|Since leaving KL almost three months ago, I've lost many things. My iPod nestled in a seat pocket. A hiking shoe disappeared somewhere between a port town and nearby island. Socks and underwear scattered across Southeast Asia in various laundry places. Odds and ends like an umbrella, flashlight, and much anticipated book all vanished without a trace. Ironically, I've lost two half finished drafts of this post to iPad problems. Now it appears I've also lost my sanity. The longer I'm in Cambodia, the more I become unhinged by it. My eyes won't stay dry when I hear of the unbelievable suffering endured. It's tough to keep my wallet closed when passing someone disfigured or limbless. I can't haggle prices the way I used to. I'm suddenly unable to keep an engaged distance, sometimes wanting to become completely entrenched and other times hoping to hide from it all. In short, I've lost the ability keep my head or heart unattached from everything and everyone I experience, a feeling that has grown more intense from the moment I arrived until the day I exited.
Cambodia seems to be at a crossroads, straddling a fine line between optimistic progress and falling into despair. On one hand there's a sense of rebuilding as it rejoins the global community and starts to encourage all that's needed to participate in it. The Pol Pot era is fading from consciousness as a whole new generation starts to come into their own, unhaunted by memories so horrible I don't know how anyone could bear them. Money is obviously coming in but the general population certainly isn't seeing it, as most are desperately poor. Beautiful forests, precious resources and business opportunities are bring sold off at an alarming rate (usually to the Vietnamese or Thai) with nothing protecting the Cambodian land or people. And while the country has an abundance of valuable assets, there's no infrastructure to support it; this means raw materials are sold cheaply by the government to foreign neighbors where they are turned into goods, only to be exported back to Cambodia for citizens to pay exorbitant prices. The average youth spends almost a full 24 hours each day working to pay for school (plus support their families) and studying, but can't get good jobs once their much struggled for education has been achieved. Gaining any sort of global perspective is difficult because the majority of foreign books/movies/etc are near impossible to find and only the exceptionally rich can afford passports (which are the equivalent of up to $300 USD, expire after two months and can only be obtained in Phnom Penh). Many people over 30 don't really know their real age because they were born somewhere like a rice paddy while their mothers' worked in the fields and there are no records of it. Medical care is essentially nonexistent, with very limited facilities or abilities in the capital city itself and virtually no doctors outside of Phnom Pehn with any real expertise. Most people rely on traditional medicine since they don't have access to much else; when I asked someone in a town 5-6 hours from PP what happens if there's an emergency like stroke or heart attack, he nonchalantly replied "You die. And it won't matter if you got to Phnom Penn in time because if you are poor, they don't help." I later learned his great aunt had recently passed away from complications after breaking her hip and being unable to treat it. The political system is primarily run by former Khmer Rouge cohorts and there's a very strong undercurrent of past policies lurking below the 'clean slate' surface. Extremely corrupt and dangerous, it doesn't take much to realize much of the same agenda is occurring, just taking a less obvious and mass murderous form. Recently a Canadian journalist was found dead while working on a movie about the modern Khmer Rouge; while all evidence points to foul play, the Cambodian government has refused to have his body sent to Bangkok for an autopsy and kept his remains unrefrigerated at a morgue, obviously hindering any future forensics. Desperately wanting to show the world a new face, figurative sloppy paint jobs try to hide glaring problems. If Cambodia were a car, Phnom Penh's nicer aspects would be the shiny new rims distracting viewers from the faulty brakes, sputtering engine and short circuiting electrical system. Just one small example is that hundreds of NGO orphanages have been shut down then allowed to re-open under the name of "child care facility" so it can be reported that there's been progress in reducing orphan rates. But attempts to alter the perception do nothing to change the reality.I'm touched by the stories I hear and kindness experienced. I'm awed by the natural landscapes and built temples. Many things I witness make me smile, but just as many make me want to cry. I'm riddled with guilt for having so much and not using enough of it to help. I ask about way to many risky things far to often, probing into history and current affairs deeper than one safely should. I fear for the future of this place and all who inhabit it, uneasy the past won't stay in the past as much as everyone believes. I panic about the people I've met getting seriously sick or injured without the ability to get appropriate help. And as I start to feel continuously more unwell, I start to panic about what could happen to me. Highs and lows are constantly intermingled. I'm sad a lot. I vacillate between being frustrated and outright furious. But most of all I fiercely, unequivocally love Cambodia.
