Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cambodia Calling

Right from the time we got on the bus in the early morning in Ho Chi Min City we knew that this border crossing was going to be very different from our last land crossing. I guess to be fair going from one capital city to another should be trouble free and it certainly was.

The bus conductor/ attendant/ guide spelled out the whole process in 2 languages as soon as the bus departed, then collected our passports and fees, filled in the forms and had them express processed for us at the border. There were trucks, semi-trailers, articulated transports with containers and all manner of freight as well as empty vehicles lining the road between the 2 countries. In that no-mans-land where you are already stamped out but not yet stamped in but our bus simply slid through the middle of the parked vehicles and deposited us right outside the checkpoint door on the Cambodian side. Our personal assistant called our names, as the procedure was complete and we simply walked through the check station with everything perfectly in order. A busload of 40+ passengers and 6 or 7 nationalities was done and dusted in less than 30 minutes. Now that is efficiency.

‘Nice start to the Cambodia chapter,’ thought I. The dusty road and auto-workshops that dotted the side of the road on both sides of the border gave way to rice paddies after the first 30 minutes and soon we were zooming through the usual mish mash of traffic on a surprisingly good road.

Having been in Siem Reap- Angkor Wat before we felt pretty comfortable about knowing how things work in Cambodia but Phnom Penh has a completely different atmosphere to sleepy Siem Reap, so we soon discovered we were in for a totally new adventure.

This is a sprawling, dusty, developing city with more sophistication and more diversity that we were expecting. It has its river view area with cafes, charity based handicraft shops and boutique outlets as well as a thriving market zone and embassy, NGO and ritzy precincts. Hives of local activity give way to construction without warning and palaces, temples, monuments and colonial relics abound.

Things began in a pretty sobering way. While I was happy not to spend too much time on the many war related sights in Vietnam, having lived that experience as the “Television War” I felt we had a pretty sound understanding of the history and the facts, which was supplemented by the reading we did as we travelled, the same cannot be said for Cambodia’s recent history. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is a totally different thing. For me at least I feel it was the secret war. Not until it was over did the world really know and I feel that even now I don’t know much and cannot really comprehend it.

For this reason I thought that the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum(aka Office S.21) and The Choeung Ek Genocide Centre (aka The Killing Fields) were essential sights. There is something chilling about just being in these places. As the stories and testimonials unfold it is impossible not to reflect on what motivated it and what it hoped to achieve. At some point I was confronted with the knowledge of what was going on in my life at the time these atrocities were being perpetrated. How guilty one begins to feel about being unscathed. I still have no answer to the “why” but I have a lot more information.

In silence hundreds of people walk through these places each day and solemn introspection is the norm.  This is not the wow factor of Angkor, this is serious. Compelling and horrific at the same time, one somehow feels the need to put oneself through it. I think I would have felt I had not done Phnom Penh justice if I had not gone but at the same time it feels ghoulish to even be there. I have again embarked on a program of reading biographies that I hope will extend my understanding and maybe even answer some of the questions that still remain.

Just to add to this very somber note, a friend who we met for lunch here on the first day was attacked and robbed by 5 youths on the walk back to her hotel that night. It can happen anywhere but we are now even more cautious and a lot more wary. Whilst we do not suspect everyone we need to be vigilant and keep our wits about us on the streets and in Tuk Tuks and other transport.

Just when we thought it was all impossibly serious, yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Independence Day. That is independence from French rule by the way. The military marches woke us before 6am that morning, the streets were lined with police, fire and army vehicles and there was a complete blockade of the riverfront directly in front of our hotel. We had to explain our presence to get back to the rooms after breakfast! So the ceremonies at least were not for the general public. In the evening it gave way to swarming masses strolling along the bund, balloons for the children and spectacular fireworks, which we delighted in witnessing from an openair bar on the third floor. So let the fun begin…

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