Friday, December 10, 2010

Genocide, Rocket Lanunchers and Buddha: Just Another Day in Cambodia

Howdy, ladies and gents! Today I am writing this latest post from a bus headed from Phnom Penh to Kep. We have had our fun in the capital city, and it's time to get out and see some more of the country. (part has also been written in Kep now)

After breakfast at our usual spot, the Dragon Guest House a few doors down from where we were staying, Happy Guest House, we hired a tuk-tuk to take us around to see some of the sites around the city.  Now to those unfamiliar, tuk-tuks are a type of motorcycle taxi.  Unlike what I've been using in the Philippines where you have a motorcycle with a sidecar, these use a motorcycle with a tow-hitch to pull a rather large trailer with two opposing seats. Earlier today I saw one loaded with twelve people! Because of the increased load this puts on the air-cooled engine, they rig up a gravity fed system where a jug of water drips onto the engine to aid in cooling. That said, there is nothing added to increase the braking abilities with the added weight, so it's a good thing they never get above about 15 or 20mph! The drivers are also everywhere, and it's common to have at least three drivers come up to you and ask you “Tuk tuk??” even if you are riding bikes, haha.

Our first stop for the day was about 15km out of the city, the Choeung Ek Genocide Center, or as it is more popularly known, The Killing Fields.  This is where the Pol Pot regime murdered around 17,000 prisoners, generally innocent men women and children accused of being enemies of the state, and dumped them in mass graves.  This is a dark and bloody history, but very recent history. These killings took place from 1975-1979, if I remember my dates correctly.  Estimates for the total number of Cambodian citizens killed in the revolution range from 1-3 million, in a country that had a population of maybe 8-9 million at the time.

The monument itself is full of bones exhumed from the killing field.  About 9,000 bodies have been removed from the mass graves, and they are organized in this tower by bone type, age and gender.  To save on ammunition, prisoners were bound, blindfolded, and killed with axes and other tools, or beat to death with pieces of bamboo.

Many of the mass graves have been left untouched and remain for visitors to see.  Just like visiting the Nazi concentration camps, it is a very emotional and sobering place, but being Cambodia is much more raw. On the ground are literally shreds of clothing, teeth and bone fragments of the murdered, and the paths you walk wind between the dozens and dozens of holes where the bodies had been dug up from mass graves just thirty years ago.  So recent is this history, that the only person tried and convicted of crimes at the site was sentenced in July of this year.

After that, Nick and I decided on something a little more fun, and headed off to the shooting range.  What you may have heard is true: in Cambodia, you can pay to shoot machine guns, throw a grenade or fire a rocket launcher.  I don't know the legality of this or who runs it, but they wouldn't let me take pictures. The site however, is right around the corner from a military base (what this is a photo of) and not far out of town.

I suppose it is mostly aimed (no pun intended) at tourists who have no access to firearms, unlike us crazy Americans. Some prices were totally insane, such as $30 for 10-rounds of .22 through a Ruger 10/22 rifle, or $30 for 5-rounds through a 12-gauge shotgun. For $50 you can fire 30 rounds through M-16s and AK-47s, full auto, and for $80 you can put 30-50 rounds through a high caliber machine gun.  On the explosives side, you can throw a grenade or fire a grenade launcher for $50, or for a whopping $350 you can fire a rocket launcher.  The best part of it all, is that when you arrive, they pass out a 'menu' with pictures and prices, haha. Well, it seemed like fun, but given the prices both Nick and I opted out and didn't shoot anything, but maybe there are cheaper ranges further out in the country, who knows.

Given that we had run out of time to see the National Museum like we were planning, we walked around the city and ended up in a mall to get some food.  At the top level of the mall was a rollerblading rink, which predictably was just as chaotic as the roads here in Cambodia.  There were however a few guys who were really good, doing 540s and flips over 3-4 of their friends.  The top of the mall also had a nice view of the city, they yellow domed building here being the central market.

In the evening, we headed out on our usual late-night food search, leaving behind the normal tourist places on the riverfront and finding a wonderful local place, where we had our usual feast for around $9 or $10 for all three of us. The baby cow was particularly tasty!

The next day, we rented bikes again and made it out to the National Museum, which contains the largest collection of Khmer artifacts.  The building and grounds are quite nice, with a lush courtyard in the center with the artifacts circling it under cover.

The bulk of the artifacts were statues, and rather unsurprisingly, about half of the statues and images were of the Buddha.

From the museum, we returned to the Thai embassy to pick up our visas.  Our slip said to come at 3pm, as the time they hand visas out was supposed to be 3-4:30pm.  We showed up early, around 2:30 with high hopes of getting it early and going on with our day. We probably should have known better, and waited around for hours, since nothing seemed ready.  The place filled up, and everyone was waiting around impatiently for something to happen, but often during the supposed 'visa passing out period' there wasn't even anyone in the office. Around 4:45pm they finally came back in with a big stack of passports and paperwork, and Nick rushed to the window, sort of pushing in (as there was simply no line), handed them our slip and they returned out passports with our two month visas! The whole process took maybe 30 seconds. It was good to know our 'bribe' paid off, because we were not to keen on hanging out in the city another 4 days. Visas in hand, we headed out to a local restaurant to celebrate.

The passports of travelers, oh the places we've been, and the places yet to go. Exciting stuff. (though it is annoying when a country takes up a whole page for their visa...)

The next morning we caught a bus to Kep, which was a roughly 4 hour ride on a mix of pavement and dirt roads. Just getting out of town took 30 or 45 minutes and would have probably been faster on a bike, and certainly faster on a motorcycle. But, the bus ride was not bad at all, and towards the end we started getting into some hills, which I was excited to see since Phnom Penh is very very flat.

Once arriving in Kep, we realized it was a pretty small place without much to do. They had trucked some sand to create a beach, and Nick and Ellen got their first taste of ocean on their whole trip, since they'd bee inland this whole time until today. 

The Lonely Planet describes Kep as “famed for its spectacular sunsets and splendid seafood.” On day one at least, we have found this far from the truth.  We headed to the 'crab market' where we were greeted by absurdly overpriced restaurants selling meals for $5+, a huge change from what we have been paying and are willing to pay.  Nick did buy a fish on a stick at one of the cheap stalls, but it was boney, oily and not very tasty. We ended up giving it to some stray dogs.  The sunset was also pretty weak, but hey, it's the first day.

Tomorrow, we are headed to Rabbit Island, were we may spend a few days on the beach in some rustic huts. Looking forward to it!

(oh, and since people have asked, my stomach problems are pretty much solved)