Getting into the country was pretty smooth despite a small border scam on the Vietnamese side, which my indignation at almost resulted in being stranded at immigration. But a few hours later I was in Phnom Penh, the capital, epicenter and only major city. I was surprised by much I liked it, especially considering every person I'd met said it was a shithole I should get out of asap. Instead, I found a city with a lot of great qualities. There's a wonderful balance between being modern and convenient with authentic and traditional. Khmer culture is present everywhere, but still enough amenities to make it a good place to stock up and chill out. The streets are wide, dotted with large trees and lined with what once must've been lovely French architecture. Temples pop out of nowhere, stunning as ones I've traveled many kilometers to see. A large, park-like riverfront offers some cute places to poke around and people watch. Statues, fountains and pagodas are scattered throughout the city like items to be found on a scavenger hunt. If you squint and use your imagination, it's easy to see why the French once called it one of their masterpieces. Mostly, the people are incredibly nice and protective. Like in Saigon, I was always getting warnings to be careful, demonstrations on how to hold my purse safely, stopped on the street and cautioned not to use my phone in public. While I haven't actually had any problems (knock on bamboo) or felt like I was in a bad situation, the outpouring of concern is lovely. But yes there are problems, crime obviously being one of them. A layer of grime seems to permeate the air and coat all surfaces, mountains of trash piled and littered absolutely everywhere. Random markets will set up literally on the street, fruits, veggies and meat sitting on dirty tarps directly on the ground next to putrid petrol sputters of tuktuks and cars. Thick ropes of telephone wire snake and coil in every direction, obscuring any last vestiges of beauty left. The poverty is so widespread and crippling, it's almost physically painful to see. This is all still in the more touristy areas; things get progressively worse as you span out. Like so many of its living victims, the entire city seems irreparably scarred. But when you think of all that city has been through, what can one expect? For those who don't know much about it (as I barely had a clue), here's a recap: Cambodia was once one of the most successful and powerful countries in Southeast Asia. Education was relatively strong, the economy mostly stable, professionals in all fields were decently qualified, there were thriving industries and prized export systems. Then (after a complicated and debated series of events) the Khmer Rouge took over and began their hyper-communist regime based on theories George Orwell-ian in their extremity. Deeming all for "The Organization," Cambodia started anew from "year zero." Turning the country into a completely self sustaining agrarian society (which was pretty bs since weapons were sourced from China, who in turn got most of the crop yield), all ties to anything international were cut. Anyone of mixed ethnicity, international travel, or even any foreign correspondence was immediately killed-- ironic since most of Khmer Rouge leaders had recieved extremely high-level degrees abroad. Anyone of intellectual capacity- doctors, lawyers, journalists, government workers, filmakers, scientists, teachers, etc- were rounded up for elimination early; even wearing glasses was considered a sign of intelligence warranting death. Cities were forcibly evacuated and everyone made to resettle in rural labour camps. Hospitals and banks were burned down to ensure there was no access to money and modern medicine.The population was expected to produce 3x more rice than had ever been done before, an impossible task made even more impossible by the circumstances. Millions were killed by starvation, overwork, torture, disease and genocide. Everyone was perpetually on the verge of death. All personal freedoms, from picking berries for individual nourishment and eating outside of assigned group feeding times to communicating with family members and practicing religion, were considered subversive acts punishable by execution. Nobody was allowed to own anything other than the standard uniform of clothes and supplied objects; any evidence that you may have even something like a pen would result in being taken away and never seen again. Human life was of no consequence whatsoever, demonstrated by the Party motto "to keep you is no benefit, to kill you is no loss." People were murdered by bludgeoning with farm tools, stabbed with poisoned bamboo spears, or being buried alive; bullets were considered too precious to waste on common individuals. Babies and young children were bashed against trees by the head, their only crime being fear that one day they would seek revenge for their families. From 1974-1979, 1/4 of the country's population was wiped out.
