Even though they scammed us out of a few bucks at the Vietnam-Cambodia border, we were still relieved to arrive in Cambodia. Since when are Visas negotiable, anyways?!? Bryan’s been to about 100 countries and that’s the first time he’s experienced anything like that. The official price of a tourist visa in the Kingdom of Cambodia was supposed to be $20 USD each. The border official said $25, and we compromised at $22. But unfortunately, after traveling through Vietnam we were accustomed to rip-off’s.
Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh is an attractive and pleasant city. It seemed calm to us after Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. There are plenty of sites to see in Phnom Penh – I liked the Royal Palace with the 90 kg life size gold Buddha with thousands of diamonds, as well as the many monks that walked through the streets en route to their monasteries. The city also offered plenty of good food for travelers like Bryan that need a break from Asia’s dietary staples of rice and more rice (“Freebird” might just have the best Buffalo Wings we’ve had east of Buffalo, NY). But sadly, a major reason why tourists come to explore Phnom Penh is to learn about the horrible tragedies that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970’s during the Cambodian Genocide.
I really didn’t want to write this blog. But Bryan convinced me to. While we were traveling in Eastern Europe, I shared with you the terrible things I learned about the Jewish Holocaust in the 1940’s. After our travels in Africa, I wrote a blog about the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990’s. I didn’t want to write about any more sadness and give you that burden. But is it fair to overlook important parts of history because it makes us uncomfortable? I don’t think so.
There are major gaps in many school curriculums that don’t mention these events. Or they might only mention them briefly. I think we owe it to those who suffered and died to learn the truth about what happened. Ignorance of things doesn’t fix anything. If you are not in the mood to hear the troubling things we learned, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs to the next section. It’s not pleasant to hear. But it’s the truth.
Many of us want to believe that Hitler’s Holocaust in the 1940’s was a rare occurrence. Tragically, there have been many other large scale genocides throughout history and throughout the world. It’s pretty scary and shocking when you start to do the research.
Cambodia was involved in a lengthy civil war which left the country poor, exhausted, and vulnerable. Their weak condition was also influenced by the neighboring Vietnamese-American War of the 1970’s. The Khmer Rogue (led by the evil Pol Pot, among others) decided to take advantage of Cambodia and wage a mass genocide. Their goal was to try to get rid of any and all educated people who might oppose the Khmer Rule. These innocent people included anyone from high-ranking officials, teachers, monks, and even children and babies. Pol Pot and his malicious crew wanted to start over in “Year Zero” with only the people he wanted, which were Cambodia’s peasants. The Khmer’s sick logic included ridding the country of babies and children for fear that they would grow up and seek revenge for what had been done to their family members. 🙁
Pol Pot and his followers sought to eliminate all of Cambodia’s religion, schools, culture, and hospitals. So the caring monks were not exempt from these horrors. It just broke my heart to hear about them killing the monks. They are such kind, peaceful, and gentle men. They are quiet and treat everyone with dignity and respect – men, women, children, and all living things. I can’t stand the thought of anyone tearing off their robes, beating, and killing them.
Within four years, an estimated two to three million people died from murder, starvation, forced labor, or disease. It’s been nearly impossible for experts to find a conclusive number of deaths because many of the victims were buried in unmarked graves throughout Cambodia that continue to be unearthed. The genocide finally came to an end on January 9, 1979 when the Vietnamese toppled Pol Pot’s regime. Unbelievably, the trials of the murderers are still ongoing, as Cambodia’s deep wounds continue to heal.
There are times when it’s difficult to learn about America’s involvement in past international events such as the Vietnam War or the “Secret War” in Laos. However, it’s uplifting to see that the U.S. has a reputation for helping those in need. Such was the case with the Cambodian Genocide – USAID and the UN did step in to provide help. Though many criticize the lack of assistance provided.
The Tuol Sleng Museum (also known as the former Security Prison 21 or “S-21”) served as the Khmer Rogue’s headquarters. The building was a high school until 1975 when Pol Pot turned it into a prison and torture chamber. This is where they brought all of the innocent men, women, and children. There were two things that really struck me about this place. The first were the walls filled with pictures that the Pol Pot had taken of all the people they had tortured and killed. It was heart-breaking to look into the faces of those who were facing death. They looked scared, sad, and some looked almost resigned to their impending fate.
