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Entries about phnom penh

Catch Cambodia...

...until next time "you say goodbye, and I say hello"

semi-overcast 26 °C

First of all, apologies on my slackness on writing my blog the past week. I have had a few queries about when my next blog entry is going to be, but with last week being my last week at school, in Siem Reap and even in Cambodia, it was very busy with ‘lasts’. Literally we had a schedule for where we were going to eat every night so we had time to say goodbye to everyone…or more to the point say ‘catch’ until next year - hopefully ☺

Secondly, it is with extremely mixed feelings that I tell you I am writing the first blog entry of this trip not from Cambodia. Currently I am in my comparatively luxurious and cleanly hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, formally known as Saigon. It’s funny because when I left home I was so excited about this part of my trip having never been to Vietnam before, but now having to leave school and all the amazing friends I have made, not to mention just the awesome lifestyle that there is in Siem Reap, it’s devastating. I feel bad for Mum (she is here now as well in case you missed that memo) – I think she feels a bit like bad cop, as if she’s coming and dragging me away from it all. But I guess the best thing about feeling like this about leaving everything behind is that I have had more fun over the past two months than I ever thought was possible, particularly with where I was at when I left home, so that’s pretty awesome ☺ And besides, it’s just catch until next time right?!

Anyway, let me think, what has been happening since last time I wrote my blog…there’s been so much I don’t even know where to start or where to end so things are going to be a bit all over the place…

Well last weekend Courtnay and I went to Battambang for the weekend as there was a music festival called the Friendship Festival on there, which is half Khmer acts and half Western DJs, one of whom was a guy we know from when we went to Sihanoukville. It was a pretty interesting weekend to say the least! It started off with Courtnay walking into our room at home from being out, just as the 6am alarm was going off to remind us that for some reason we booked the 7am bus! That turned out to be a joyous ride filled with ice-cold air conditioning and blaring Khmer karaoke music that I could still hear when I had my iPod up full blast. Seriously, the Khmer people were not singing along and I definitely didn’t know the words – was it completely necessary?!

So I went to Battambang the last time I was here and did the whole boat trip and everything so I knew what to expect, but Battambang is definitely no Siem Reap. We literally could not find a bucket in sight all weekend, not even at the festival! It’s definitely not your party town kind of place, it’s like walking in a ghost town at night, there isn’t even that many restaurants to choose from and they all close at 10 or 11! However, the ‘sightseeing’ as you would call it around Battambang is really cool. There’s the Bamboo Train, which I’m still not entirely sure if it is called that because it is made from bamboo or because they used to use it to transport bamboo, but anyway it’s on this single railway line that you ride along through the rice fields, and then when you meet a train coming in the opposite direction, one of the trains gets dismantled so the other can continue on it’s way. Anyway, they take you up to the first ‘stop’, which is where there’s an old lady selling drinks and a bunch of kids very eager to show you around the brick making factory, for want of a better word, which was actually really cool.

After the Bamboo Train we went to a Cambodian winery, which compared to what we know as a winery, was hilarious, seeing there are four rows of grapes in someone’s backyard. There was actually only one kind of wine to taste though, but there was a horrifically strong brandy. Neither of us could drink ours so we gave it to the tuk tuk driver and even he struggled! He did finish it though – not one to turn down a free drink I suspect! Luckily for him we had to cut through this back road to get to our next destination, which was actually one of the coolest parts of the day. In Battambang especially, they are not shy on commenting on how much they love your white skin, and along this road I don’t think they’ve seen some barangs for a while, as the kids were running out of their houses and people were taking a break from their work at the rice fields just to get a look of us!

Our next destination was the Killing Cave, which as it’s name suggests, was used by the Khmer Rouge for many of the atrocities that occurred during that time. Similar to the Khmer Rouge stuff you see in Phnom Penh, there are monuments filled with the victims’ skulls and bones and whatever else they have found at the sight. Again, unfortunately I am not sure whether this came about before or after the war, but it is also a holy site up there so there is lots of blessings and Buddahs going on up there as well.

Anyway as for the festival, the main reason why we went to Battambang, it was pretty funny. The Khmer part in particular was packed. There was this guy there who must have been Cambodia’s answer to Michael Buble, as whenever his name was mentioned the crowd just went nuts. It was a pity they didn’t speak a bit more English though, as the MCs kept pointing to the moon and stuff all night and we were just like “why are they so obsessed with this moon?” But it turns out it was because there was a lunar eclipse that night we found out the next day – a tad awkward that we didn’t spot that one…

So once we got back to Siem Reap we were thrilled to hear that on the Saturday night we were away, pretty much none of our friends were out – that’s right, we are the high season! However, it did leave some pretty big expectations for our last week, which means that between the emotions of leaving school and everyone in Siem Reap, and going out, and packing and doing whatever jobs you have to do when you’re leaving somewhere after being there for two months, right now my eyes are practically hanging out of my head I am so tired! Totally worth it though, every single minute of it ☺

