Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Reconnecting with a Friend from Across the World in Phnom Pehn

Way back at the beginning of my travels, when I was still scared, when I was still figuring everything out, I decided to leave the relative familiarity of Peru after only a couple of weeks, and head for Bolivia, a place I hadn't researched at all beforehand but had heard I needed to visit from just about everyone I had met.  And in order to do so, I took what was sort of a terrifying bus ride at the time - the bus would arrive in the wee hours of the morning at a terminal, and I would need to then find the next bus that would take me into Bolivia, buy my ticket, and hopefully wind up in my intended destination.  These days such a plan wouldn't phase me at all, but at the time, I was sort of freaking out.  And somehow, as I was buying that ticket and waiting on that bus, I met a girl from Paris.   Over the next few weeks, she would become not only a friend but a travel mentor, passing on the lessons she had learned in her own past ten months of solo travel.  Once we parted ways, I was a far more confident and knowledgeable traveler, and I hoped that we would have the chance to see each other again one day.

Stephanie and myself at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia

Horseback riding in Tupiza, Bolivia

Fast forward many, many months later.  Stephanie had since returned to Paris and completed bar school (when I met her she had just finished law school), and she had snagged her dream internship with the UN tribunal in Cambodia.  And through some stroke of luck, she was arriving just as I was making my way through Laos and Vietnam.  As I sat on the bus making my way between Saigon and Phnom Pehn, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to see my old friend again, now that I had just as much travel experience under my belt as she had when we had first met, and to see how she had handled the transition back into the working world.  She had handled it beautifully, and I marveled at how she had managed to not only snag a dream opportunity in her field, but in a sense continue her travels by living and working as an expat in Cambodia.


After meeting at her apartment - a long space with high ceilings and beautiful details, but no windows aside from the very ends of the apartment, a common set up in Cambodia - we ventured out to explore a small market.  For about $1 each, we sat down to have our hair braided, then we snacked on delicious fresh spring rolls before heading back to freshen up for the evening.  We went over to the home of one of Stephanie's coworkers, where another coworker - from Italy - was teaching us how to make a huge batch of fresh gnocchi!  We dove into the process, mashing potatoes as they were boiled, then watching as she cleared a table and made two mountains of flour, cracking two eggs into each, along with half a portion of the potatoes.  We then went to work kneading the dough, rolling it out into long thin tubes, and cutting off the individual pieces like tiny pillows.  We imprinted the bits of dough with forks, then they were tossed into boiling water, finally married together with the homemade tomato sauce she was also making.  Finally we were able to sit down and devour the fruits of our labor.  Our already full bellies were then topped off by spicy shrimp that had been flambĂ©ed in bourbon, provided by one of the other participants.  


After sleeping in the next morning, we set out for a big, tasty Western breakfast.  Afterwards, we headed down the street to a spot called Friends, which helps marginalized youth in the community by giving them training and employment opportunities in the hospitality industry.  We picked up some simple necklaces at the store next door, also associated with the organization, then sat down at the restaurant for deliciously fresh juices, enjoying the fresh air on the patio.  Finally we walked along the riverside, enjoying the breeze and watching the locals out doing their exercises - using the fixed equipment that's so prevalent around Asia, walking, or doing aerobics.  As we continued along, I heard someone call my name from across the road - Lydia was there, enjoying a cider while Kate had gone for a massage!  They were planning on hiring a tuk tuk to visit the Killing Fields the following day, so we quickly made plans to meet up the following morning so I could join them while Stephanie was away at work.  

Riverside aerobics... and daycare.

After saying farewell, we walked through a sudden downpour to the night market, arriving just as the rain let up.  We walked through the stalls, jammed closely together with tarps extending out into the aisles to protect the items from the risk of rain, forcing me to duck every few steps.  We eventually reached the food section of the market, selecting noodle soups with chicken and sitting on the brightly colored mats lining the ground.  Later on that evening, we wandered back out to a spot close to Stephanie's apartment called Romdeng, a sister restaurant to Friends, grabbing the last open table for a light dinner.  I tried fig amok, a local specialty with fish marinated in a curry sauce and cooked in a banana leaf.