The other aspect of Tuol Sleng that really affected me was meeting the small group of genocide survivors that were there. This handful of brave men survived the genocide because they had skills that could be used by the prison, such as painting, type-writer repair, and photography. I was extremely honored to meet these survivors. I was in awe of their positive attitudes and sweet demeanor. There was one man named Bou Meng that was imprisoned at S-21 but worked as a painter during that time. He can no longer hear because of being tortured. Although his life was spared, his wife was not as fortunate. In 2009, Meng finally had the opportunity to confront his wife’s killer in court. He is one of the strongest men I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting.
The Killing Fields are the areas throughout Cambodia where the innocent people were taken in the middle of the night to be murdered. Most of the victims didn’t know where they were going or when they would go. There were many killing fields established by the Khmer Rogue but Choeung Ek is the most famous and visited. When the prisoners were brought here in the middle of the night, there was loud music and other noise being played on speakers hanging from the trees. This was set-up so others couldn’t hear the screams of other prisoners being brutally murdered.
The Khmer didn’t want to waste “precious” bullets on the people so they used whatever blunt objects they could find to kill them – even the sharp bark of palm trees and farming tools. Babies were held by their feet and swung like baseball bats, crushing their heads against trees. It was surreal to silently walk through these grounds and still see the bones, teeth, and scraps of clothing unearthed today. Forty years later, the museum workers gather them up to display but they are still constantly coming to the surface as the dirt wears away.
It’s difficult to truly put into words my emotions from our visit to Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek.
Southeast Asia is filled with temples. Just ask anyone who’s visited this region of the world, or see for yourself! In many countries, there are temples of all colors and sizes nearly everywhere you go. As most of you know by now, we’re both Christian travelers; but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying the beauty of religious sites around the world.
A lot of people only associate Cambodia with Angkor Wat. Big mistake! That’s just one huge temple out of hundreds. She’s considered “the mother of all temples” and is the largest single religious structure in the world, operating in nearly continuous use since the temple was constructed as the seat of the Khmer Empire. The whole area of Angkor has the largest concentration of architectural riches on earth.
Despite all the hype, it’s hard to deny how awesome Angkor Wat itself really is. Morning Person Bryan somehow had me awake and pedaling a bike for two out of the three mornings we were in Siem Reap. We pedaled our $1 rental bikes furiously in the dark with the road only lit up by our tiny, wheel-generated lights. It was actually a lot of fun. We made it outside of the temples well before daybreak. In fact, we were the very first people by a long shot to make it to the infamous Angkor Wat, and beat out nearly 1,000 people for the quintessential sunrise shot. I guess waking up early isn’t always a bad thing! 😉
After our first full day of biking and temple climbing, we spent the evening with some local tuk-tuk drivers at our guesthouse. They were more than generous and welcoming to us – even trying to buy us drinks and little local snacks to share. The guys unsuccessfully tried to explain the “Lady-boy” phenomenon in Southeast Asia to us. Those that have been in this region of the world know what we’re talking about. There are tons of men dressed up as women. Some are extremely convincing and have had lots of surgery. We just don’t understand the hype. “Same, same . . .but different” the drivers told Bryan. “NO! Not same, same! VERY different!” Bryan told them. Their only response was, “You never try, you never know.” Though they told Bryan they would never try either. 😉
Waking me up at 4 a.m. is enough of a task for Bryan. But then finding out that my old, trusty Merrell hiking shoes somehow disappeared in the middle of the night is just a recipe for a “Kristin Breakdown.” At this point, I was still dependent on Bryan’s ankle brace after my nasty sprain in Nepal so sturdy shoes while clambering up and down stone temple steps were imperative. We looked everywhere but they were nowhere to be found. I finally had to put on my ankle brace and flip-flops and carry on as planned. I have to admit, I was watching the thousands of shoes I saw that day on tourists walking by. I was so ready for a confrontation! In the end it didn’t really matter. I just hope that whoever ended up with those Merrell’s needed them more than I did!
Do these temples with the overgrown trees look familiar to you? If you’ve ever seen “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie then you’ll recognize them. We don’t watch many movies (unless we’re on planes or actually relaxing for a few hours somewhere) so I don’t think I’ve ever even seen it! This one was Bryan’s personal favorite. We spent hours exploring the temples and then Bryan returned sans Kristin on the final morning to get some last minute sunrise shots.
