first day in Cambodia we went to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, which was so overwhelming and emotional and powerful and important to see. Short summary of the Cambodian genocide incase you didn’t learn about it in school (neither did I, please go google it though because it’s so horrible and also super awful that so many don’t know about it): a communist group called the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970’s, killed 3 million people (a third of the population), targeting the intellectuals in cities. The goal was an agrarian utopia, and the leaders had philosophies like “to lose you is no loss, to keep you is no gain” and “its better to kill an innocent by mistake than to miss an enemy by mistake.” Now 35 years later, Cambodia is missing basically an entire generation of intellectuals and every family is affected by it in some way. Our guide, Bun, was a child soldier while the Khmer Rouge was in power (low-key they still are though through the Cambodian People’s Party), lost many family members, and was in the army until 1998. Then he became a Buddhist monk, studied English and history, became a school teacher, and then became a tour guide (which he casually has won international awards for) and farms and runs a B&B out of his house, loves the number 7 and telling stories, and is one of the coolest, most genuine and most optimistic people I’ve ever met. The Killing Fields were mass graves each holding up to 9000 people, and this specific site is now a remembrance monument with quiet paths and audio tours and a huge temple-like building holding 70,000 skulls and other bones that have been excavated (small bones & teeth & pieces of clothing are still in the graves and on the paths and come up during the rainy season). (Also photo credits to Julia for that picture on my camera because I was sobbing too much to get myself to take a picture.) After the Killing Fields we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was originally a prestigious high school but was taken over as the Khmer Rouge headquarters and the classrooms were converted into cells for imprisonment & torture. Now it’s another monument honoring there remembering the horrific things that happened there and honoring the people who lost their lives and sharing the stories with visitors. Some of the rooms are set up the same way they were found, and others are filled with thousands pictures of prisoners (kind of like mug shots), aka the faces to the skulls. That whole experience was super emotional and terrifying and the most messed up thing about it for me was the fact that it was all taking place in a high school. What had been a place for learning and curiosity was twisted into a place of cruelty and hopelessness where prisoners suffered unbelievably until they finally admitted they were part of the CIA or KGB (which they weren’t), and then were sent to die. Bun’s personal story made the monuments and history come to life, and it’s crazy to me to that I had never learned about this before.
Phnom Penh itself is now a super busy city, with crazy traffic and lots of tuktuks and motorcycles everywhere (literally everyone rode motorcycles: women in pencil skirts and heels, men on their way home, newborn babies, toddlers, a family of five…). That night we had dinner with Bun’s cousin, who lives in a small house with 5 families and 30 people (some of them sleeping outside) who run an at-home English school for all their children plus some extras, have two bunnies (named Titi and Toto), five teeny puppies and lots of kids who love to dance. We also saw the Royal Palace and lots of other temples in the city, and we went on a ferry ride down the river to see the sunset.
After a seven hour bus ride down a dirt road and through more rice fields than you can imagine we got to Siem Reap, where we’ve been for the past 4 days. We saw the sunrise over Angkor Wat which was so amazing and huge (basically the Machu Picchu of Asia but way way bigger). The temples were so cool and all the walls were carved with depictions of stories and history and there were massive trees growing in the ruins/that are kind of causing the ruins to fall apart even more (created by human, destroyed by nature). All together very World Wonderous. There were also monkeys climbing around outside the temples and were super cute but then one clung onto Jaci’s ankle and ended up biting her (its okay though she got a rabies booster shot and she’s fine now) (see: pic of Jaci kicking the monkey off of her).
We also went to many more night markets (I own way too many pairs of elephant pants now) (is six really that many though…?) (yes when your wardrobe is limited to four outfits) and went Christmas shopping for our Secret Santa’s in the group and went to a circus of acrobats/perfomers from the city who were street children and are now running a school for other street children to learn English/circus arts.
Now we’re off to India for the next two months!!