My introduction to all this occurred at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, aka S-21, a former school that had been converted into a prison camp mostly used as a holding and torture center before execution. Of 17,000 to pass through its doors only 12 are known to have survived. Seeing playground equipment converted to makeshift gallows, hundreds of prisoner photos who entered with a fulfilled death sentence, tangibly feeling the air change as a wave of claustrophobia and fear hits the moment you entered the isolation cells.... I can't really explain the way it shakes you to the core. From there, we (I was hanging out with a girl from each Australia, Sweden and Indiana most of the time) went to Choeung Ek, the largest of 20,000 Killing Fields uncovered to date. Every day hundreds of people were brought to be massacred and tossed into communal graves, many from Toul Sleng and others rounded up from labor camps in the surrounding area. On a less emotional note, the walking audio tour through the memorial park is incredibly well done and I was thoroughly impressed by how everything was presented. The site itself is actually beautiful and serene, a startling contrast to the horrors that occurred there. Despite tons of excavation, there are dozens of mass graves still uncovered and after heavy rains it's not uncommon to find bones, teeth or even bits of clothing on the surface as you tour. While I learned a lot at these two places, I also became exponentially confused. Much of what's told seems contradictory, so many things warrant further explanation. The rise to power, the role of Vietnam, the 'after the fall' continuation of Khmer Rouge reign, the background and intent of subsequent leader... How was it that so many people leave satisfied with the information given and not bothered by all the unanswered holes? I, on the other hand, was overcome with a need to find out everything I could about this period-- pre, during and post. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much, and most of what I did read only further complicated my understanding. Almost everything from a historical context has either been banned or simply doesn't exist. It's not taught in schools; by now most of the population wasn't alive during the regime and for those who were, it's become a far off memory. This seems like an incredibly scary situation, as we've all been told that those who forget history are doomed to have it repeated. It seems in this case, a lot is intentionally done to ensure history is forgotten. I've had multiple conversations with Cambodians about the situation then and now, getting a different response, opinion and point of view each time. The one thing that remained consistent is all were nervous to discuss it-- furtively looking around before speaking, zipping up the rain flaps of tuk tuks before answering, breaking off mid-sentence and deciding not to continue. The fact that something like this could ever happen is terrifying. But that it could happen so recently is unthinkable (mass genocides, forced labor, imposed famine, etc. ended in 1979 when the North Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge. But in actuality the supposedly defunct party still ruled Cambodia, and thanks to US/Australia/China, was even recognized and supported by the United Nations as its official leadership until the 90's. Throughout that time, the reign of terror was quieter but still definitely present). How could anyone still believe in ideologies like this? How could so many rally around it? And how could the world stand by and allow such atrocities to happen, turning a blind eye and pretending they had no idea the extent of what was going on? The reality is, of course external governments knew. There was a Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh just for Western journalists, 11 of which were later found as skeletons at one of The Killing Fields. Clearly neighboring countries knew, as Vietnam had a very complex and debated web of roles spanning the Khmer Rouge's infancy back in the late 50's through today. Thailand later provided refugee camps at the borders, but they certainly didn't swoop in to save the day and actually did quite a bit afterwards to protect/aid the exiled regime. And there's a lot of evidence that the Western World (especially the US) was secretly backing China's public support while ensuring both Pol Pot and his troops received food and arms as they hid in Thailand, all as part of an anti Vietnam effort. Plus let's not forget that years of US carpet bombing Cambodia also killed millions and contributed to the Khmer Rouge gaining control back in the 70's. Like everything else I've heard about this incredibly complex situation, none of it makes sense to me and all seems to completely go against the basis of both The Organization and America's Communist objectives. Regardless, it really causes one to question the government we believe in and wonder just how much of what "we know" is only blind faith. Rationally or not, after everything I've heard from locals and expats (a few who work in the anti-corruption sector for their government) putting all the above on a public forum has actually made me slightly nervous. Which may just verify that I am indeed losing it. So I'll end this tirade by saying that I cannot encourage all of you enough, especially now that recent events has made the Khmer Rouge global headlines again, to do your own research and learn what you can. If nothing else it's a morbidly fascinating history lesson of things we all should've been made more aware of. And despite any potential behind the scenes shadiness, makes you unquestionably grateful for the protective barriers our citizenship gives. Despite being flooded with so much to contend with, it's been wonderful to have so many in-depth discussions about these and various other world issues with other travelers, as it's the kind of conversations I'd probably never be in at home. And while my brain was crowded and preoccupied with the weight of all the aforementioned, I still managed to have some fun. Of course, wandering around factored in a lot. I scoped out the massively congested Russian Market which sells everything you can imagine and then some, a great blend of food, souvenir stuff, funky wares and normal goods. There was a show with traditional dancing, music and religious folklore I convinced some people to attend, which was fantastic in every way-- and a great opportunity to support the limited arts scene. We perused and ate at the night market, a somewhat gaudy affair but especially fun to grab a spot on the ground and eat on a large mat laid out with various condiments. And I checked out the opulent Royal Palace, but was royally overwhelmed by the crowds, similar looking buildings and maze-like grounds, so ended up exiting fairly quickly. More suddenly than I expected, a few days had passed and it was time to hit the road again.
