Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Royal Palace and the Killing Fields

[Thursday, January 5th, 12:10 pm, Cambodia time]

Usually it starts to get light around 6 am, but not today. When I walked out to the reception around 6:30 am, I saw that the AMA Waterways ship, La Margarite, is now moored next to us. The receptionist invited me to explore the other ship, so I walked around. The ship is somewhat smaller, with only 70 or so cabins. When I went up to the sundeck, I waved over to Carl, Steve, and Terri, who were smoking on the deck of the Amalotus. "Traitor!" "Mutineer!" they called back, laughingly. I hadn't seen a single passenger, but the receptionist said there only 30 or so on the ship and they were all sleeping.

About the ship, in comparison to Celebrity Xpedition, which dad rates a 10, he gives this a 7. I think the cabins on this ship are nicer than the ones we had in the Galapagos, but the Celebrity did a lot more for us. For example, on the Celebrity Xpedition, every time we came back from an excursion they gave us a wash cloth, hors d'ouevres, little sandwiches, and a small bar. Here, they give us the wash cloth and a "cocktail" that looks and tastes like melted jello.

On the Celebrity Xpedition, the dining hall was mostly buffet, with various stations. Here they have a small breakfast buffet and at lunch and dinner, most of the courses are ordered off the menu. I've generally been pleased with the main courses, though the desserts have been mediocre at best. The good news is that I'm not going to get fat splurging on cakes.

Dad asked for bananas at breakfast, and they brought him a plate of six small ones and one large one. I said it was a Barry Bonds banana. There weren't a lot of people at breakfast: about half the ship is either under the weather or recovering.

The morning expedition was to the Royal Palace. The buildings are quite exotic and beautiful, and while we would normally visit the palace, the ceremonial rooms were closed to tourists today. Based on the flags on display, the king will be greeting a delegation from the European Union later today.

Instead, we went to the Silver Pagoda. The guide explained that when the French came to Cambodia they introduced paper money to replace silver, so the Cambodians melted silver down and paved the floor with it. Dad stayed outside while I took of my shoes and went in. The centerpiece is the emerald buddha, which a three-foot tall meditating buddha carved out of solid emerald. In front was a standing figure coated in gold decorated in over 280 diamonds, the largest of which is 24 karats. The cases along the wall contained various silver and gold items. I have to say, I found it more interesting and impressive than the crown jewels in the Tower of London.

Afterwards, we toured the National Museum and saw many of the fine statues and carvings that were found in Angkor Wat and elsewhere, but the highlight for me was chatting with a group of Cambodian college students in the garden at the end. They were all posing for pictures by the koi ponds and one dropped his camera case. I pointed it out to them and we had a brief chat. They are studying archaeology at the university in Phnom Penh. The one who spoke the best English was from Kompong Thom, so I mentioned we had driven through it. One girl asked him something in Khmer and so he asked me if I had been to Kompong Chhnang. I said yes. He asked what I liked best there. That was a tough one because it's hard for me to remember all the Cambodian names of the places we've been. I named the floating village and the monastery at Kompong Trelach, and they seemed to recognize my confused pronunciations.

Our last stop was the Central Market, where we had done so much shopping yesterday. Dad finally broke down and bought sunglasses. I suggested the Rayban aviators, so she had him try on a pair that were polarized. How much? I asked. "$20" We eventually bargained it down to $16. Later I convinced dad to buy a polo shirt, which we bought for $6. Then we caught an early bus back to the ship.

[Update: 8:15 pm]

The desserts at this lunch were slightly more appetizing then usual. I tried the khmer pastries and some were actually good. Dad ordered an ice cream (not on the menu) and they wouldn't bring him one.

After lunch, while we were waiting to go to the killing fields of Cheung Ek and Tuol Sleng prison, the person I'm calling Mr. Krohbuy sat down by me and started a conversation. I asked him what he thought of the Royal Palace and he started complaining about how the Cambodians had chosen the wrong religion. Why Hindiuism? he asked. "Look what it's done to India. And then they exchanged it for Buddhism. You would think," he went on, "that they would learn from their mistakes." He went on complaining about the entire country had nothing good in it and this stemmed from their mistaken to the failed religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. "Where has it got them?" he kept saying.

