Back to the hustle and bustle and dirt of a big city, we returned to Phnom Penh. After listening to hours of Cambodian karaoke videos on the bus ride from Koh Kong (totally normal), we had learned a lot about Khmer culture, but were ready for some quiet relaxation. We settled into our hotel, far from the tourist area by the river, but chosen for its proximity (2 blocks) from Chabad. By now, we had figured out that calling the hotel and booking directly saves us a little cash, and Jockey Hotel was pretty good value for $18/night.
Kabbalat Shabbat and dinner at Chabad of Cambodia were very different than our last Chabad Shabbat experience. Housed in a villa on a quiet street, they have a hard time making a minyan, especially on a pre-chag week. In addition to the Rabbi and his family, some local Israelis, local non-Israelis, and a few tourists such as ourselves, they had just received two young men – reinforcements from Chabad HQ, there to help with the upcoming holiday. After a lively Kabbalat Shabbat, we all sat down to dinner – a three course meal complete with gefilte fish, salads, rice, chicken and fruit. We met some nice people, including Kobi (from last Shabbat)’s Sihanoukville falafel-shop-owner counterpart, Yaniv, and a nice Israeli couple, Tsuri and Sivan, who we quickly befriended.
Shabbat morning, not having a minyan, was pretty relaxed. The men went upstairs for about an hour to daven and we sat down to a nice lunch at around 12:30pm. Lunch was friendly, laid-back and we sat around the table schmoozing until around 2:30pm when we retreated back to our hotel for a nap.
We went back just before the end of Shabbat, but mostly for the company and ended up sharing a tuktuk (yes, all seven of us at once) to the river front/ night market. The night market was an area full of stalls selling clothes, souvenirs, and food. After walking around and exploring the scene, we were ready to sit and have a cold drink/ice cream with our new friends.
We dedicated Sunday to exploring Phnom Penh which we quickly discovered was our least favorite place so far on the trip. It’s a dirty place, sidewalks are full of stuff and trash is everywhere, the tuktuks and motos are obnoxious and in-your-face, and its definitely not a pretty place by any stretch of the imagination. Still, a quick walk away, we explored the central market where we got lunch – dragon fruit waffles and fresh roasted chestnuts ($1) . In an effort to escape the sticky heat, we went to the nearby shopping malls and quickly found the $3000 massage chairs on display (think Brookstone) which we relaxed in for about 20 minutes – a highlight of our Phnom Penh experience.
Jordan had been after Felix for weeks now to get his haircut (Sound familiar to any of you who knew him when he had long hair? – good thing we met after that). When we passed by a swanky looking salon and we found out a haircut only cost $3, there were no more excuses. The barber did a great job and it was definitely one of the better haircuts Felix has gotten. We decided to go to Vitking House, the sister restaurant of the vegetarian restaurant we loved in Siem Reap, for dinner, and it did not disappoint. We enjoyed our lovely rooftop dinner, and even got to practice our Khmer a little!
On Monday, we focused on learning about the Cambodian Genocide and the modern Cambodian history. We were extremely fortunate to know someone who knows someone (Thanks, David!), and so we got to meet one of the people shaping this history today. More about that in a bit, but through our connection, we had planned to spend the day with the staff of DC-Cam, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an NGO focused on documenting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge era and educating Cambodians today on their complex history.
We began the tour at Toul Sleng (S-21), a former high school, turned into a prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge. Located in the heart of Phnom Penh, this almost well preserved site is today a major tourist attraction, sadly mostly for foreigners. We heard from Terith and Savina, our guides for the day, about what took place here in the 70s, and also about their work today to preserve and document what happened. It was really special to learn about this from the people who are in charge of writing the history books, and who have conducted firsthand interviews and research relating to the events. We also heard their personal stories – every Cambodian has some direct connection and story from that time. We saw torture chambers, the shackles used for prisoners’ feet, photos of inmates and guards, artwork, and some recently installed exhibits. On the way out, by a small cart with books, we met Chou Mey, a survivor, who makes his living today by selling his autobiography to visiting tourists. Something that we found remarkable is how brave he is to come back to a place everyday that was his hell thirty years ago.
Our next stop was Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields. This was the place where prisoners were transported to be executed. There were numerous mass graves with descriptions of those buried there such as “women and their babies” and “headless men “. In the center of the fields was a large mausoleum with ten stories of shelfs lined with hundreds of skulls. Our guides told us that during the rainy season, pieces of bones still surface from the dirt. Savina also mentioned that she once came to The Killing Fields on an especially hot afternoon and the stench of rotting flesh would engulf her each time there was a slight breeze. We saw piles of clothes taken from the prisoners upon their arrival. It was an eerie place and the closest thing that Jordan has seen to a concentration camp. It was hard to be there and see those things, but the most difficult thing was the fact that this was something that that Khmer Rouge did to their own people.
After an intense few hours, it was nice to get back into the air conditioned Prius and drive back into town for lunch at a California-Khmer fusion salad bar called Vego. Pricey, but totally worth it – we treated our new friends to a nice lunch ($6 pp). It was nice to eat fresh salad for the first time in a while, and chat about daily life.
Just a few minutes away, the DC-Cam office overlooks the Victory Monument, in a very nice part of town. After a tour of the office, we met the director of the institution, our initial connection here, Mr. Youk Chhang. One of Time Magazine’s 2007 most influential people of the year, Youk is a dynamic, eloquent, fascinating, intelligent and friendly guy. Our conversation lasted well over an hour, during which we heard his personal story, shared our thoughts about what we had seen and learned, talked about Israel and the Shoah, and just schmoozed about life and travels. One of the most interesting parts of our conversation was when Youk told us about Chou Mey, and how he survived Toul Sleng. The part of the story we had missed earlier in the day was that the Khmer Rouge tortured prisoners until they gave names of their “co-conspirators”, often their families, friends and neighbors. Mey was no exception, and the families of those whose names he gave consider him a “perpetrator”, while he himself, and the state, consider him a “victim”. This shed some light on the complexity of the situation, whereby the line between sides in this conflict is blurred, making it hard to define the role of individuals during that era. For this reason, Youk chose to hire only those born after the end of the conflict (from 1980 and on) for the DC-Cam staff, as they were all equally victims of that era, yet free from having played a part on any side.
After an intense day we went for a relaxing stroll along the riverfront, had some dinner, and purchased our bus tickets for Tuesday morning’s ride south to Kampot. We were so ready to get out of this city!
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