Phnom Penh – Not cropping out the sadness


Phnom Penh sits uncomfortably on the wide Mekong river. Three wheeled tuk-tuks filled with sugar cane, tiny mattresses or unwashed hippie tourists (usually male) meander from one area to another, dodging uniformed school children on their way to classes. Next to a government owned Mercedes G-class, an extended family wakes up on cardboard mats. With the millions of remaining landmines, it is common to see human jigsaw puzzles trying to survive off of determination and hard work. Elegant estates and vast professional sweat-shops the size of airport terminals (20% of our cloths are made here) are counter points to a country that lacks a postal system. Quickly you get the feel that you are in a damaged country, inhabited by a damaged culture made up of damaged people.

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The people are soft spoken, kind and interested in those that come to visit. Family is critical to the makeup of the culture and it is not uncommon to see a Mother taking time to play with her children during whatever job she is working at. One local told me that there are only four types of people in Cambodia, those few that have, those that do not have, those that come to help and those that come to exploit. That explains why on the side of most tuk-tuks (and our hotel) is a sticker that ask the reader to report child prostitution.IMG_1267

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After a few days, we headed south to the coast for a half marathon that Tamara had planned. The race went well and it was during this side trip that we made a very poor choice. Sitting on the beach, enjoying the warm sand and a cold beer, one of us decided to order a chocolate shake. Did we both know that the restaurant (shack) it would come from had no toilet paper or soap in the employee bathroom? Yes we did. Did we know that the water was not safe to drink? Yes we did. Why did we do this…..we don’t know.

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72 hours later we recovered enough to be fairly confident that we would not die in that horrible place and made plans to hire a driver and car to take us back to the capital to a nice hotel where we could heal up. It took a week or so to start to feel better but likely we have relearned a good lesson about sanitation. (only eat what locals eat unless it is milk, ice or lettuce)

Visiting the Bethel was a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh. The 16 volunteer bethelites focus on translation, organization and education. It was only in 1990 that the work was able to start fully and by 2008 the language received the complete Greek scriptures. Now the 20 hardworking congregations enjoy a freedom that is not to be taken for granted in this area of the world.

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I have had some friends ask why Tamara and I visit refugee camps, concentration camps and genocide memorials when we travel and the reason is simple but hard to explain. It boils down to we hate bullies and refuse to pretend bad things don’t happen. This was a driving force behind both of us wanting to visit the genocide museum at one of the “killing fields” around the area.

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It always seemed to me that genocide/mass murder was a disaster caused by chaos and fear but Pol Pot (the leader of the bad guys) was well educated in France, expertly planned out his actions and meticulously documented every single name and photographed all 2+ million (25% of the population) killed (by hand) during his attempt to create a playground for himself. Emptying the cities (where the people had fled to escape the 4 year American carpet bombing) he killed all teachers, artists, anyone that could speak a second language and even those that wore glasses or had a skill other than farming. He forbad commerce, religion, education and family.

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The open air museum had a audio guide that related survivors’ stories of the camps and the reign of terror. Each section seemed to be more horrible than the next ending in a tree used to kill babies. The museum tries to gather up the bones after each rain yet even still we had to step over pieces of fabric or bone as we walk around.

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It was only when Vietnam could not deal with Pol Pot anymore did they enter the country, kick him out, setup a simple communist government in 1979 and went home. Shockingly, until 1982 the UN, US, Britain and China would only recognize Pol Pot as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia….even providing him with money and a seat at the UN. These things seem to happen in slow motion and anyone looking to the UN for peace and security has no knowledge of history.

There is many wonderful things about Cambodia and it is a shame that mostly the bad stuff seemed to surface in my writing. Writing for me is less like a camera taking photos of neat things but more  stained clothing that you earn by navigating a path.

Our next stop is the crown jewel of Cambodia, Angkor Wat and the many square miles of ruins in the central part of the country.

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