We caught an in-country flight from Hanoi down to the city, formally known as Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. It was an evening trip and we were headed just about due south so we were able to watch the sunset right off our right-wing – beautiful! We only spent a few days in the city before catching our bus to Phnom Penh but we were able to see a few sites. Our walking tour took us past the French built city hall which now stands as the backdrop for this statue of the city’s namesake striking a very familiar pose.We spent our usual time sitting in cafes trying various iced coffees and Saigon food, visited the War Remnants Museum and did our best to not get lost in the market!Admittedly, three weeks was way too short of time to see Vietnam. It is an amazingly diverse country, between it’s coasts, mountains, forests, cities, and of course, it’s people, a person could spend years there. But we do not have unlimited time to spend and we did have bus tickets that took us over the border to Cambodia, so we had to say: goodbye Vietnam. And with another bus ride and another border crossing we made the trip from Ho Chi Minh City to the capital of Cambodia.
The traditional architecture of Phnom Penh has that uniquely Cambodian look but in other aspects it looks similar to other cities in Asia Amber and I have seen on this trip. There is new, very modern, construction perched immediately next to the preserved and traditional. There are green spaces, shopping areas, street food, statues, and pedestrian plazas. There are scooters, people going about their daily lives and tourists of all origins taking selfies.Our hostel was well located and we could easily walk to all of the cafes, restaurants, and public attractions with which any tourist would be happy. It appears the city is making a very intentional effort to accommodate, both the people who live and work there and the ever-growing number of tourists who have begun to flock to Cambodia in the last 15 years. As I said, it all looks similar, except maybe for one thing. Everyone looks so young. The truck drivers, restaurant workers, police in uniform, scooter repair mechanics, all look really young. And that is because they are. In fact the country’s median age is only 24.9 – 13 years younger than neighboring Thailand. There are a number of ongoing environmental factors for this, of course, but the dominant factor likely resides in the past of 40 years ago. We caught a tuk tuk (a two wheeled people hauler towed by a motor scooter) a little ways out-of-town to a sight simply referred to as “the killing field”.About the time most of us in the US were wondering when Star Wars was going to make it’s network television debut, events were taking place in Cambodia that simply defy civilized human understanding. Even after visiting the sites and seeing the bones and skulls and teeth, I still feel completely inadequate to attempt to describe what happened. Instead I will share what the survivors and keepers of the sight and history shared with us on the back of the center’s entrance ticket.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is a unique and special place which reflects the most barbarous, cruel crime committed by the Ultra Communist Khmer Rouge regime during 1975 – 1979. Here about 20,ooo people including foreigners were executed and murdered. Obviously, 129 mass graves and about 8000 human skulls at the site bear testimony to this unspeakable crime. In order to remember the spirits of the victims at the site as well as over 3 million victims throughout the country, a Memorial Charnel was built in the center in 1988.
During a four year period the entire society was restructured, families were separated, people were shipped by train and truck all over the country and one-fourth of the population was brutally, yet systematically murdered at the hands of it’s own government. Out of respect for all of their loss and suffering we are posting only these two pictures. The first is their statement of remembrance and the second is of the Memorial Charnel which entombs some 8000 skulls.Cambodia has been on a long road to recovery from that time. Much of the infrastructure was destroyed, profitable businesses were eliminated and many trained and educated professionals like doctors and teachers were killed. But Cambodians have a much longer history of greatness – as in the great Khmer kingdoms of ancient times. And that greatness is evident today in the people we have met. They are hard-working, considerate, nice, and appear genuinely happy. They have made our visit thus far, really wonderful!
We have also been able to visit a half-dozen places operating for the purpose of seeing youth complete school and young people learn employment skills. Friends International for example teaches rural parents skills and markets their wares so they can earn enough money for their family that their kids will not need to work and can continue in school. And restaurants like New Leaf teach young adults quality food service skills that they can take into employment in the growing restaurant industry, (and thus avoid falling into illegal or self-destructive means of making money), among helping the population in numerous other ways. And there are plenty of private business ventures, making a point to invest in their community like this small cafe we discovered while on our motorbike just outside of Kep. Their sign could not help but catch our attention.We also toured the La Plantation pepper farm where they are growing peppers for making black, white and red pepper. We learned all about their organic process and the labor intensive production it is to produce pepper. They employ all natural methods and materials for things like staking the plants and controlling pests. It was a lot like a visit to a vineyard with a winery but instead of wines, we sampled pepper. Their bbq served up a great lunch too – featuring sausage with green peppercorns and loads of pepper to add to your liking. Our guide, Pros, gave us a very thorough and detailed tour. We learned that pepper has been grown in the region for at least 150 years but many of the farms were destroyed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime in the late 70’s because they were seen as decadent. In fact this farm has only been in operation a few years but it is a great example of that greatness displayed in the Cambodian people.Coming up, Amber and I will share our visit to the stunning temples of Siem Reap including Ankor Wat and Ta Phrom (of Tomb Raider fame)! Our videos this post will let you share a tuk tuk ride with us and see some locals we met just monkeying around.