So my last week at school was thrown out of whack a little bit, as a group of ten new volunteers rocked up on Tuesday morning. They are on a 10-day tour kind of thing of Siem Reap, which includes going to school at ABCs and Rice because Jenny and Gary who organized the trip, have volunteered at ABCs before. Because it went from there being one volunteer at school (me!) to 10, we had a different schedule all week where each of the new volunteers ran different activities. It culminated on Friday, which was kind of cool seeing it was my last day, when they brought all this fruit to school as well as bottled water and even fairy bread (the kids had never had fairy bread before, it was so funny to watch them eat it and not be able to deal with the sprinkles!). Courtnay came into school as well on Friday to surprise her kids, which was so cool, and also good for me because I had someone to help me initiate our regular Friday dance party!

It was a fantastic, yet very hard day. I got bombarded with the usual mass of cards that all the classes make for volunteers when they leave, and some of the kids even bought me presents, which I feel so bad about, but it’s also so special. One of the teachers had asked me the day before what my favourite number was, and I said seven, so she gave me a jar of these tiny little stars they fold out of paper here and call ‘lucky stars’, and she said she made 70 for me because I said seven was my lucky number – so cute! At the end of the day for each class they all lined up and we sang ‘Hello, Goodbye’ by the Beatles, basically ABCs theme song, and they were also incredibly keen to sing three little monkeys, which I taught my class in music about two weeks ago and they just can’t get enough of it! Literally we sing it about 15 times a day – very fitting though seeing I was in the monkey class!

Luckily having the youngest class, only a couple of the kids understood what was going on and cried, which made it easier for me – at least I could hold on until they left! One of my kids kept saying “goodbye Teacher, see you on Monday!” (the really cool one I think I mentioned once before, who likes to play Uno and was hit on her foot by her mum) so I hope she doesn’t get too much of a shock next week. Also there’s a kid we’ve had to take to the doctor everyday, as she had to have an operation last week but she still needed to get her wound cleaned everyday, and when we went on Friday they said she didn’t have to go back anymore, that it could be cleaned at school as it was much better, which made me feel very happy that I know she will be looked after ok ☺ Everyday when we ride home from school we go the same was as a few of the older kids and they like to ride with us, but on Friday we had an entourage, as half the kids wanted to ride up to the main road to us. One of the girls kept saying “ride slow Teacher, you leave at the end of the road and I am sad.”

Anyway, I have so many more stories about school and Pub Street and just life and how great it has been that I want to write about, but one blog can only be so long before losing one’s interest. Besides, I need to save up some cool stories for when I come home, otherwise I’ll just be boring! But from the bottom of my heart I just want to thank everyone I met during my time in Cambodia for making it pretty much the best two months of my life. Whether you were mentioned in the blog or not, you know who you are, and my time there wouldn’t have been the same without you. I know I’ll be back, as I can’t possibly say goodbye to ABCs and the kids and the town forever, so I hope that we will all meet again one day and continue the party, whether at home, back in the Reap, or somewhere else out there in the world. And to everyone who’s reading this and doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, sorry for the after school special, but I hope that I at least had a story or two to entertain you…if not look me up when I get home, there are plenty more where that came from ;)

Posted by ljmac2 06:52 Archived in Cambodia Tagged children parties bus cambodia phnom_penh siem_reap teacher bars winery sihanoukville volunteers pub_street battambang khmer_rouge bamboo_train killing_cave Comments (0)

Phnom Penh

you may find this a depressing entry, but I am just trying to be insightful...don't worry I'm having a blast, just needed to get this off my chest!

sunny 30 °C
View South East Asia mark II on ljmac2's travel map.

I always said that I wanted to go back to Cambodia, but never dreamed that I would return so soon. Yet, less than 12 months later since I kissed the $2 cocktail goodbye, I found myself back on Cambodian soil (…or should I say sludge with all of the rain there has been?) Even though for the queen of planning things this trip was a pretty last minute decision, when I booked the ticket the 21st of October still seemed ages away…at that stage Geelong didn’t look like they had a hope of winning the flag! Yet they did (and thank god I decided to hang around for that), but like all good things that come to an end, at the end starts something new.

