A Jaguar saves the Day
We nixed the slow boat to the floating villages or the dubious speed boats along the lake. Our options for transit to Phnom Penh were a new bus with wifi and no toilet, or an older bus with toilet but no wifi. We opted for the former. We headed out with the hipsters and hoped our digestive tracts cooperated for the trips’ duration.
Barreling down the “highway”, water bottles at the ready in climate controlled comfort and I-pads sending photos home, we occasionally looked up to see houses hugging the road along with ducks, pigs, chickens and children. The rice fields extended far outward. Only the occasional palm tree broke the horizon line.
Arriving in Phnom Penh, I waved off the touts to collect my thoughts as Michele called the hotel to check on available transport. Within minutes a Jaguar XJ6 appeared, and we slide across leather seats into the lap of aging luxury right up to the gates of the Pavilion Hotel. Given the history of horror in this town, this was totally absurd. As an artificial oasis in a corrupt capital, we had invested in this hotel as a buffer from the harshness of unknown surroundings. I was planning on visiting a site of past atrocities… and this hotel was the retreat I might need to handle a dreadful awakening to another example of humanity’s cruelty. A large pool with cabanas was just steps away in our flip flops. We were “Swimming to Cambodia” using very different strokes.
An evening stroll along the Mekong took us past the Royal Palace and the memorial to the deceased King, a man who ruled while Pol Pot ravaged the country. Mourners placed bouquets beneath his large portrait honoring his life if not his grace under pressure.
On the boulevard, we settled on a restaurant since further exploration meant stepping around an impoverished woman on the sidewalk. It was too much reality in one dose trying to rationalize inequity, and ration compassion. We ate without much enthusiasm as The Buena Vista Social Club selections played over the sound system.
83 Street 240,
Oknha Chhun, Phnom Penh
A Night at the Street Opera
Next to a row of boutique shops on street #240, the Daughters of Cambodia restaurant trains young woman in the hospitality trade, though the organizers do not restrain these trainees from working the streets. They offer the young women positive options for the future. The director was a young, earnest and vivacious woman from Tacoma Washington. She did point out the overwhelming dependence of Cambodia on NGO funding. And all this help when the country has a hard time bringing the perpetrators of massive killings to trial.
The National Museum has an enlightening collection of large Steles, Buddha figures and most striking, a large bronze sculpture of Vishnu from Angkor Wat.
I was so used to statuary stonework, that this partial figure with head, shoulders and arms got me wondering what other remarkable pieces might be scattered around the globe by both legal and illegal trade. On my way out, I glanced at a small photo on a wall…a group photo of museum personnel. The caption noted all were killed by the Pol Pot regime.
We returned after dark to sit on bleacher seats outside the Museum walls and watch a live opera performed by students. The director was a survivor of the horrific period, and set himself on a mission to make sure a traditional art form was not lost. The folk tale put to music touched on themes of trust and betrayal, love and sacrifice and the tensions between leaders and followers of differing class.
A Tuk Tuk ride this side of Hell
A tuk-tuk driver drove me out of town, through bumpy short cuts and dusty roads to the edge of a hell, the memorial Killing Fields. On a self guided audio tour, I moved at my own pace passing grim sites where structures once stood, holes in the ground where bodies were piled, sidestepping around scraps of clothing still emerging from the inferno below. Not in the least cooled by the rain that eroded the soil around them, the fragments carry like talismans the burning horror in their warp and weave. To look at them is to feel the threads sear your conscience. Yet some hope still exists if you listen to the extended recordings in which survivors share their songs and readings.
An enormous tree is covered at its trunk with ribbons of colored cloth, evidence of prayers extended to the dead. A Khmer Rouge leader recently on trial, on returning to the Killing Tree (where childrens’ heads had been bashed in as parents were forced to look on and loudspeakers hanging from the branches blared music to hide the screams of anguish), wept and apologized.
Lunch at the Friends restaurant that supports street youth was well worth the wait. Their Friends ‘n Stuff shop sells crafts that we found suitable for compact travel. At least we were giving a little support for the cause of psychic repair and economic recovery.
Moving from the Killing Fields to the Royal Palace is enough to make any head spin. The Gold Buddha with encrusted jewels sits without blinking an eye at the poverty outside the walls. A giant gold stuppa was being constructed for the King’s funeral and it appeared the government was sparing no expense.