Leaving behind the heavy aspects of Phnom Penh, I headed a few hours south to the easy, breezy seaside oasis of Kep. Simply put, I love love LOVE Kep. It's hard to articulate why because there's not much there; without knowing better, most would pass right through this tiny blip of a town. But that would be a huge mistake. Lined by water on one side and jungle-encrusted mountains on the other, a long semi-paved road runs through the center. On one end is the market, some stands selling the basics, and homes. The center has a bus drop off/pick up, one or two restaurants, and a few small shops. At the other end is the crab market, a couple tourist oriented stores and some restaurants. In-between there's basically just stray dogs, red dust and small winding trails that splinter into rice fields, homes and lush nothingness. It's the kind of place where you don't do a whole lot, mostly hang out at the guesthouse and bike around. Contributing even more to my positive feelings about this tiny town, I was lucky enough to be staying at a place exceptional in almost every way. Located up a looong dirt hill right outside the national forest, each little hut has a porch and hammock to lounge in and gaze at the greenery. Kris and Naome, who own it, are awesome; he's American who lived in Japan for awhile teaching English, then moved back to San Francisco to start an NGO and eventually ended up working at an orphanage in Cambodia. There he met his wife, a Cambodian who lost her parents to the Khmer Rouge and was raised in a nearby facility. They now have the world's cutest two children and have started the guesthouse in conjunction with a school, teaching hospitality and cooking skills in addition to a normal curriculum. Much of the profit goes to their students' families, who will only let them attend if compensated for any income lost by their kids not working. A good portion my time was spent hanging with these two, chatting for hours and observing the preparation of delicious meals coming out of the kitchen. Here I was introduced to their friends, who own a small coffeehouse on the other side of town. Another American with a Khmer wife and two adorable kiddos, she was a very young refugee who actually grew up in the States. So completely Americanized in every way (cracking me up with references like "stay away from that gnarly bamboo shack when you head into the hiking trail, they have a dog that's like goddamm Cujo," I was shocked to hear that her few early memories of Cambodia include escaping on a wagon and having her head covered with a blanket so she wouldn't see all the dead bodies being driven over. There are a few burn marks and knife scars marring her skin, but she has no recollection of how they got there. Truly, the things that occurred just a short time ago are mind boggling. Popping in for a killer dark roast with a mouthwatering (and massive) cinnamon roll, I always ended up staying for at least an hour or two. Our discussions mostly revolved around the Cambodian government before going into world politics. I got a very interesting, maybe far fetched but scary education on conspiracy theories from Brian, along with lots of comic relief and big sisterage from Saavie. Those four people made my brief stay in Kep feel like more of a home than a visit and I'm so fully lucky to have the privilege of being welcomed into their circle, if only for a few days. Of course, I felt compelled to check out more than these two homes so I set out do some exploring on bike and foot. Rewarded by beautiful scenery and picturesque village cliches, watching daily life unfold was a wonderful sight in itself. Small treasures along the way added to the experience; perfectly decaying French villas hidden by old stone walls, small pagodas scattered about and as is typical in Cambodia, whimsical religious figures acting as statues and roundabouts. The crab market is always a really cool stop with hundreds of the famous Kep crustacean sold practically straight off the boats in astounding quantities, waiting to picked and cooked-- either on the open flame grills each seller has or brought a few feet down to one of the restaurants lining the waterfront. Along with some fresh locally grown peppercorns, a cold Angkor beer and vivid sunset, it's one of the better ways I can think to spend an early evening. On my last morning in this idyllic corner of Cambodia, I finally ventured into the National Forest. Since arriving, it had poured at least three hours every day and I had been deterred annoyingly often from a hike. But the skies looked blue and clouds puffy white, so I figured there shouldn't be any problems providing I was back by mid afternoon. I