Cambodia Part Two

The people of Cambodia love to party, and though they are still emerging from a time when they had little to celebrate, Cambodians (Khmer) are said to have an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism. Their weddings, held in pink tents pitched on the street, go (loudly) into the wee, small hours and last for days. Even their funerals, which feature fireworks and brightly painted coffins, take place over several days.
The birthdays of the children at the orphanage tend not to be celebrated (some of them were born in villages where no birth records are kept).
However at the start of my second week there, the adopted daughter of NFO director Neville was turning eight.
At the house where all the volunteers stayed, everyone gathered for a much-appreciated dinner of spaghetti bolognese and waffles with ice-cream.
A cake bought in Phnom Penh followed, and while most of it was put in our stomachs, large quantities of creamy icing was smeared on a few faces as the meal ended in a food fight.
After dinner, we headed off to indulge in an activity seemingly as popular in Cambodia as it is in Caithness- karaoke.
Sat in individual booths, everyone gathered on couches in front of the TV as Khmer girls loaded the table with beer, fresh mango and peanuts.
Having always been strictly a spectator when it comes to karaoke, I was happy to take part in the eating and drinking side of things. It was interesting to say to the least to listen to Khmer singing, and rather a long night.
The rest of the week was fairly quiet, taken up with playing volleyball at the orphanage and exploring on my brake-free bicycle (which resulted in several near-misses with the traffic).
At the end of the week however, I had decided to do some travelling around Cambodia with another volunteer - Petia - who was from Australia and at the orphanage with her younger sister, Elisha. They were to meet their mum (who was volunteering for a few weeks too) in Phnom Penh at the weekend before Petia and I did a spot of sightseeing.
After a two-hour bus journey we arrived in the capital where we were bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers frantically looking for their next customers - they were literally climbing in the bus windows to get our attention.
After finally choosing a driver, we made our way to our accommodation and prepared to immerse ourselves in the dizzying sights and smells of the city.
Phnom Penh is really like any other bustling capital. There are areas that are dirty and dilapidaited and there are areas where sleek cafes and restaurants bustle with tourists, attracting people (including children) trying to sell books and sunglasses.
It of course also attracts beggars - some carrying signs that say they are a victim of landmines - others carrying small children who were often disfigured. It could make the experience in Phnom Penh a little uncomfortable at times.
While negotiating the traffic and politely dismissing the constant cries of “tuk-tuk?!” we headed first to the central market where, practising my haggling skills, I bought some souvenirs including silk bags and scarves.
After pounding the city streets a little more, we felt we deserved an hour-long massage and at $6 we felt our wallets could handle it.
We decided to go to a branch of Seeing Hands - a sort of chain of parlours scattered throughout Cambodia that employs blind masseurs.
At once ticklish and excruciating, the soporific effects of the massage (my first ever) made me dazed feel ever so slightly drunk.
Though it didn’t quite relieve all my aches and pains it certainly relaxed me and made me ready for bed, ready to once again take on Phnom Penh the next day and the lessons on Cambodia’s history held within it.
After going to another market, this time the more sprawling and crowded Russian Market, I decided to go to the Tuol Sleng Museum - a former high school that was taken over by Pol Pot and transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21).
Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) was the figurehead of the Khmer Rouge - a revolutionary movement that swept Cambodia and implemented one of the most brutal restructurings of society ever attempted. The regime, which lasted from April 1975 until January 1979, sought to wipe out all intellectuals. It destroyed cultural artefacts, statues, books and transformed Cambodia into a vast slave labour camp. At least 1.7 million people were killed under Khmer Rouge rule and the museum houses displays photographs of just a few of them.
The museum (which was the largest incarceration centre in the country) was made up of the school’s three large buildings, its classrooms turned into torture chambers that still contained beds and shackles. Every room looked like a scene from a horror film, except here the script could be found in the pages of history books.
The echoes of the victims seemed to fill the corridors, mingling with those of the children who were once taught here. It definitely felt haunted.
Most of the 17,000 people who were held at S-21 were executed at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, located several miles outside Phnom Penh, which I actually visited a couple of weeks after going to S-21.
It was hard to imagine what had gone on in the area all those years ago - its grassy hillocks now a playground for butterflies and dragonflies - but a monument holding skulls and bones of the victims served as a humbling memento mori.
Rags of clothes lying around, embedded in the small excavated craters that were once mass graves, too acted as a reminder of what had happened there.
The day after visiting S-21, Petia, Elisha, their mum (who had arrived the night before) were going on a food delivery service set up by a group of British, Australian and American ex-pats who now lived in Phnom Penh.
The day involved bagging up rice, sugar, soy sauce, fruit and washing powder and donating them to people in the countryside. Staying in wooden huts on the side of the road, the families lived alongside lush, green rice fields but were incredibly poor.
The group visits different villages every week and also provided some basic medical care such as treating lice, scabies and dehydration.
It was a slightly uncomfortable experience but certainly a worthwhile one.
I in fact went on the food run again a couple of weeks later, at New Year.
As the truck in which we all piled into back of pulled off, the children of the village ran behind us, waving frantically as the dust flew up into air.
Back in Phnom Penh, it was Petia’s and my last night in the city before doing some travelling. We had a barbeque dinner and a few drinks before getting a good night’s sleep. The temples of Angkor - seen as the cultural and spiritual heart of Cambodia - awaited us in the morning.


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