Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Travels with M&M, Part 2: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Time to fill you in on some more of our Christmas break trip! As a short recap - we went on a trip with two of our friends for the first 8 or so days of our Christmas break. Our friends actually did most of the planning; we sort of jumped in partway through, and it was decided that it would be fun for us all to travel together, so we finished making the plans together. The last post I wrote covered our excursions in Laos - if you haven't read it yet, please do! Laos was our favorite of the two countries we visited, and Michael and I agree that we'd both like to go back sometime!

We took a bus from the 4000 islands area in Laos, crossed the border into Cambodia, and then traveled all the way to Phnom Penh on December 21. The world obviously didn't end, and to be honest, I would have been disappointed if it had, because spending 13 hours on a bus as our last day on earth would have been sort of a lame ending to the world, in my opinion!

Crossing the border was one of the most interesting parts of the day; the immigration building was not much more than a shack (although, to be fair, they were in the process of constructing what looked to be quite a grand immigration building!). We were asked to get out of the bus at the border, and the guy who was in charge had all of our passports/paperwork and spent the following 30 minutes running from one place to another in order to get the visas, stamps, etc. for everyone who was on our bus. In the meantime, we had to have a "health check". For the record, there's a reason that I put those words in quotation marks. There was a woman standing alongside the road with a thermometer, which looked oddly like a scanner in the checkout line of a grocery store, and we had to walk through in a single file line so she could aim the thermometer at our throats as we passed. I guess we all passed as healthy!

Once all the paperwork was finished, we settled back into the bus for the long haul. Literally. It took at least 10 hours to get to Phnom Penh from there, mostly because the roads are really bad! We were told that our bus was the VIP bus when we booked the tickets, and if it was, I feel very sorry for the people who make that trip on a bus that is not labeled VIP. The outside door didn't close properly, and most of the roads that we drove on were dirt roads. We spent a fair amount of time on that trip with handkerchiefs or shirt sleeves over our faces so that we didn't inhale too much dust! There was apparently a malfunction of some sort in the bathroom as well, so when it was possible to breathe without the aid of a filter, it smelled like a combination of dirt and sewage. So delightful!

The good part of that bus ride was the view. At least 8 of the hours that we were on the bus, we drove through pure countryside. There isn't much of a population in northern Cambodia; most of what we saw included farms and wilderness. It was really cool, and, like Laos, a refreshing view of something that was the complete opposite of Bangkok.

Our first impressions of Phnom Penh were not favorable. We pulled in at around 9:00 PM, and immediately were surrounded (hounded, really) by tuk-tuk drivers. They came running next to the bus as we pulled in, banging on the sides, and it was difficult to get off of the bus and get our luggage from underneath because the tuk-tuk drivers wouldn't leave enough room for us to move! We were tired and hungry because there wasn't a stop for dinner, and all we wanted was to get to our guesthouse. Eventually we were able to get all of our things, buy bus tickets for the next day, and find a tuk-tuk driver who wasn't rude or drunk to take us to our guesthouse. (We paid the tuk-tuk driver 50 cents - not too shabby!)

We were in for another surprise - our guesthouse was in a rather sketchy area of the city. The bar next door was called the "Horny Bar", and just down the street was the "Candy Lounge" - both of which creeped me out! We entered the guesthouse, and the guy behind the desk wasn't wearing a shirt or shoes, which told me that their service policy was probably pretty relaxed, to say the least! Fortunately, the rooms were relatively clean and had good locks on the doors. Kristi and I locked ourselves into one room and sent the guys out to get us dinner; we were both afraid of what we would encounter if we ventured out on the street that night!

The one good part of that night was the food. We had some sort of fried noodles in a gravy-like substance, and it was DELICIOUS. I could have eaten that stuff for the entire time we were in Cambodia and been quite happy about it. We tried to find it again the next day, but the restaurant wasn't open, and none of the other restaurants had anything like it.

The next day we caught a tuk-tuk to take us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a location that is formerly known as the S-21 prison. The location used to be a high school, prior to the Pol Pot regime. The school was turned into a prison in 1975, and for nearly 4 years it was used for "detention, interrogation, inhuman torture, and killing after confession from the detainees was received and documented" (according to the pamphlet that we received upon arrival at the museum). My experience at this museum was one of complete shock and horror. Prior to that day, I didn't know any of the history of Cambodia. I was shocked to silence, and the more I walked around the grounds, the more I thought to myself, "This place was evil. Pure evil." I couldn't shake that feeling, and as I sit and remember the experience, I'm still filled with a sort of dread and horror about what went on in those buildings. I've never been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, but I have a hunch that if you can imagine looking at the content of that museum while standing in Auschwitz, that might give you a picture of what this museum was like and how it affected us. It was awful, but I'm glad we went.

As Michael and I sat on a bench in the courtyard area, waiting for our friends to finish, Michael noticed a tree near us that had some fruit growing on it. We were struck with the thought that something so new, so full of life could grow in a place that was so dark and evil. We thought about how true it was in spiritual terms, too - how we once were full of darkness, overcome by evil and sin. Then Christ came and plucked us from our misery, giving us new life that grew from what was once dead. How amazing! What mercy and grace have been shown to us!

We took a walk by the river after we left the museum - we had thought about visiting the killing fields (also connected with Pol Pot's rule), but we were all so overwhelmed already that we decided to do something relaxing instead. The walkway was beautiful, wide, and open, and so very different from all the sidewalks and walkways in Bangkok! Early that afternoon we took another bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. In total, we spent less than 24 hours in Phnom Penh, but boy were there a lot of interesting experiences packed into those few hours!

Stay tuned for the rest of the story! The next time I write, I'll post our pictures of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, too.

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