Sunday, February 10, 2013

Phnom Penh

I don’t know how apparent it’s been in my writing so far, but I think there’s been a gradual leaning toward bitterness and cynicism.  I’ve been finding myself subject to increasingly frequent mood swings, and alternating between euphoric wonder and a motivationless malaise that has me wondering “what the hell am I doing here?”  I set myself a very tight budget that I can’t stray too far from, and the cumulative discomfort and overspending of weeks before had taken a considerable toll on my spirit of adventure and I took my first steps in Cambodia more than ever missing New York, my friends and family, and my domestic life.  I hadn’t seen a familiar face in about three months.  This wasn’t the first time I had felt this way, but this time I caught myself, realizing how I had first felt the same listlessness and dismay when I had first arrived in New Delhi, Kathmandu, and Yangon.  I’m still working out the reasons, but for some reason my first moments in each country I’ve landed in so far have been characterized by aimlessness, confusion, and disappointment, but each time the places had grown on me to the point of fondness.  It takes time, but I think it is time that helps me answer that initial question, and I get to discover what the hell it is I’m doing here.  Discovering this pattern helped pick up my pace in Phnom Penh, and I then better looked forward to seeing what Cambodia had to share.

Perhaps the biggest difference I noticed about Cambodia in comparison to my other destinations was the amount of exposed skin you can see on the street.  India, Nepal, and Burma are all very conservative in this regard, and I fear I had adopted some of their biases: the first girls I saw wearing makeup and displaying cleavage I had simply assumed were prostitutes.  After only two months of seeing nothing but conservative dress I found myself gawking at the immodesty of shorts – white and brown people with exposed thighs! – but soon got over myself enough to take a knife to my khakis so I could better escape the southern heat along with my newly adopted prejudices and join the fray.

This tour has been very illuminating for my sense of classical Asian aesthetic and I’ve found it very pleasing to witness the subtle evolutions of art and architecture as I plod my way farther eastward, and train my eyes to look for the Indian in Nepal, Burmese in Cambodia, and so on.  The fiery and jagged edges that fringe the roof edges of Burmese monasteries have smoothed out to the wavy lines contours of long snakes, and culminate on either end with hooked tail tips or the many heads of the snake god Naga.  Likewise the gradual variations of lines and shapes that subtly alter as I change geography can also be seen in the curvatures and skin tones of the faces of people on the streets. 

The National Museum in Phnom Penh is full of ancient and beautiful sculptures of my friends Vishnu, Buddha, and Ganesh, but in variations particular to the region and artisans of the Khmer empire (like in Burma, Hinduism eventually lost all traction to Theravada Buddhism, but elements still remain; Hindu animal gods like Hanuman, Garuda, and Naga are heavily featured in Cambodian Buddhist monasteries).  Much of the art in the museum is from the Angkor Wat complex to the northwest and the grace and power of these particular pieces made my anticipation of actually being in Angkor Wat build to a frenzy.

The money situation in Cambodia is a little peculiar – prices are often listed in U.S. Dollars, and in fact most ATMs spit out USD, but when you spend the dollars, you get back Cambodian Riel as change.  1000 Riel notes act basically as quarters.  It’s disorienting at first but works out quite effortlessly when you get the hang of it.

I had a super time when I was exploring the downtown area by the banks of the river, when the thong my cheap Indian sandals snapped at the toes, leaving me barefoot like the umbrella wielding monks collecting alms in the morning.  My frustration slowly melted away when I discovered how oddly soothing the gristle of asphalt and edges of tile work felt as they penetrated my sore and calloused soles (I’m having trouble figuring out how cheap Cambodia is: my 10 kilometer moto ride from the airport was only $1.25, but I’m having a tricky time finding replacement sandals for less than $10 (I paid only $1 for the pair from India)). 

There’s nothing like actually being in a place to help dispel your ignorance about it – before stepping foot in the country I knew precisely jack about Cambodia – and I now have a proper appreciation of just how big of a douchebag Pol Pot was.  Around two million Cambodian lives were lost tragically to genocide when this monumentally terrible douchebag led the Khmer Rouge to power.  He expelled all city dwellers to internment camps in the country and almost overnight Phnom Penh was a ghost town.  Despite this mind-numbingly horrible no-good crown prince of douchebags’s education and qualifications as an educator, educators were among the first to go, as the party was trying to create an anti-intellectual rural society as quickly as possible.  Knowing a foreign language was grounds enough for imprisonment and subsequent execution.  “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake,” he said while fueling the insane paranoia that was pervasive in those days and caused so much suffering and pointless death. 

I learned all this first at Tuol Sleng, a former high school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge.  Of the thousands imprisoned there – as many as 20,000 – all but seven were executed, and the typical two to four months they spent there were utter hell.  The place still stinks of despair.  Blackboards and teachers’ desks still remain as they were, however, they lay next to iron shackles and crude instruments of torture.  Classrooms were converted into tiny cell blocks of shoddy wood or brick construction.  Occasional photos mounted on the walls display the shocking state of things when Vietnamese troops arrived: emaciated corpses shackled by the ankles and broken from physical abuse.  One man was beaten so badly, the white of his skull shone through open gashes on his face.  The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of those they interred and many of the classrooms are now lined with photographs of the faces of those lost so tragically.  I kept my composure until nearly the end of my visit, but upon learning just how few even survived this place, I could do little else than bury my face in my hands.

The killing was rarely done at the school, but rather in a field 13 kilometers southwest of the city.  The victims were usually under the pretense that they were being relocated to a nicer facility so as to maintain their compliance.  Instead they were blind folded, knelt over an open ditch, and bludgeoned from behind.  Bullets were too costly to waste on so many victims so the executioners elected to use hatchets, garden hoes, whatever they could get their hands on.  There are reports that throats were sometimes slit with the serrated edges of palm fronds growing on the grounds.  To the touch, they felt more than capable of the task.  Some 9,000 victims were unearthed from this site alone.  There are dozens like it across the country.  Human fragments still surface occasionally, usually after a rain.

The women’s bodies were usually recovered naked.  Raped of course.  The most horrifying sight there (mom, you should probably skip to the next paragraph), has been named the killing tree.  Here infants were executed.  They were gripped by the legs and bashed against the tree.  Today it’s covered with ribbons and bracelets left by visitors.

The killing fields today are a surprisingly serene place, full of green gardens and butterflies.  The loveliness of a tree lined lake almost seems to contradict the fact that it is still full of the skeletal remains of murdered innocents.  A central pagoda commiserates the dead and houses their recovered remains in glass tiers separated by the type of bone.  A few layers for skulls.  A few for leg and arm bones.  Hips and shoulder blades and so on.  A towering and sorted stack of skeletons.

Incredibly, despite the atrocities, the Khmer Rouge were earned a seat at the United Nations, and only 30 years after these crimes were committed were the leaders ever arrested.  Pol Pot was never prosecuted, having died at the age of 72, and Cambodians are still waiting for justice to be carried out upon the remaining ringleaders.

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