Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Phnom Penh

After leaving Siem Reap, we drove the 5 or 6 hours to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. We’ll be spending the rest of the program here, and the first three weeks will be with a homestay family, and the group will move back to a guesthouse together for the last two weeks of the program.

I, however, am having a bit of a different situation. Advocates for Youth, an awesome organization I work with in DC is sending me to the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria. Unfortunately, the conference overlaps with my time in Cambodia, so I have to withdraw from the program and leave Cambodia after four weeks (three weeks early). Though it’s a bummer to have to leave Cambodia and my friends here early, I’m really excited about going to this conference. I get to do a presentation at the Youth Pre-Conference, and participate in a young leaders summit with UNAIDS director, Michel Sidibe, among other things. So, I guess it’s really sort of bittersweet in that I’m sad I have to leave Cambodia, but also excited to go to this conference.

Well, as per usual, I seem to be getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even blogged about Phnom Penh and I’m already telling you about my impending departure. So, let’s get to it, shall we? Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, we were all sent to our homestays. I’m staying with a girl named Asa, who is also a student at PUC (the university I’m studying at), and another girl from my program, Nita, is staying with Asa’s cousin, Sin, who lives in the same house. So, we’re all staying together, and it’s been alright. We haven’t really met the family at all, and we pretty much just spend time with both of the girls in our room (which is below the main house, which we don’t go into, apparently). They are both really nice, but pretty quiet, so it’s sometimes a bit awkward, and we have a lot of trouble communicating with one another.

Phnom Penh, itself, is like most other large cities. It’s hot, crowded, and the traffic is bad. The driving here is a lot better than Nigeria, but it’s still kind of free for all, and the cars, motos, tuk-tuks, and bikes all share the same space, and traffic lights are only obeyed if the driver is in the mood. Moto seems to be the best way to get around here, since they can zoom around things better than cars or tuk-tuks, and sometimes they just drive on the sidewalk if the roads are too crowded. My homestay is more or less at the opposite end of the city from school, so it can be a long commute, and a hot one, but there’s AC waiting for us on the school end of the commute. There’s a lot of different kinds of food here, from Khmer, to Vietnamese, to Indian, to Western, which is nice, since even though I really like Khmer food, sometimes you just need to take a break and eat a salad and some cheese. Unfortunately, I seem to come to places that do not believe in consuming dairy. Like Nigeria, there are a lot of cow herders here, but they still don’t eat milk, yogurt, or cheese, which is like 50% of my diet at home, so that’s kind of killing me (I plan to eat a LOT of cheese in Vienna).

We’ve done some exploring here, including field trips to the National Museum, as well as to the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng prison. The National Museum is a beautiful red building that looks kind of like a palace, and it’s full of artifacts from various Khmer civilizations, including Angkor. These are mostly statues from Buddhist and Hindu mythology and icons, but there are also demon statues, iron works, woodcarvings, weapons, gold, and more. It was really interesting, but after three days at Angkor, it was kind of hard to get excited about more statues, which weren’t even attached to impressive temples.

As part of the Nation Building class, we went to the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng prison, which were hands-down the most depressing and horrifying things I have ever seen. The Killing Fields, for those of you who may not know, is a location near the Choeung Ek village where the Khmer Rouge brutally murdered thousands of people and buried them in mass graves. The site itself has been cleaned up/ done up a lot in recent years, so it’s actually a really strange to be in this place that looks like beautiful green fields and trees and blue skies and then think about how much blood in that ground and what a horrific history that small natural space has. This realization comes crashing down on you when you walk into the Memorial Stupa, which houses all the skulls and bones of the people murdered by the Khmer Rouge at the Killing Fields. To me, what was even eerier and more disturbing than all those bones in that building is the fact that there are still many bodies that have not been dug up, so when you walk along the paths that lead past the excavated mass graves, you can see bones and clothes of victims that are starting to surface. Seeing a tattered men’s striped collared shirt poking out of the dirt as I walked along the trail was one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. After the Killing Fields, we went to the Toul Sleng prison, which is probably the most infamous of the Khmer Rouge prisons. Thousands of people were held at Toul Sleng and tortured there for perceived betrayals of the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary cause. The place has actually been fixed up quite a lot, but it still looks mostly like it did during the days it was being used. The floors and ceilings still bear the bloodstains of the victims of the Khmer Rouge who passed through Toul Sleng (almost everyone who died at the Killing Fields was sent there from Toul Sleng). Perhaps even more terrifying than the bloodstains and torture instruments that remain in the Toul Sleng cells, are the thousands of photographs housed in Building B of the complex. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about taking photographs of all their prisoners, and all these headshots are arranged along the entire length of the rooms. It’s harrowing to look into the faces of the Toul Sleng prisoners, many, if not most, of whom did not survive the Khmer Rouge’s bloody regime. The tragic irony of the place is that it was originally an elementary school with a beautiful courtyard full of grass and plants and palm trees, and the Khmer Rouge just took it over and converted that place of learning into a literal house of horrors. What’s more, is that my professor for Nation Building went to kindergarten there the year before it became a prison.

I suppose it’s also interesting to note that the Killing Fields memorial is actually operated by a Japanese company, which I find troubling, to be honest with you. I don’t really think it’s appropriate for another country to be controlling a site that means so much for Khmer history. The Japanese didn’t live through it, so I guess I just have trouble believing that they have the personal and cultural connection to this place that I think is necessary for whoever is running the memorial at the Killing Fields.

After a week in Phnom Penh, two girls from my program, Nita and Angela, and I decided to escape the city and head to beach! More on that next time…..

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