8 02 2009

This is a journal from my first two days in Cambodia, raw and unedited. I would like to point out that since then, I found out that the new buildings in the capitol are not ushering Cambodia forward, but instead crippling its poorest citizens, by evicting them to locations far outside the city. These camps lack sanitation, water, and schools.

The flight from Taipei took four hours—three of which was spent sleeping and one of which was spent reading in-flight magazines and listening to Chinese pop on the airplane radio.

Wearing my overly-large flannel shirt, I imagined stepping off the plane and melting into a tropical puddle of Kevin-y goop. Luckily, Cambodians are wearing sweaters to shield their bodies from the cold weather—although that means nothing for me because I still feel hot and sticky. Yay!

Jokes aside, the weather is really nice, its been humid and mild since I’ve landed and there were even sprinkles today. Ah, but I’m skipping ahead of myself.

Aside from the change in climate, the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Phnom Penh was the chaotic driving. Luckily my “cousin” was driving us around so we didn’t have to deal with the madness of navigating through the sea of motos, tut tuts, bikes and cars. The congestion is dense, but somehow through the craziness, I haven’t seen a single accident.

Our first real sojourn into the city was to a “mall” that had small shops, a food court, and even theaters and a restaurant on top. Outside, it is surrounded by small, rundown shops and homes. The contrast between the mall and buildings outside are startling, and although the wealth is owned by a few wealthy elite, new buildings such as these are clearly pushing the capitol to improve living conditions.

We headed up what seemed to be an endless spiral of escalators to the top floor, where the restaurant is located. As we walked in, we were greeted and ushered to a table outside by waiters and waitresses wearing brightly colored, striped uniforms. From the patio you get a stunning view of the city and from this vantage point, you could see large buildings being erected nearby.

The food came—we had delicious hotpot that night and the selection of meats and veggies are way too numerous to list, but let me tell you, if you ever come, you will not be disappointed.

Afterwards, we headed down to our car and started heading back on the dirt road to my uncle’s house. As the food started settling, so did drowsiness and jetlag—once I got back, a quick wash was all I needed before I knocked out.


From the mid to late 1970’s the Khmer Rouge took hold of Cambodia in one of worst atrocities of the 20th century. Within a four year period, nearly half of Cambodia’s population was wiped out.

I visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, which was a secondary school-turned prison. Walking the empty hallways and rooms, old, dated photographs of tortured prisoners stared back at me, reminding me that the dark stains on the ground weren’t from dirt, but blood. Even though it was hot outside, all I could feel was a silent chill which ran through every room.

Prisoners were shackled to metal beds and mutilated in numerous ways. Those who weren’t were thrown in dark, wooden cells barely three feet wide and six feet across. Those who weren’t there were water boarded, hung, drowned, whipped, electrocuted, killed. I didn’t know what to think, what to feel, but the skulls and photographs in the rooms all seemed to me to ask the same question—Why?

We left the prison and headed to a mass grave site a few kilometers drive away. A tall, eerie monument greeted visitors with story upon story of human skulls which stretched far into the sky.

All around the monument lay dead bodies—beneath a 6×15 foot plot, lay nearly 300 people—still buried. The people who were led to these mass graves were unaware of what was going on. Scraps of fabric still lie on the ground, nature slowly unearthing what was once someone’s nicest shirt and tie—clothes they thought the king would see, or so they were told.

As you walk around, small dips in the earth are subtle reminders that here and there are another hundred or so buried bodies. I honestly cannot describe the feeling one gets from seeing this—women, children, men—all gone, gone, gone. Mindless. Pointless.

As I was walking out, I told my uncle it was unusual how many butterflies were flying around the graves—I told him they made the whole place seem somewhat more peaceful. He responded by reminding me that the butterflies were once ta-coew¬, a word in Cambodian which means caterpillars as well as worms and maggots.