Hendrickson Continues Her Journey In Southeast Asia: Cambodia
I took a bus from my hotel in Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the capital, located in the middle of the country. In the 1920s, this city used to be known as the “Pearl of Asia” due to its beauty.
The next day, I went to the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Genocide museum to somberly take an audio tour and later that afternoon wandered around by the Tonle Sap river. The S-21 museum was a former secondary school turned into a nightmarish execution and torture prison.
It was used by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79 where children, soldiers, educated people and politicians all suffered heavily and some met their demise. I met two survivors of the prison who were selling their books and spoke to me through a translator. The next day I saw one of the killing fields (Choeung Ek) where over two million Cambodians of all ages were sent to die. The 8,000 skulls and bones are in full display inside a Buddhist stupa separated by what instruments were used to kill them.
All people would benefit visiting these sites, reading books or watching videos about the Khmer Rouge as a warning about the evil humans are capable of.
As much horror as the country went through due to the Khmer Rouge, the city still retained its charm to me. There were numerous monuments around the city honoring Cambodia’s independence from France along with museums, shops and beautiful French-looking restaurants along the Tonle Sap river.
Monks wandering around in their sandals and sarong robes mixed with tourists and locals and little kids jumped in the puddles after a heavy rainstorm as kids do everywhere.
I also got a massage from a blind man for $7 for an hour. Beauty treatments in SE Asia are cheap, and the tips I gave were met with surprise and gratitude.
I headed south to Sihanoukville, which is now a town taken over by the Chinese and their casinos and despised by every foreigner I met. I then went onto one of the islands-Ko Rong Samloam via a bus, then on an extremely bumpy ferry ride followed by a small but modern fast boat. Since there was only a two-lane road down to Sihanoukville from Phnom Penh, I did miss the ferry I originally paid for. A Canadian couple who had been traveling for a year looked up an app and found there was a later ferry. Since it was the rainy season, there was plenty of space in the hostels and not many people on the small island.
On departure day, there was a downpour, so the ferry was late getting all back to the mainland. On the boat were couples, numerous foreigners mostly in their 20s and locals too. I sat next to a gal who must have had cancer due to her having a small cap over her shaved head, but I was too timid to ask.
Once we arrived on the mainland, everyone scrambled to find the bus leading us out of there. I found one of the last seats, which no one had claimed due to the massive puddle from the leaky air conditioner. I set down my poncho, sat on top of it, and after a while was dropped off at a restaurant and a few hours later picked up by a smaller tourist bus.
What should have taken a little over an hour to Kampot took about eight hours due to the traffic and two-lane road.
Kampot has Sothy’s Pepper Farm, caves, tours to see how salt is farmed and even a statue of the stinky but tasty durian fruit.
After Kampot, I went up North to Battambang to see the Phare art community, the bamboo trains and the killing caves. The Phare community has a school for poor students who wouldn’t be able to attend, and the older kids also are learning how to perform, make artwork and play the music for a human circus, which the people perform in Siem Reap. The bamboo trains are a long wooden bamboo pallet with a motor and old truck and tank parts below to go on the tracks. In the past, when the Khmer Rouge stopped the trains, the people used these manually to get around.
Along with taking an open air ride on the “train,” I went to a local’s home and witnessed the process of making homemade noodles. We then finished the tour in the late afternoon to see the killing cave and the millions of bats coming out of the mountain to feed.
I then headed down into the killing cave, which was where people were hit on the back of a head by a shovel or another device and were thrown down while sometimes still being alive onto the other bodies. There was a plexiglass case full of the remains and a person collecting donations.
One lady was going around the cave saying prayers in Khmer, the Cambodian language. Further up the mountain are Buddhist temples and monkeys who love stealing tourist’s water bottles. I was warned to pick up a stick for the monkeys as I made my way down the mountain to my guide but was thankful I didn’t need to worry about being harassed by them. After that, the guide and I climbed a little up the mountain to watch the bats, and then we headed home.
In both Vietnam and Cambodia, I was able to visit photo galleries where foreigners wanted to show the native people to others. The one in Battambang was recently closed in March due to the Coronavirus.
The owner, a Spanish man named Joseba Etxebarria, started it after riding his bike around the world taking pictures of local people. He wanted to help children afford uniforms and supplies to become educated and to have a healthier life so opened a gallery in the town. His website said that when the borders open, he’ll be riding his bike again around the world raising awareness for the poor.
In Hoi An, Vietnam, one famous man is said to be able to capture souls on film. Rehahn, originally from France, started The Precious Heritage Project showcasing photos and the preservation of the dress of the Vietnamese ethnic tribes.
Besides the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is known for its temples, namely Angkor Wat, located just outside Siem Riep. This is the largest religious monument in the world that was built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple to honor the god Vishnu but later was used as a Buddhist temple. It was the capital of the Khmer empire. “Angkor” signifies the capital city. A “wat” is a temple.
Our group then took a minivan and then walked to the temple and got there before the sun rose; although it was cloudy it is an impressive place. I enjoyed seeing the temple where Angelina Jolie filmed “Tomb Raider,” Ta Prohm, with its tree roots engulfing the bricks.
My favorite was Bayon, which showcases numerous smiling and peaceful faces of one of the kings of the empire, Jayavarman VII. I was still bothered by those lice eggs but was able to score some lice shampoo at the market along with some cheap t-shirts.
Despite Cambodia’s horrific history done to its own people by the hands of the Khmer Rouge, the people’s thriving and creative spirit lives on. This is another country that tourists around the world visit due to its low prices and charm.