Five Million Dead Cambodians
Knock Knock, my Cambodian tuk tuk driver, in his never ending quest to find suitable places of interest for me to visit in Phnom Penh kept circling back to the Killing Fields (which I use collectively to cover the three major touri destination hot spots in Phnom Penh that celebrate the Khmer Rouge’s violent rule of the country). He was insistent that I visit the sites. I’m not squeamish. And I enjoy blood, war, and death as much as the next red blooded American male. But actually feeding into a country’s collective consciousness by visiting one of these sites just had no appeal to me. At least not on this trip.
Instead, after having pretty well covered all the offerings during the first few days, I’d settled on a visit to Ta Prohm temple (not to be confused with the Ta Prohm temple outside of Siem Reap) which appeared to be a short drive outside of town. It was an ancient temple built much in the same manner as those in the Angkor Wat complex and seemed suitable for a day’s outting from Phnom Penh. Or so it seemed. Until I told Knock Knock of my plan.
Knock Knock corrected my short trip estimation to its true 3 hour drive (at least by tuk tuk) which seemed to be a long time to be in a tuk tuk even to him. But never mind, he smiled, “We stop at Killing Fields!” Shit. Sure enough, the genocide wat was on the way to my choice of temples and a perfect spot to stop along the way. Ah well, what the hell, why not? So off we puttered.
The roads within the city are pretty well maintained and so the cushioning of the seat in a tuk tuk is adequate. Even for my bony ass. The roads outside of the city are not filled with pot holes so much as they are one large pot hole. Makes for a bouncy ride. And that’s being generous. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel and filled in Mr. Jeat, my new BFF, on my day’s trip that I discovered the idea of driving to Ta Prohm in a tuk tuk was, well, unusual. I figured that one out when he kept asking me, ” In a tuk tuk?”
Ok, yeah, it was hot. It was dusty. It was a bone jarring, kidney bruising ride. But being exposed in a tuk tuk makes you more accessible to your surroundings and I got a good view of the local peoples’ housing, farms, stores, and general daily life. Plus lots of waves from kids. And the constant bouncing about kept me from dozing off during what really was a monotonous trip after the first hour. But just about the time I was ready to scream, “Enough!” we made the turn off for the Killing Fields, or more properly Choeung Ek
There is a somber and eerie feeling to the place. I guess having a few thousand human skulls stacked up, even if officially part of a wat, (stupa to be precise) does that to you. The grounds themselves are not much. Just a path through the trees that will lead you around a few mass graves (several with the bodies still buried within) as well as a tree where prisoners were beat to death. While attempts at English on signs throughout SE Asia are always good for a chuckle, here, where a bit of levity could help, all the signage is well written, documenting the entire genocidal process in great detail. The spots the various signs document are nothing much, just open areas of barren ground. But then there’s the stupa.
The 5,000 + skulls are stacked, categorized by age and gender of the victims, the wooden levels reaching into the sky. The whole multi tiered stupa is enclosed in glass, except for at the front where the glass has been left open exposing the skulls for closer examination. Don’t remember if there were signs saying “Don’t Touch” but I didn’t notice anyone tempted to do so in any case. Even me. On one hand, the whole skulls on display was kinda cool and hey, how often do you get the chance to take photos of real skulls? On the other hand, this place is really depressing. I mean physically, you just felt battered from being there. Uh, and I passed on even looking into the souvenir stand at the exit.
Now if I haven’t mentioned it before, anywhere and everywhere touri are likely to go in Cambodia there will be a group of locals – usually a mix of dirty little rug mutts and sickly thin older folk missing various limbs – begging for a hand out or trying to sell you useless books or postcards. The killing fields are no different. And perhaps there’s a feeling that having just experienced a taste of how bad humans can be, on their way out touri will be more inclined to spare a few bucks to help a fellow human. And maybe that holds true for some. For me, I had a strong desire to beat the shit outta someone, and the 40 something guy on crutches was looking like a good candidate. I think he’s experienced that look before because he quickly got out of my way. Damn hard to earn a buck in Cambodia. And a damn nice feeling to hear Knock Kock’s summonsing cry of “Who Dere?” come floating across the parking lot.
Much less of a drag was my true destination. Ta Prohm outside of Phnom Penh is nothing compared to the one outside of Siem Reap. It is built of old stones dating back to the 6th century. But it’s small. And obviously not a major touri stop as I had the whole place to myself. Well, kinda. Stepping out of my tuk tuk I was immediately surrounded by a gaggle of 8-16 year old girls with a new twist to the books/postcards begging thingy. Instead I was offered a flower, “Free! Gift for you!” Uh huh. Didn’t have the heart to tell them the Hari Krishnas had already laid claim to the free flower scam. But obviously having dealt with touri before and seeing the flower thingy wasn’t gonna work, they immediately switched gears into telling me how handsome I was. The free flower was more believable.
Normally I ignore these guys. If I’m feeling a bit grumpy I mutter, “go away’ and scowl. Occasionally I’ll fill their little hearts with hope as I peruse the books or postcards they’re offering only to dash their dreams upon the rocks with a casual “Eh, no thanks” as I walk away. But these girls were persistent. And clean. Usually these kids are in dire need of a bath. And I’m sure their handlers parents keep them dirty to play up their plight for the touri. It was a nice change to see a clean, and fairly normal group of youngster plying the begging trade. So instead of chasing them away, I started talking with them and they joined me as I made my way to the temple. We joked, I taught them some more English, they taught me some Khmer, and soon the ‘you’re so handsome’ turned into a playful ‘ you look like have baby’ in reference to my ever expanding stomach. (Really have to work on that!).
And a good thing I made friends because once inside the temple grounds I was set upon by a large group of old folk all wanting to do the ‘good luck blessing give me a buck’ personal shrine thing. Ok, one I get. But twenty? Were they expecting a bus load of touri to show up behind me? I know out in the boonies the pickings are undoubtedly slim, but these old folk were down right aggressive. And I couldn’t help but think, “Mmmmm, so at your age, that means you survived the wholesale slaughter of the majority of your countrymen . . . just luck, or were you part of that party?”
I passed on getting another yarn blessing bracelet to add to my collection (and oh how it must have galled them to see the evidence that others had been able to dip into the pot!) Snapped a few pix, gave the girls the handful of riel in my pocket, and got the hell outta dodge.
Officially this temple area is Tonle Bati and it turned out (in addition to a fairly plain but much newer wat across the road) there was more to be seen. A lake (uh, lake Bati if you didn’t figure that out). And along the shore of the lake were numerous open air thatched huts sitting out over the water. It was a restaurant of sorts. You grab a hut, make yourself comfy (mats and hammocks supplied) and while you laze about locals come either by boat or across the wooden planks bearing food. Did I mention Cambodia is cheap? Well it’s even cheaper when you dine local style. I have no problem dining alone. And I had Knock Knock with me who’d already demonstrated his willingness to share a meal with me (especially when I was picking up the bill) but this seemed more of a party place so I had Knock Knock head back over to the temple and bring the girls back for lunch. We spent about two hours hanging, filling our stomachs, and having a good time. The improptu paty set me back a whopping $12.
So lets see: human skull photo, bruised kidneys, a quick escape from a gang of geriatric Khmer Rouge, and lunch on a lake with a group of Cambodian kids. Yup. Good day!
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