Tuesday, January 17, 2012
At last, Cambodian food. We flew to Phnom Penh today to join our tour group. From the damp 60 degree temperature that hovered over Hong Kong during our stay, we were greeted by humid, high 80s this afternoon. Money in Cambodia is easy, the American dollar is universally accepted, although change of less than one dollar will be given in riels, about 4,100 to the dollar. Phnom Penh traffic, on the other hand, is hard. Every imaginable vehicle is on the road at the same time and the drivers all obey a strict traffic code. However, each is obeying his own traffic code, starting with which side of the street to drive on. It seemed worse than Beijing, the worst I had seen to date, although Beijing has the sheer force of numbers to exaggerate the anarchic driving conditions.
We are under the general direction of Franck, a Frenchman, during our stay in Cambodia. The whole group followed his suggestion tonight and we rode in tuk tuks, wagons attached to motor scooters, holding up to four persons, to Romdeng, #74 Street 174, "a restaurant providing training to former street youth." Even without its charitable nature, Romdeng distinguished itself. Most of us shared a set meal; the vegetarians ordered separately. I ate shredded chicken salad with cilantro and nuts in a thin, mildly sweet dressing, taro-stuffed spring rolls, fish amok (boneless fish sticks in a hot curry-coconut sauce), and eggplant with chopped mushrooms. This was $6 per person. Additionally, I had ice tea with lime and mint ($2), and scoops of coconut and passion fruit gelato ($4.75). No tipping.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
As I'll be the first to admit, I do my best work sitting down. I am a more reliable commentator on place settings than places. This morning, though, I was thrilled by the splendor of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda next door. I was reminded of Beijing's Forbidden City, this combination of royal residences, public and private chambers, and holy sites. Score one for Phnom Penh over Beijing, although the Forbidden City is, not surprisingly for almost anything Chinese, far larger. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to his friends) combined exciting, fanciful architecture with lovely grounds and beautiful plantings. The Forbidden City, by contrast, has almost no green space, just vistas of concrete where buildings do not stand.
I skipped lunch and took a walk, having over-enjoyed the hotel's breakfast buffet. Then the afternoon took a serious turn towards insanity. We went to S. 21, an infamous Khmer Rouge prison in central Phnom Penh. It had been a high school, but became a house of torture and death for anyone and everyone. As a reflection of the Khmer Rouge's maniacal belief system, detainees were forced to confess by the use of cruel and bizarre means before they were murdered. According to the memoirs of two of the seven inmates of S. 21 found alive when the Khmer Rouge fell, the interrogators insisted on confession of ties to both the CIA and KGB. This paranoia manifested itself also in forcing people to implicate others, any one else, when arrested and questioned.
If prisoners survived S. 21, they were sent to a killing field outside of the city. We proceeded about 15 kilometers to a site that has been preserved and the victims memorialized. That in itself is unusual, since discussion of the Khmer Rouge is off-limits in Cambodia today, because former members retain positions of power. Students are not taught about the events of 1975-1979, when it is estimated that 1,700,000 Cambodians, at the very least, were killed, out of a population of about 7 Million. The killing field was terrible/fascinating/extraordinary/compelling/sickening. Basically, prisoners were trucked in, brought to the edge of a pit and usually clubbed, although not necessarily killed by the blows. Bullets were spared because of the expense. When they tumbled into the pit, they were buried often alive. The location of the killing field we visited was right next to a small lake which overflows during the monsoon season, when heavy rains fall directly on the ground as well. The result is, even today, bones, teeth and clothing rise to the surface as the waters recede. We saw bones, teeth and clothing ourselves coming out of the ground where the pits once held bodies.
Dinner tonight was somewhat somber after this afternoon's visits. We made comparisons to Auschwitz and the Nazis, of course. Ranking catastrophes is a sophomoric exercise, but, while Pol Pot's rule over Cambodia lasted only a fraction of the time that Hitler controlled Germany, the rate of decimation of his own population must be record setting. Also, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror over urban Cambodia concluded only in 1979, during the lifetime of anyone 32 years old or older. (The Khmer Rouge continued fighting a war against Vietnam invaders through the mid-1990s, but they did it as a rebel force in rural areas, not the government in power.) Although I only asked a couple of Cambodians about their personal experiences with the Khmer Rouge, I heard stories of the disappearance or murder of a father-in-law, two uncles and other friends and neighbors.
