Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Phenomenal Capital

We took a bus from Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh for a short visit before moving to Vietnam. It's a city with design remnants from the French, largely destroyed and unoccupied because of Cambodian government catastrophes under the Khmer Rouge, and now quickly becoming a crowded, cosmopolitan city with Cambodians and some international presence.

We noticed the contrasts in food, as usual! We found both food stands literally on the street with the motorbikes buzzing by us, serving from huge trays of pre-roasted insects, and calm cafes with health-focused vegetarian food. Walking around Cambodia we were constantly asked to buy something, which is the cost of visiting a place where everything is so cheap.

We went to visit the presidential palace and compound, a place that is clearly beautiful with a lot of time having gone into all the artful details. We did notice that even there, large murals on the walls were badly damaged from war and/or neglect. There were many features of elephants, in paintings and statues small and large, and we learned that elephants have always been part of life in Cambodia -- unfortunately, we were unable to identify any person or organization currently charged with their care and conservation. We hope the elephants here will continue to be a valued part of culture and society for a long time to come and get the respect and treatment they deserve.


As we were leaving the central government area, we encountered a small group of police gathered with what looked like only a few protesters with one sign. The group quickly swelled, with video and still cameras emerging out of nowhere and police encircling the people, holding hands to form a human fence. I think the heavy government presence to contain the civilians really drew a lot of attention to what was happening, which seemed pretty minor. Nevertheless, I can't deny it was a bit scary when at one point people started to run towards us.

We also saw the infamous high school where torture and killings took place under the Khmer Rouge regime; it has now been converted into a genocide museum, but many sections have been left intact so it's easy to imagine what it looked like in those years. Even having familiarized ourselves with the occurrences before, it definitely made it much more real to see firsthand, though it wasn't easy to face. One of the rooms had transparent boxes full of skeletons. It was good to see their focus on promoting peace in the exhibit and in Cambodia.


Finally, Diego found a kindred spirit in one of our tuk-tuk drivers who, he thought, had great style :)

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