I don’t quite know how to describe this. The inside of the stupa is filled with nearly 8000 skulls. Almost all show signs of blunt force trauma, usually from farming tools.
Well. Today has been a surreal experience. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, there was a stampede last night on a bridge near the waterfront. Phnom Penh has been celebrating the water festival, but after thus happened, the city has gone into mourning. Everyone is very quiet. There are few cars and tuk tuk on the streets. Garbage from last night is everywhere.
This morning, I got up early and was one of the first people to go to the killing fields. This is the place where the kmer rouge brutally killed over 20,000 people, mainly by clubbing or stabbing them. It is an emotional place, especially when you are nearly alone there. It is also a beautiful, pastoral, and verdant place dotted with excavated mass graves.
There is one place that really effected me above all others. Next to the tree where countless infants were brutally murdered, there is a small area where the grass hasn’t yet grown. Sticking up through the soil is what looks like litter. But, on closer inspection, it is clothing. The clothing of those killed here is still in the ground and every time a heavy rainfalls, it comes to the surface.
I lost it.
In front of about 10 Russian tourists, each the size of a small house, their many chins bright pink with sunburn. So, I’m standing there, crying, being stared down by a sizable iron curtain of pasty flesh, when I suddenly start laughing. A memory came back to me from left field.
I remembered when I was in high school and my mom had a little midlife crisis. She wanted to break with the past and so she decided to burn all of her clothes from the 1970s. Big mistake. Those clothes were polyester and melted together into some sort of plastic nuggets. I imagine, they are still there.
I looked like an idiot now. Staring. Blinking Russians on all sides of me. Slowly. Carefully. They backed away from the crazy guy and continued their tour.
That was my day.
So, I am in heavy reflection mode tonight. I came on this trip to figure out a few things. Why I can’t make art anymore. If I should go back to school for landscape architecture. On and on. But, after going to Toul Sleng, and getting a tiny, outsider glimpse of the darkest chapter of late 20th century human history, my decisions aren’t so big.
Right now, I am in the capital of Cambodia, a city of almost 2 million people. 35 years ago this city was completely empty. It’s citizens were forced into what amounts to slave labor or faced torture and certain death.
That was a blink of an eye ago.
A little bit ago, I was writing on the patio of the hotel and was also talking to Arun, one of the young men employed by the hotel. Today is his birthday. He is 33 years old. That means his parents survived the he’ll on earth that was the khmer rouge. He was born at the tail end of a genocide that I can’t even imagine.
But, still, he has been incredibly warm, kind, and friendly. A type of resilient nature I don’t think I could ever be strong enough to tap into.
This is the only photo I am going to post of the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Originally, this was a school. Under the Khmer Rouge, it was turned into a prison where many many Cambodians were tortured and murdered to fulfill Pol Pot’s demented fantasy of an agrarian socialist state. People were brought here for a myriad of reasons: they were educated, spoke French, or even wore glasses.
I was very conflicted about bringing my camera here. But, in the end, my new Canadian friend is right, it is a piece of Cambodia and a piece of history that should be visited, documented, and always remembered.
Somehow, I survived the three day, boat-bus-boat-bus-boat trip up the Mekong and into the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. I really like this city so far, friendly people, smiles, new friends, and I’m also smitten with the city’s name meaning “Penh’s Hill”. But before I get to Cambodia, there is a huge chunk of Vietnam I need to address…
I left Saigon on a bus four days ago. As an architecture and planning buff, watching the city fade away was amazing. Mostly because it didn’t. The Vietnamese have taken up the development practice of building up each side of the highway like it is in the middle of a city. Never mind that this density only stretches back one or two rows of buildings. If you leave Saigon by bus it is nearly impossible to see you have left Saigon.
However, we eventually made our way out into relative countryside and visited a coconut candy factory. Now. I hate coconuts. I also hate snakes. So, naturally, what could be better than a coconut factory with a pet giant python? Well, for this guy, a flaming slice of hell sounds a bit better… somehow, I made it through snake land and had a great time making new friends and getting drenched in the daily tropical downpour.
Perhaps the greatest concept of solo travel is the process of making new friends while you’re out there, drenched in sweat, ass killing you from the steel bench you’ve been sitting on for the last four hours. So far this has been the best trip I’ve taken for meeting new folks… Back in Chau Doc, two nights ago, the entire english speaking world was gathered around one small, moist, noodle and fish laden table. Excellent.
This of course stands in stark contrast to the phenomenon of the Bitch Backpacker. Relatively new to the scene (I don’t remember these people on my last solo trip) the bitch backpacker is a thing of wonder. Almost always traveling with their significant other, these people pride themselves on how far and how cheaply they can go. They’re easy to spot: look for the towering, $500 backpack and a smattering of cliche souvenirs they bought on their…. journey. These people will not speak to you. They’re too busy plotting how to get that street vendor to sell them a conical shaped hat for 50 cents not the 75 cent asking price… thus humiliating the already desperate person who’s country they are a guest in. Such precious assholes.