The friendliness of the Cambodian people is in stark contrast to the savagery of their recent history. After visiting what remains of the Cambodian civilization at its climax during my visit to the Royal Palace and National Museum yesterday, today I explored their history at its lowliest. A powerful and sobering two days for me.
My firs stop was the Tuol Sleng Museum better known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This site used to be a public high school before the Khmer Rouge took power. In 1975 it was then turned into a concentration camp and torturous prison designed to produce confessions from the enemies of Pol Pot who were, more often than not, Cambodian. Even today the place still reeks of decay. The high profile prisoners were held in their own former classrooms tied down to wire beds and forced to defecate on themselves. The rest of the prisoners where held in mass on the second and third floors of the buildings. If remember right only 14 people survived S-21 while the rest either died there or were taken to the nearby Killing Fields for execution. During its peak S-21 averaged about 100 victims per day.
After the S-21 I was very hungry and good thing too. My bad first experiences with Cambodian food the previous day put me in the mood for a quality Cambodian style meal. Unfortunately I think thats exactly what I got. The restaurant was empty except for me and was open to the road as seems to be the style. The menu was written completely in Khmer so I did what I always do in this situation, I asked the server what they like to eat. He didn’t speak much English but was able to recommend the most expensive thing on the menu, typical. Thats fine, it may very well be his favorite after all and I was in need of a good meal!
It was the most expensive thing on the menu because it was beef. Beef is relatively expensive in most of Asia and so far, Cambodia seems to be no exception. The waiter, in broken English, told me it was “Beef with red ants eggs,” sure I thought. I’m game. Eggs certainly don’t sound too bad and I always like trying something new. However, there were no red ant eggs to be found, only red ants! At first all I saw was an insect wing sticking out of one of my food. I was about to chalk it up to poor hygiene in the kitchen until I looked a little closer. The entire sauce was made of red ants. There must have been a hive and half in there. Oh well, good thing I was hungry.
After you stopped looking at the stuff the taste was actually quite nice. The beef was very juicy and the sauce was a kind of sweet teriyaki flavor. The ants themselves were not as crunchy as I had thought they would be. Perhaps they boiled them in the sauce to soften them? I tried eating a few of the ants by themselves to isolate the flavor as best I could. What I got out of it was that they had a very mild spice to them and that the texture was actually quite palatable.
In Cambodia anything that is edible is fair game. In their recent past they have been through so many famines that eating anything with calories has become a part of their culinary culture. I like the opened mindedness of it all and the meal, while not what I was expecting, tasted fine.
Next stop was the Killing Fields. I hired a moto taxi to take me as it was a little ways outside of town. My driver insisted on coming into the Fields with me. Perhaps he thought I might not come back to pay him or maybe he just wanted to ensure my business for the ride home? In any case, I don’t think that he had ever been there before. The Killing Fields, as a tourists attraction, have been highly criticized on the international level for being run by a private Japanese company. Again, Cambodia is quite corrupt and I am sure that some politician is making a good kick back. The Killing Fields themselves are such a painful reminded to Cambodians about their dark past but the fact that they themselves are not allowed to profit from it is just insult to injury. Moving on.
It was quite interesting seeing the reactions of my random taxi driver as we read the memorial plaques and informational signs together, his in Khmer and mine in English. He seemed to take it pretty hard. I had thought about asking to take his picture but he was in a fairly emotional state and I didn’t want to be rude.
The Killing Fields are where over 17,000 Cambodians lost their lives at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Many of them were former prisoners at S-21. While most of the graves have been exhumed and the remains placed in a newly built memorial stupa, to walk through the Kill Fields is to be walking on people. Every year the summer monsoon rains come and reveal a previously undiscovered mass grave or two. There are literally bones and clothes coming out of the ground all around the place. Particularly disturbing was the Killing Tree where infants were held by the legs and beaten against its trunk before being thrown into the nearby hole. In a glass case is a large pile of dirty baby clothes recovered from the same hole.
After such a emotionally charged day I decided I needed to end it somewhat peacefully and had my driver drop me off at Wat Phnom at the center of town. This was a great place for people watching and I again cursed myself for not having a better quality camera to capture the Cambodians at play in the park. There were several elephants getting a bath and vendors selling small toys and kites.
Nearby to Wat Phnom I went for my first of many massages in Cambodia and Thailand. I had been too worried about trying to find a legitimate masseuses in Vietnam to ever take the plunge. However, in Cambodia I new of a non-profit massage parlor called “The Healing Hands.” They train blind people who would otherwise not have any legitimate means of income to be professional masseuses. Some of them were born blind while others lost their sight due to Agent Orange or land mines. My masseuses spoke excellent English and seemed well educated. One hour set me back about six bucks. More expensive than most but its for a good cause and I knew I didn’t have to worry about too much sleaze. Plus my back really needed the attention. After carrying a backpack around 24/7 for the last four weeks the massage was a wonderful indulgence.