The plane drops below the clouds. Everything is green and wet. Rice paddies take up almost every bit of flat ground. Mountains are slowly eaten away by mining operations. Dirt roads zig zag between red roofed villages. Water abounds as dams overflow. “It looks so wet” are Paul’s ominous words. This is our first impression of Cambodia from the air.
And wet it certainly is. The rain is pouring as we exit the airport. We’ve negotiated the visa on arrival desk (check your change carefully), walked through customs and used the wifi at Burger King to give us a chance to find our bearings and prepare for the usual onslaught of transport providers who litter so many global airports. There is a public bus for 1,500riel just 100m away but it stops about 2km from our hotel and it’s raining heavily so we settle on a tuk tuk. The tuk tuks here are different to Thailand. They are more like chariots that can seat four Westerners or probably about eight locals facing both forwards and backwards. Fortunately, the passenger area is dry though many of the riders themselves get soaked by the rain.
I had read that the traffic here is terrible but it is merely reminiscent of the Indonesian island of Java with the exception that there are more large late-model SUVs here. I feel no anxiety or nerves at all riding in the melee. The tuk tuk ride gives us a chance to take stock of where we are. So much is now familiar after a few trips to South-East Asia. There’s the usual configurations of shops and stalls, the hectic traffic, the damp-affected buildings and the tropical greenery forcing its way through any crack or crevice that it can.
We leave our bags at our hostel and set off in a tuk tuk to the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes. A gruesome place to start our experience for sure, but I incorrectly thought it would be an indoor experience that would keep us out of the rain. Also, I have learned that these museums make a good starting point for understanding what we see around us in a country.
The museum is not a place for the feint hearted or weak of spirit. But the people who were imprisoned were not as fortunate as us to have the choice to leave or turn off their audio tour if things got too rough. Over a four year period, some 20,000 lives were lost here. The magnitude is made even more terrible when you see how relatively small this former-high school complex is.
On a personal level I am again moved by the willingness of the world to turn a blind eye and ear to stories of secret prisons, torture and murder. I wonder how much we as humans have actually learned from places like this and other similar memorials worldwide. In the words of German Ambassador Baron von Marshall when speaking about Cambodia’s rebuilding and future:
“It reminds us to be wary of people and regimes which (sic) ignore human dignity. No political goal or ideology however promising or important or desirable it may appear can ever justify a political system in which the dignity of the individual is not respected.”
I am afraid to think of how many more memorials like this will be required in other parts of the world in the future.
It’s almost impossible to just walk outside and resume the travel. Not because of the rain (we buy some ponchos to help with that problem) but because my mind is taking in the horror of what we saw and the reality that exists: everywhere we look we will see people who lived this experience and are now getting on with their lives. I am always drawn to the resilient nations and perhaps this means I will be drawn to this land too.
Tuk tuk drivers offer their services as they see us walk by but it’s only 1km back to our hostel and we’re now protected from most of the rain by ponchos (though I can see the benefit in wearing sandals rather than joggers). The walk back gives us a chance to gain our bearings and become used to walking in the traffic. Thankfully we have had lots of practice the past two years or this might be a challenge. I comment to Paul that it’s good to be back in Asia with all its colour, sound and quirks.
We walk through Wat Langka, which is next door to our hostel. It’s a large residential complex with a Buddhist temple reminiscent of those we visited in Thailand. The difference is that the doors here appear to be closed. It’s still raining so we don’t really take the wat (Buddhist temple) in properly. Tomorrow evening from 6pm there will be a Vipassana meditation session for one our. I hope to attend (Paul said he will got for a foot massage instead).
I’m feeling exhausted from the short nights sleep, the many impressions and the heat. It’s about 2pm and we can check in to our room so I lay on the bed and fall asleep. My eyes won’t even stay open anymore and my body refuses to move. I have a slight headache and it’s not until the next morning that I realise this might be due to my having almost totally given up sugar at the beginning of the month in an effort to stop growing out of my clothes and to feel healthier (I gave us sugar in Madrid earlier in the year and managed to stay off it until Easter when the chocolates were too enticing). I hope the transition from sugar to food in my diet doesn’t affect our experience here but I’m sure it won’t.
Besides, there’s too many street foods to chose from here like barbecued chicken, duck and pork, pho (noodle soup), and some bread stick dishes. I can’t wait to try them all over the coming fortnight. There’s also plenty of restaurants selling Khmer curries that will no doubt be tasty too.
I guess my first impressions of Cambodia can be summed up in this photo. It’s modern but traditional, growing in wealth but poor, busy but peaceful and totally engaging so far. The people we have interacted with are friendly and have a resilience to which I am drawn just as I am drawn to the resilience of the South Koreans, Hungarians and Poles. I look forward to seeing, tasting, hearing and smelling more.