was right, sort of. Hours flew by in the thick trees and twisty vines, until I eventually felt a cool breeze that meant rain was on its way. Of course, once you're up in the jungle there's no quick way out. I was lucky enough to have only light drizzle on the way back down; then the skies opened and water started coming down in sheets. I was about 10 minutes away but just a few hundred meters from another guesthouse with a well reputed restaurant, so decided to pop in for lunch and wait till the storm had passed. Three hours, four cups of coffee and an exceptionally good bamboo soup later, there was still torrential rains falling and I couldn't care less. Getting to know one of the staff members, a super sweet guy from an outside village, was great. Plus, as I've continued to discover, it's also quite interesting to hear perceptions of America from people all over the world. All I can say is the US certainly has good PR going for itself! One of the cooks had her son in the back, an insanely adorable three year old who kept shyly peeking out from behind the kitchen door then scampering back whenever I made eye contact. Eventually, I coaxed him out and we had a blast playing and being ridiculously goofy in the way you only can with children. After getting a worried text from Kris, I dragged myself away from that gorgeous, giggly face and ran back to the bungalow to a waiting cup of tea. Ugh, leaving the next day was going to suck. Later that night I started shivering in the heat and just feeling bleh. A quick check up from my substitute mama revealed a pretty high fever, but I figured it was just the result of spending so many hours in soaking wet clothes. The next morning I was doing much better and half-heartedly got in an minivan headed for nearby Kampot.
The drive took less than an hour which was good because the van had gradually filled beyond capacity, resembling more of a clown car than actual transportation device. Of course, it's hard to complain when you look out the window and see pickup trucks overflowing with passengers, shoved on top of each other in the bed, hanging out the windows, and even sitting on the roof strapped down like cargo. Un-origami-ing myself, I found my way to the hostel and dropped off my stuff before strolling around in the calm, quiet morning. Kampot is bigger than Kep but still small by most standards, and completely charming--all rundown colonial buildings, quirky statues, homespun shops and eclectic restaurants. Ignoring an odd pain in my stomach, I covered most of the 'downtown' and leisurely strolled the waterfront. People watching in SE Asia is usually at its best at the day's beginning and end; this was no exception. Thoroughly enjoying doing absolutely nothing, I walked and watched until the pain in my stomach grew to a mild stab and then a more moderate one. Figuring there was at least another hour before I could officially check in to the hostel, I did something totally unlike me and went to a doctor. A quick Google search showed that conveniently, a decent facility had been set up about 10km over the bridge by a NGO and they had a running rotation of Westerners training local med students. At the very least, it was sanitary and with trained, English speaking people; all very rare for the provinces. The only option to get there was via tuk tuk, a relatively long, horribly bumpy ride that made my stomach think it was being repeatedly kicked. How anyone with a major problem can physically deal with getting to this hospital is beyond me. After a consult with a GP followed by a second opinion with an ER doctor, it was determined I may have appendicitis. Usually those who do are in agony where I was merely hurting, but the pain's location was exact and the rest of my symptoms fit. Unfortunately they had no imaging equipment to verify further and no operating capabilities if needed, so the good natured American and Australian strongly suggested going to Phnom Penh immediately for a more thorough examination. Could I wait it out and see how I felt tomorrow? As it was very bluntly worded, "You could. But if the appendix bursts and you're here, you're screwed mate." Awesome. More annoyed by this pause in plan than nervous (after all, an appendectamy is a pretty easy procedure, right? ), it wasn't until my parents asked for advice from their tour company and was told not to let me have surgery in Cambodia under any circumstances, that I started to get scared. This progressively turned into full blown anxiety as the hours stretched on, cumulating at the recommended international clinic. First I was told right off the bat there was nothing wrong with me. I talked him into doing an ultrasound, where