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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

December: Cambodia - Jenny

Notice: Contains graphic content!

Tiny school girls wearing bright white shirts and blue plaid skirts wear their blue-black hair in tight pig-tails protruding from the sides of their head. They swing down a dirt path touching shoulders and toting backpacks , oblivious of and accustomed to the white bull lazing a few feet away in the sprawling dusty field. Arriving in Cambodia and meeting our smiling and friendly tuk tuk driver in Siam Riep, we let out a deep breath of air from our stale lungs. Cambodia would be a different place from Northern Vietnam. We hit Siam Riep around Christmas time. Despite our non-Christian status, we longed for a little Christmas caroling and baby Jesus. Well, we found Cambodian massage therapists with Santa Claus hats, and a Christmas dinner that was complete with mashed potatoes, chicken and cranberry sauce. And an Angelina Jolie cocktail. We spent an afternoon touring a silk farm which proved to be another one of those mysteries solved. The silk worm may die at the hands of man, but their short 37-day lives are immortalized in beauty, some of which will be in the form of throw pillows on our couch. Brett loves throw pillows. Especially on beds. When he gets to arrange them as part of making the bed every day. We rented clunker bikes and took a day riding around Angkor Wat, Bayon and Angkor Thom, best known to Americans as the place where the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider was filmed. These 1,000 year old stone temples are the remains of a city that was built over centuries by the Kmher Buddhists and Hindus, changing hands depending on the Jayavarman (J) ruler and religion of the day. The best evidence of this was the absolute lack of heads on all Buddha statues, which had been chopped off by the Hindu J VIII. Many of the ruins have all but been reclaimed by the surrounding jungles, sporting Banyan trees whose serpentine roots and trunks grow atop and throughout the crumbling rock structures.

On to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and with a reputation as the prettiest city in Southeast Asia. We couchsurfed with Sam, a Cambodian native who studied development work in New Zealand and returned to Cambodia to apply his skills. He is well-spoken and driven. He is openly gay and is creating social and mentoring programs for gay men and HIV+ people in Phnom Penh. Sam is a force of nature. When asked what others can do to best help people in developing countries, he suggested to ask them what they want to do, and just support them in meeting their goals. Ideally, mentoring is best done by those with similar cultural values and backgrounds. Any help or change must be grounded in the recipient's own culture and social structure.

While in Phnom Penh we visited the horrific killing fields and Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as the S-21 torture site. The Khmer Rouge tortured and killed 20,000 of the Cambodian Khmers at this site. (The estimated total number of people killed by the Khmer Rouge is around 1.4 million, whether by murder or starvation.) Standing in the grassy center of an old high school building cum prison, one can imagine the sticky blood running across the floors and down the outside walls of the torture rooms, smell the stench of skin burning and bodies decaying, hear the cries of mothers as they watched their children being thrown against tree trunks or thrown up in the air and shot, and the shrieks and cries of the tortured falling deaf upon the empty city. The Khmer killed anyone with an education. Anyone who wore spectacles was fair game. First they were tortured, each and every one of them, so that their family members could be identified and also killed. They were forced to eat feces, recieve electric shocks, hang in painful positions, have their livers cut out while they were alive. They were seldom shot, but usually hit with blunt instruments or cut with razor-like palm fronds so as to save bullets. To this day when the area gets a lot of rain, remnants float to the top of the shallow, teeth, bones. The most frightening thing about genocide of this kind is how so many human minds can be influenced to PARTICIPATE in the torture and killing. What makes ordinary men mass murderers? Is it ground in fear, cowardess, peer pressure? Is human sense of morality that fragile, that easily manipulated and changed? And it is so widespread...Ottaman Empire, Russia, Germany, Rwanda, China, Cambodia, Borneo, East Timor...all in the last century.

Nonviolence means not only avoiding external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him. -Martin Luther King Jr.

We spent our last evening in Phnom Penh at a gay bar drinking coctails, where I met a Cambodian pharmacy student who had just finished a lecture in bioethics. Pharmaceutical ethics! The issues they studied were assuring knowledge and licensure of both modern pharmaceuticals and traditional practices, as well as avoiding the huge black market of counterfeit drugs. We said goodbye to Sam, and headed to the small coastal town of Kep, where we spent a few days eating freshly caught peppered crab, drinking wine, and watching the sun set over our next destination...the island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam.

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