I have to admit, this caught me off guard despite being warned about his tendency to make offensive comments. I suggested that the last 2000 years of European history didn't suggestion their adoption of Christianity was that wise, but he dismissed that with a wave of his hand. The other gentleman sitting with us, who is in Mr. Krohbuy's group, suggested we end the conversation, so I quickly shifted the topic to the Royal Palace.

On the road to Cheung Ek, our guide told us of his family's plight during the Khmer Rouge era. One of his older sisters died from malnutrition, and two of his brothers were murdered or died in unknown circumstances. His entire family came within a day of execution when his father, the village healer, was arrested. The villager who arrested him hoped to get a promotion from this act, but his mother turned out to be a patient and told her son he had to choose between getting a promotion and his mother staying alive. That night he released our guide's father.

At Cheung Ek, and later at Tuol Sleng prison, our guide only accompanied us from the outside; he didn't enter the main part of the killing fields or the rooms of the prison. While he said this was because of the need to keep a respectful silence, I noticed that all the other guards went in and talked. I got the distinct impression that he couldn't face the images or the spaces.

Prisoners were brought to Cheung Ek in trucks at night, chained to the ground, and then executed, usually with axes or sticks to the back of the head. Over 17,000 people were murdered in this place and they are still finding pieces of bones and scraps of clothing. I could see the occasional rag that might have been someone's shirt. Several of the pits were still quite distinct, though thankfully no bones were protruding from the ground (which still happens after it rains).

In the center is a tall tower with a pagoda top. The sides of the tower are glass doors, and in the middle are shelves filled with skulls and bones, with clothing piled up on the bottom. These are the bones that have been unearthed at the site. The pagoda is a Buddhist shrine, so one must remove shoes and hat before approaching.

I had a conversation with our guide afterward about the site. I asked if the tall shrine was a kind of stupa (funerary monument that often contains the ashes of those who have died) and he said yes. I asked about how people felt about the bones of those murdered being on display. He said that every year Buddhist monks come here to pray for those murdered in this place, and that surviving family members also regularly come here to pray for their loved ones.

I asked him how he would feel if the bones of one of his friends or family were on display here and he said that he would feel fine, that Cambodians are not offended by this public display and feel that this is important to demonstrate the history of what happened here.

Our next stop was the Tuol Sleng prison. I assign a book about this prison to my students so I've read a fair amount about it. One of the things that struck me walking through it was how similar the architecture of prisons is. It's as if they all went to some infernal graduate school specializing in how to create soul-crushing cells.

At the end, I was able to buy two books, one containing the paintings done by Van Nath, one of the 7 survivors of the prison and whose work depicts the various ways prisoners were tortured. I particularly need this book for my Comparative Genocide class this spring.

On the way back, our guide told us about the efforts to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership to trial, and the problems they've faced in doing it. One particular problem is the fact that many people active in the Khmer Rouge are still involved in Cambodian politics today, raising difficult questions about their responsibility.

Dinner tonight was so-so. I didn't care for the Cambodian salad; it just tasted off. The soup and main course were good, as they typically have been (I had the pan-fried fish with tamarind sauce), but the desserts, as usual were lousy. Dad again special ordered ice cream (chocolate), but this time they gave it to him. I had the pumpkin custard with sticky rice; the sticky rice were by far the best. The custard was grayish and blah and stuck inside a slice of cooked pumpkin.

Tomorrow we sail down the Mekong for the Cambodian/Vietnamese border, with the border crossing expected to take at least 2 hours. The ship is taking care of all of it, so we don't have to do anything. At the same time, though, there will not be any shore excursions tomorrow. Instead, they are offering a Vietnamese cooking class "for the ladies," and then an ice cream party in the afternoon, at which time they are going to try to lure people into publicly singing.

1 comment:

Steve said...

My friend Sheryl notes you were at the Killing Fields at the same time and probably ate at the same restaurants in Siem Riep. She's also enjoying reading your blog. You two should get together back in LA and swap stories about Frau Bloocher and the like. :-D