When I landed in Phnom Penh I hit the ground running. Having never been there before I wanted to make the most of my three days before I start volunteering, which sounds like not very long, but it’s actually the perfect amount of time to see everything there is to see if you don’t want to cram everything in. Killing fields, tick, S21, tick, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, tick, Russian Market, tick, Central Market, tick, Wat Phnom, tick. I didn’t really know what to expect; I’ve heard good and bad reports about the city, but what surprised me the most was that Westerners are fairly hard to come by. Sure they are the reason tuk tuks line the streets outside the tourist hot spots, but in their defense, I think it would be much harder to get work here than in Siem Reap. I mean in Siem Reap the World Heritage Listed Temples of Ankgor are the main drawcard, a symbol of prosperity that the Khmers are incredibly proud off. However, besides being the capital of Cambodia, which brings with it being the country’s largest and wealthiest city, Phnom Penh is most well known for it’s museums of genocide, being the Tuol Sleng Prison, better known as S21, and the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek.

It sounds horrible but these are two of the main reasons I wanted to come to Phnom Penh. Not that I would splurge a grand on a return ticket purely for this reason, but I read “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, when I was coming to Cambodia last year, and for those of you who don’t know, I’m a war-survivor-book junkie. Once I pop I can’t stop. Since then I’ve read Ung’s sequal “Lucky Child” and countless other books about the Khmer Rouge’s reign and it just fascinates me. Yes, there are countless cases of genocide in world history, even cases when people have persecuted those who have previously seemed to be their ‘own’, but in a way I think the atrocities performed by the Khmer Rouge have helped make the Cambodian people the humble and kind race they are today. Which is amazing seeing (a) it was their ‘own’ that brought this upon them, and (b) Westerners didn’t step in and help until the very last moment - the four head honchos of the Khmer Rouge who are still alive only began to be tried in 2010. When I was volunteering in January, one of the teachers said to me “did you know we had a war in Cambodia?” I wanted to say, “Of course, how can you not know?!”, but when I said yes he simply replied “that is why we are so poor”. He didn’t say that it was unfair that a quarter of the country’s population was murdered, nor that no one rushed to their aid – he said it so matter of factly he may as well have been telling me the sky was blue.

I did the ‘museums’ of the Khmer Rouge in non-chronological order. Walking into the killing fields is a bit surreal, as besides the beggars at the front gate, it looks just like a park with a big monument in the middle and a museum off to the side. Yet you know there’s more to it than that. As you walk closer to said monument, you notice it is piled high with 8000 skulls of those who met their untimely deaths at the Killing Fields. There are also remnants of their clothes. However, what is most disturbing, is that due to the rain, remnants that weren’t able to be excavated from the graves (of which there are over 100 but only half have been discovered) are starting to rise through the earth, and now litter the surface that the tourist walk on. The park curators collect them and keep the area in immaculate condition, but I guess there’s only so much you can do with such a large amount of rain in such a short amount of time. Walking through the fields is quite a haunting experience – you can hear the squeals of laughter of the children playing at the school next door and the flora is so lush and green that the area really would be quite beautiful, if it weren’t for the signs indicating a location of a mass grave, or certain trees that the Khmer Rouge preferred for performing certain atrocities.

Most people I’ve met since I’ve been here have said that they found S21 harder to go to than the Killing Fields, but that the Killing Fields was the more important one to see. To me the most disturbing thing about S21 is the fact that it was a former high school, which the Khmer Rouge saw as an opportunity to get rid of the intellectuals and torture them, all in one fowl swoop. It’s pretty much just four buildings with three levels each that have been shoddily divided into miniscule cells, slapped together with bricks and mortar so that if you wanted to lie down and take a nap, you’d have to bend your knees. The thing that really gets you though is the thousands upon thousands of mugshots they have there as ‘exhibits’. They were taken as everyone went into the prison, but they may as well be a way of recording the dead, as only seven of the 17,000 people imprisoned in S21 survived.

So I realize this has been a rather depressing first blog, but as I often do, I just feel like I needed to throw my opinion around a bit. I’ve met a few people who have said they reckon S21 should be knocked down, and particularly at the Killing Fields, heard many people loudly whispering (and self-righteously might I add) “I’m not going to be disrespectful and take photos here”. No, I don’t agree with getting your wide angle lens as close as you possibly can to the sign next to the mass grave just so you can make sure you can read how many bodies were found there. But seeing truly is believing. You can appreciate it as much as you want from afar, but you can’t really grasp the gravity of the event unless you’re there. Realistically however, not everyone is going to be able to visit Phnom Penh, so then the photos of people who have been there are the next best thing. They don’t need to be posted on Facebook and splashed around in slide shoes, but I believe they are important. Besides, the tuk tuk drivers want to take you there, the people selling the tickets (which are $2 by the way – the Palace is $6.25 and I would argue it is no where near as important) want you to take your cameras in. All except one of the masterminds behind the operation still deny it ever happened. With proof like this, this should warrant the throwing away of their key.

Oh and in case you didn’t get the memo, I am having a good time…happy hour; tick, tick, tick!

Posted by ljmac2 05:18 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh s21 killing_fields khmer_rouge Comments (0)

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