The extent of Hitler's mania regarding the Jews is still somewhat surprising to me after decades of examining the subject, but not the fact of it. In other words, vicious European anti-Semitism wasn't and isn't news, but I cannot fathom why Hitler devoted critical resources, men and material, to the extermination of the Jews in the latter days of the war when his country and its people were in such great jeopardy. Pol Pot and his acolytes did not have or need demonic opponents to eradicate. He killed Cambodians, left and right, literally and figuratively, preferring intellectuals and teachers, but recognizing no limits or loyalties during the rampage of 1975-1979. And it happened during the lifetime of us and our friends and our children, not during the days of our parents and grandparents. Horrendous.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
We flew to Siem Reap, the city that serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat and other fabled temples. Siem Reap means Victory of Siam (Thailand), an event almost 700 years in the past. Imagine if the Vietnamese had used the same approach to renaming Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, after the fall of South Vietnam. Might it be now known as LBJ Loserville, or Kissinger Kiss My Ass Town?
Just before the flight to Siem Reap in the early afternoon, I got some good news. Last night, after our contemplative dinner, we went to the Blue Pumpkin Sorbet & Ice Cream parlor, on Sisowath (Avenue/Boulevard/Street) at Street 239 in Phnom Penh. I had scoops of rocky road and rum raisin for $2.75. At the airport, Blue Pumpkin operates a small café with the identical prices for ice cream as its downtown shop; one scoop, $1.50, two scoops, $2.75, three scoops, $3.75, of good ice cream. My pre-flight treat was pineapple and peanut (not butter). Have you ever heard of an airport retail store, duty-free aside, resisting the temptation to mark up goods substantially? I later found out that Blue Pumpkin is a nationwide operation, and long may it prosper.
Once we settled into our Siem Reap hotel, we took off for a boat ride on Lake Tonle Sap, home to more than 100 species of fish and thousands of fishermen and their families, who live in floating villages along the large lakefront. This lake quadruples in size during the monsoon season, which otherwise has to be unbearable in this otherwise hot and humid climate. How hot and humid, Grandpa Alan? We are now in Cambodian winter, the dry season, with temperatures around 90 F and humidity around 60%.
Dinners are not part of our tour package, but most evenings our group has eaten together. Tonight, we had an excellent meal at the Sugar Palm, Ta Phul Road, Siem Reap, where Gordon Ramsay, the peripatetic British chef recently dined (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k8j5VA69HY). I ate Khmer chicken satay ($4.50) and beef with ginger ($6).
Friday, January 20, 2012
We have been away one week and had the busiest day yet. Wake up call at 4 AM, leave the hotel at 5 AM in order to take a 25 minute ride by tuk tuk to Angkor Wat. We weren't alone awaiting the 6:45 AM sunrise; hundreds of people from almost everywhere (except Africa and South America) gathered by a reflecting pond in front of the main temple, built in the 12th Century and reputedly the largest religious structure in the world. Looking around, I felt that only John Lennon was missing. But, just as he was not to appear, the sun was blocked by a cloud cover that arrived at about 6:15 AM.
The temple and its grounds were fascinating, but, for most of us, the day got more interesting as it went along. The temple at Ta Prohm, featured in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie's surgically enhanced lips, is stunning. Discovered after Angkor Wat, it had long been subsumed into the jungle, with trees growing over, under, inside and outside the building. Cameras were wielded with a flurry as we walked around this relatively-small structure.
Our only non-sectarian visit for the day was the Arika Land Mine Museum, which documents the past toll and current threat of land mines throughout the world. Cambodia still has some millions of land mines left over primarily from the war between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam, following the fall of Pol Pot. Most of them now are in agricultural areas which could be put to productive purposes if cleared of land mines, mostly aimed at personnel not military hardware or vehicles. An American volunteer, formerly military, gave a concise and compelling account of the situation, and noted that the USA, China, Israel and Russia are among the very few countries in the world that have not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.
Last night, I left off laundry around the corner from our hotel to be ready this evening around dinnertime. Since one of the essential differences between boys and girls is the inability of boys to wash their underwear in the bathroom sink and have it ready to wear the next day, I piled up laundry in this climate at a fast pace. When I went to retrieve my laundry at 6 PM, it wasn't ready, but I wasn't concerned because the establishment stays open until 11 PM. So, when we returned from dinner, I went back to Chez Soap (my appellation) and found all but a pair of linen trousers neatly packed and ready to go. When I explained this deficiency, the proprietor made a couple of telephone calls, and then asked me to come with him. Now, don't tell my wife the rest of this story. I got on the back of his motor scooter without a helmet and rode through several approximately-paved back streets to the actual laundry. The women working there proudly held up my linen trousers, which could have sheltered several natives, and I was driven right to the hotel's front door on the friendly motor scooter. What could have been my last night anywhere, became just an interesting tale of my last night in Cambodia.