the technician announced there was absolutely something happening in the appendix area. I was then assured that after staying overnight I would then be medically evacuated to Bangkok, which seemed like terrible idea if trying to preempt a burst. At this point my nerves were pretty much through the roof. Finally after a phone call to his Miami-bred supervisor, it was determined I would get a MRI at an affiliated hospital and see what the results warranted, staying overnight regardless with a potential flight out arranged early in the morning. All of this was happening in-between frantic phone calls to my parents, who remained remarkably supportive as I totally started to lose it. Turns out it was only bacteria caused colitis (basically food poisoning) and I was sent away with a course of antibiotics and instructions to stay in Phnom Penh for three days in case it got worse. Still freaked out and faithless in anyone practicing medicine here courtesy of the tour guide's warning coupled with some Googling, I headed to a nearby hotel. Despite any fears of misdiagnosis, just one pill and about 14 hours of sleep later was all it took for me to feel like a functioning human being again. By my follow-up appointment, I was practically back to normal and pretty damn amused by the comment that Americans are always so positive and he wishes all patients were happy like me. Hmm those wouldn't exactly be the words I would use to describe how I handled two nights prior. Confined to the capital, I figured might as well take advantage of being based in a new area, as due to hospital proximity I was staying in a more residentially upscale, expat dominated section of the city. No noisy dorms and dirty bathrooms this round! While a much appreciated change, I could practically feel my bank account cringe when I paid the bill; three nights was the equivalent of three weeks in the $5-7 beds I was accustomed to. Between getting some much needed rest, I entertained myself by wandering around. Pleasantly surprised to find a trendy, boutiquey side to PP, there was even an organic vegetarian cafe that offers a CSA (that fruit/vegetable box I pick up every week in spring to fall) through a nearby farm. I don't really recall what I saw and did because another thing I've lost is the journal with all my notes about Cambodia, but it was a very nice few days. However, the extra time in Phnom Penh meant my meticulously organized schedule was in need of adjusting. I could either continue hitting all of the intended stops, but that meant taking even longer to reach the famous Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem islands (already an expensive and complicated trip), plus I'd have to shave a day off them and one from my next destination. Or I could make life much easier and skip these almost mythically spectacular paradises and return to Kampot for a little less than 48 hours. Remembering my lackluster experience in the Perhentians and that I've tended to like beaches more in theory than actuality, I talked myself into believing the Kohs weren't worth the effort. After all, I wouldn't ever know what I was missing.
Officially given the green light to leave, I was on a Kampot bound bus the following morning. Ironically meeting a doctor from Australia at the hostel who had also arrived much too early for dorm access, we set out to see what lay on the fringes of town: a few temples, a jail, a music school, the old governor's mansion, a terrifying looking local hospital, some unintentionally funny shops and lots of dogs, if you were wondering. Amazingly, we ran into the tuk tuk driver from my first visit who asked how I was feeling and said he had been worried, handing me his home number if I needed anything; he seemed especially concerned that I would have a hard time communicating with the pharmacy should medicine be required and given something not good. Seriously, Cambodians are the best. Instead, I used the contact info to arrange a trip for us to visit a pepper plantation and salt field the next day. At 7am the town we set off through kilometer after kilometer of wild greenery, passing rice fields along the way and occasionally re-routing when the muddy road was flooded or herds of water buffalo blocked the path. Seeing how pepper is grown was pretty cool, especially because it's one of the only ingredients I've never given any thought to its origins.. Unfortunately salt can't be harvested in the rainy season so we had to settle for photos, the huge mounds of snowy white flakes only making me crave seeing it in-person even more. Among I things, I also was constantly losing track of time and hastily made arrangements to reach Siem Reap.