Friday, March 22, 2013

Phnom Penh | Cambodia

Phnom Penh.  Horns blaring in the afternoon traffic. Light haze extending as far as you can see. Smiling faces beckoning you to enter an establishment. At a glance, it looks no different than any number of Southeast Asian cities. But this is a facade, a mask for the wounds that run deep within the roots of the country.

In 1975, a communist leader by the name of Pol Pot took control of the country of Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge. In short, anyone considered remotely intelligent, foreign, a risk to the rule of the Khmer Rouge or any number of other "crimes" was killed during that time. Millions of people were murdered in what became known as the Killing Fields. It is here that we began our tour of Phnom Penh, at the memorial site honoring the many victims who fell during this time.

Each dip that you see above marks the site of a mass grave where victims were recovered. Below, you can see the memorials that litter the sight to pay homage to the victims who were both young and old, men, women and children.

A comprehensive audio tour, which every visitor was required to wear, brought the terrors to life. Many of the buildings at this particular site were dismantled as soon as they were discovered in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime but sinage indicated the placement of various components of torture spread over the campus.

A memorial had been constructed in the middle of the fields. Inside, skulls of the victims were arranged in levels based on the way in which they were killed. The tour explained how to determine a machete blow to the head, a disarticulated jaw, an impact wound from being smashed into a tree trunk. To me, this site was more gruesome than the concentration camp which I visited in Germany. What made these killings more unimaginable was that the victims were broken, battered, and taken apart, many times while the individuals were still living. 

From the Killing Fields, we scurried across town to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This museum is set in the one-time elementary school which later served as a detention center where the Khmer Rouge would hold hostages and collect false confessions which were used to justify torture.

To end on a lighter note, this is the past of Cambodia. As I have already said, we were overwhelmed by the Cambodian people. Their kindness and work-ethic were prominent as they appear to be a culture in which everyone is working to better their home land. Below, you can see one of the friends that we made on our trip.

We were sitting on a typical backpacker street on our last morning, consuming our breakfast of real bacon, when a man stopped by our table to offer us a variety of watches and handbags among other things. We politely told him that we had already bought several items to commemorate our trip and did not need anything else. He responded with a plea. He only needed to sell a small number more to be able to return home to his family in the countryside with enough money for them to eat. Being the suckers that we are, Lauren and I both conceeded and bought a knit headband. 

Just before he walked away, we said "God bless you" to which he stoppped and paused. He slowly turned around, asking if we were Christians. We told him that we were indeed to which he responded with a toothless smile, "me too". He then proceeded to tell us his story.

He was a young man when the Khmer Rouge took over the city of Phnom Penh. Christianity was outlawed under the new regime like just about everything else that could distinguish an individual. Despite his beliefs, he had befriended a few officers. One night, an officer showed up at his door with a bag of rice, urging him to leave the city immediately as it was about to be purged. The officer instructed him to find a safe house in the countryside, which he would need a password to enter. Because of this officer's warning, he escaped with his life. During that time, he had no access to a Bible and relied on the passages of scripture that he had learned in his youth.

He has since established himself in the countryside. He has a wife and children and grandchildren, which at one point in his life, seemed like quite an impossible task. It is because of people like him, so open to sharing their story and bestowing the kindness which others have already shown them, so determined to move forward, that makes the country of Cambodia such an inviting place. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Siem Reap | Cambodia

After resting from our treacherous road trip, we finally made it to the Angkor Wat temple complex. You might recognize a part of the complex from one of the Tomb Raider movies. If you're unfamiliar with this World Heritage site, it "is the largest Hindu temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. The temple was built by a king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century." If you actually took the time to see everything adequately, you could easily be there for a couple weeks!

Road Trip | Siem Reap | Cambodia

Thanks to Nyepi Day, we recently were gifted a four day weekend. I put this free time to use and flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia with Lauren and Jon where we promptly rented motorbikes and began the 315 km (196 mi) journey on mostly dirt roads to Siem Reap.

Having been on my share of road trips in Asia, I could never have predicted how our trip played out! About 50 km into our trip, we hit our first snare: my bike was unable to accelerate past 60 km/h (37 mph). I pulled over to check out the situation and black fluid was leaking from the side. As a blessing from God, a random bystander happened to speak English and graciously offered to drive us to the next town to a "body shop" and saw to it that the problem was adequately remedied.

We were good to go for another couple hours, with the exception of a suicidal cow that was determined to have a date with my motorbike. Soon after, we passed a road block (where we luckily encountered no problems from the police) and my back tire went flat. This was a particularly unfortunate place to encounter tire problems because at that same time, the entire town was attending a local wedding which meant no one was available to fix the tire. Again, an inconspicuous English-speaker pulled off the road to offer assistance. He had never changed a tire but worked with a local village woman to attempt to fix the problem.

In the meantime, we entertained the children. Sidenote: Cambodian people are gorgeous which means that Cambodian children are gorgeous. The kids tried to catch our attention by shouting their one English word, hi. We played hide and seek over a pile of rice stacks. They greatly enjoyed having their picture taken. When we finally reached our destination, I printed their pictures to mail to them.

Back to the bike. It seemed for a brief moment that the problem had been fixed...until I started driving. In the time that the back tire was being fixed, my front tire had gone flat. We decided to press onwards, in hopes of finding someone a bit more knowledgable to fix the problem since we were still about 140 km outside of Siem Reap. By this time, the sun was going down and we were starting to feel a little bit hopeless.

Again, God provided. In the last moments of daylight (when shops typically close), we passed a shack on the outskirts of the same town whose owner was actually there. Suprise, his 16 year old son, spoke perfect English and Korean (which wasn't useful to us but still pretty impressive)! We were able to get a brand new tube for the back tire and a patch for the front tire. While we were waiting as they mended the tire by torchlight, the local villagers could see that we were famished and brought each of us half of a baby watermelon. These people, who had close to nothing themselves, were sharing what they had available, with complete strangers. It is not often that I have encountered such hospitality and it was quite inspiring. We said our thank you's, and after politely declining a room in their home for the evening, got back on the road after a several hour delay.

For those of you who haven't been over here, driving in Asia at night is absolutely nothing like driving in the States in the dark. Everyone drives with their brights on full blast, only pausing to flicker them to signal that they are approaching you (as if you couldn't tell by the blinding light shining straight into your eyes). This meant that we had to drive slow and averaged a speed of 60 km/ hour, slowing each time we neared an oncoming vehicle. We were practially falling asleep while driving and with about 20 km to go, we recieved the final blow of our journey: the patch on my front tire blowing out. That meant our estimated 15 minute journey turned into an additional hour. We finally rolled into Siem Reap around 11 pm, looking as though we had been attacked with orange paint and ravaged by wild animals. We were saved one last time as the parking attendant at our hotel volunteered to take my tire for a permanent replacement the next morning. Our ride back was not without trial but we left earlier in the day to compensate for unanticipated problems. We only encountered a further broken chain and one last flat tire.

This experience will forever be engrained in my memory. As inconvenient as the problems were at the time, it gave us a chance to interact with the local Cambodian people that we would not have otherwise had. We got to see their kind compassion and their selfless attitudes, willing to share whatever they had with foreigners. If you are ever given the opportunity, I would highly recommend a trip to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013