Nearly everyone makes fun of “Brad-gelina.” But I think most of us are actually impressed with power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Did you know that their love of adopting children internationally began in Cambodia? This is where Angelina met and fell in love with little Maddox. She legally adopted him as a single parent in 2002 from an orphanage in Phnom Penh. Since her first international adoption, the rest is history. Brad and Angelina got together and began adopting children around the world, traveling, and having children (including twins) of their own. Today they have a grand total of 6 little ones. Their family is like a mini-United Nations (only much more adorable!).
Bayon is another extremely popular temple. It’s easily identifiable by the huge carved stone faces. They look so real and have such perfection and beauty. We noticed a lot of people doing kissy faces in front of the faces and it took me a few minutes to figure out what they were doing. But I decided to jump on the bandwagon for a goofy photo as well!
The big mistake a lot of visitors make is to try to see the temples as quickly as possible. They hop on an organized tour with a huge group and get shuttled to the “hot spots.” These groups often overlook the smaller, overgrown temples that are hidden away but equally as beautiful and impressive in their own right. It’s no wonder that Angkor sells passes for up to 7 days. Even as “templed” out as we felt after traveling through Southeast Asia for months, we still had a great time exploring Angkor’s huge array of temples.
Another reason I was hesitant to write this blog is because I don’t think we spent nearly enough time in Cambodia. We usually don’t rush in and out of a country and only hit the touristy spots. But we only had 6 days in Cambodia before we had to return to Bangkok to work on our Burmese (Myanmar) Visas. We should have saved more time and skipped some of Vietnam, hindsight being 20/20. Maybe someday we’ll return to see more of this fascinating Kingdom.
These tips might seem like common sense to the majority of seasoned travelers. But as we’ve learned from our travels, “there’s nothing common about common sense.”
–Maintain silence in areas related to the Cambodian Genocide such as the Tuol Sleng Museum (“S-21”) and the Killing Fields. We can’t even begin to fathom the horrors and pain that occurred there so it’s important to maintain silence and listen to your audio guide (offered in a huge variety of languages). Tour guides are a major annoyance because they blab loudly to their clients while others are trying to sit quietly and listen. Try going on your own with the audio-guide offered and take time to listen and reflect. Save discussions for after you leave, please.
–Siem Reap is the enormous tourist town that is the gateway to the temples of Angkor. This place drove me really crazy. There’s so much “terrible tourist food” on offer and junky souvenirs that it’s hard to find anything authentic. As I mentioned earlier, we did have a great time exploring the town by bike on our own. We found a tiny place that rented bikes for about $1 USD a day and included water and a map. The town starts opening up early in the morning, well before sunrise (just like Bryan).
–Respect the Buddhist monks. They can’t be touched by women but they can shake the hands of men. It’s a habit to shake hands when I meet someone so this is sometimes difficult for me to remember. In Siem Reap, there were actually men posing as monks to try to ask tourists for money! Two came up to me in orange robes, grabbed my hand, tied a string around it and demanded I give them money. I freed my hand and walked away. They followed after me telling me I needed to support their temple and give them some change for the piece of string! “If you’re a real monk, why are you grabbing my wrist and demanding money?” I asked them loudly as I walked quickly down the street back to our guesthouse.
–As I’ve said three dozen times before, please don’t give to begging children. It teaches them a begging mentality of getting “something for nothing” that’s so hard to break. Believe me, I know it’s hard when they look at you with their big brown eyes. But if you really want to help these children set a positive example – have a talk with them and listen to them, support their family business by buying a water or fruit from their parents, or just smile and be polite. It will show them without any words that their parents’ hard work was rewarded with money. We’ve also found that most children around the world LOVE to give high-fives!
–Ask permission before taking photos of people. This one is hard to remember sometimes because you get caught up in the photo taking and want to capture every moment. Just put your camera aside, talk to them, and then politely ask them if it’s okay. If they say “No” then respect that. Children almost always speak their minds.
Enjoy the beauty, history, and especially the people in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Safe, Happy Travels! 🙂
For more information on the Cambodian Genocide please visit this website: