When you first arrive in Phenom Phen, Cambodia, the chaos on the streets is breath taking.
There are no stop signs, rarely a traffic signal, at even the busiest widest streets and intersections. Anyone can go at any time and everyone does. At busy intersections, there can be a gridlock for a few seconds until someone decides on the flow. There is order in the chaos and everyone seems to know how to do it. Very few people walk anywhere or bicycle. Motorbikes are the preferred mode of travel.
There can be up to a family of five on one bike, tiny children, no helmets, even saw a mother nursing with her baby sprawled across her lap. Never mind the noise and chaos around. Walking across these streets is unnerving.
A policeman saw Todd and I hesitating and led us across to help us. You walk slowly and the vehicles and bikes part like the Red Sea. It is quite remarkable.
The Cambodian people are very friendly and quick to smile. That was good to see, especially when I learned that we trashed this place and people along with the Vietnamese. I did not know that the north Vietnamese and the Viet Cong used neighboring Cambodia territory in the battle so we heavily bombed it killing an enormousness amount of people and destroying their villages.
The Cambodians were so devastated after the Vietnam war that they were quick to allow a new Cambodian power who promised to make the country great again. Pol Pot had a vision to move all of the people out of Phenom Phen and other cities out to the countryside and create an agrarian, peasant-dominated cooperative. With very low morale, the Cambodians cooperated. The plan was to get rid of the intellectuals even wearing glasses and speaking another language was reason enough to be eliminated. And so back in the 1970’s, when I was in college and hiking the AT, mass extermination was occurring in Cambodia and I was clueless.
Like the time we were visiting Poland and felt the need to visit Auschwitz, we also felt the need to visit Cambodia’s Killing Fields and the school that was turned into a torture chamber. The Killing Fields were bad enough with the Killing Tree where babies were hung and bludgeoned to death while their mothers were forced to watch. When they found the place there were bits of brain matter and blood all over the tree. Then the mounded fields where the bodies were buried, dug up now and grass grown over. But the memorial stupa housing the skulls was terrible. How man can do these atrocious things to their people was mind boggling.
When our tuk tuk driver took us on to the Tuol Sleng Museum, the high school that was turned into a detention prison and torture chamber, we were not prepared for what we viewed. Photograph after photograph of tortured prisoners covered the walls as well as the methods used to create pain and death. For the first time I saw what a water board bed looked like too and how this type of torture was used by our own people in Git Bay prison. It did not make me proud.
We had to stop viewing and leave because we felt as if we were about to throw up.
We came to SE Asia partially to get away from American politics and take a break, but this was a harsh reminder of what can happen, right in my lifetime, when leaders believe they or a certain group of people are better and more deserving than others. This warped sense of entitlement can occur when people are weak and are looking for a new way. It made us even more fearful for what is a potential in our country, of all places. We must learn from history whether it is Nazi Germany, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge , or Rwanda. It can happen and it did when evil people get into power.
So this was our introduction to our month long trip to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma. I am sure I will not have a happy day when we visit sites/museums in Hanoi.
Just as we do not believe in traveling to a developing country and staying in an insulated all inclusive so as not to experience the reality of their poor lifestyle, nor do we believe we should visit a country like Cambodia and Vietnam and not pay our respects of the hardship and pain that went before us. All is a part of our world history
I promise to be more “up” in my next series of blogs. And the happy resilient people in this part of the world is incredibly heartening. So full of smiles and welcomes they even know how to take turns and flow in traffic while being polite, without the need for traffic signals .
We have a lot to learn. I do not believe road rage or even any rage exists here and the Cambodians have legitimate reason to feel that way.