Early the next morning, I made the long walk back down to the riverfront to meet up with Lydia and Kate for a day exploring the recent, darker history of Cambodia.  We hired a tuk tuk to take us out to the Killing Fields, a long, dusty drive where we saw dozens of overloaded motorbikes and creative drivers weaving on and off the road to bypass the traffic.  A bright point was when we passed a small school letting out for lunch, the older children forming a barricade as the younger ones dashed across the street to meet their parents or grab street food during their break.  

Tables and chairs awaiting street food vendors and patrons.

Cambodian rush hour.

Schoolchildren waving at us as we slowly drove past.

Finally we arrived, paying our entry and picking up an audio guide for our visit.  Because of the somber nature of the place and the use of the audio guides, which included both detailed historical information and heart wrenching first-hand accounts, the atmosphere was quiet and respectful.  Learning some of the Khmer Rouge slogans was horrifying - "better to kill an innocent than let an enemy go free" and "to kill the grass you must also kill the roots" (which justified killing entire families, even small babies, so no one was left to seek revenge) - and seeing the mass graves and the tree where children were killed were haunting, leaving me with chills.  The men, women, and children who had been brought here weren't even dignified with an execution-style death, rather many were beaten with axes, hoes, clubs, and other pieces of equipment, leaving many not fully dead when they were thrown into the pits for burial and covered with DDT to do the convenient task of masking the smell while finishing the job of killing hundreds of people.  As horrifying as the place was, there was also a sense of hope - the tiny bracelets left as offerings for the victims around the graves and on the killing tree, and the bright blue sky and greenery surrounding the central memorial stupa.  

Hope in the form of tiny bracelets - offerings for the victims.

The trenches mark the places where mass graves were located.

Skulls of the victims at the shrine were labeled with evidence of brutal beatings.

We took a break to decompress after our visit, stopping for lunch just outside the gates before making the drive back into town.  We headed straight to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former "Security Office 21", a school building that had been converted into a prison / torture center by the Khmer Rouge.  I wouldn't recommend seeing both the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum back to back - they are heavy places, to say the least - but I at least had the benefit of being with friends for both visits, rather than trying to process everything on my own.  

The first building at the museum contained open rooms, many with small bed frames from when prisoners were housed there, with disturbing photos of the victims hung on the walls.  The building otherwise was very similar to the elementary school I had visited in Thailand, which made it that much more disturbing. The second building mostly held photographs - haunting portraits of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.  It was strange seeing their faces, knowing they were likely aware that they would soon be killed.  Despite their straightforward stares, some faces looked surprised, others scared, others defiant and strong.  Many were simply blank.  The upstairs housed the signed "confessions" of prisoners - erroneous forced statements of many that they were spies for the CIA or KGB.  A third building is still completely intact as it was as a prison, with crudely built brick or wooden walls to form tiny cells, hardly big enough for a person to sit in, much less lie down.  Chalkboards at the ends of the room were the only hint of the building's original intention.  A final building held a Buddhist memorial and more photographs - I didn't make it to the top floor, but it held statements by Khmer Rouge soldiers and guards.  

After a very heavy day of taking everything in, we were all exhausted and quiet, and our tuk tuk drove us back to our respective locations where we said farewell, planning to try and meet again in Siem Reap for a visit to Angkor Wat.  I grabbed a pork bun which had been steamed with a big slice of pumpkin, lending it a wonderful flavor, and waited on Stephanie to return from work.  Once she did, we rushed back out the door to meet up with her roommates, as well as a new potential roommate and another friend - an American who had lived in Cambodia for a few years who surprised me by speaking fluent Khmer.  We went to a Vietnamese restaurant called Magnolia, enjoying tasty Bahn Xeo (rice pancakes with delicious fillings) on the garden patio until a sudden downpour drove us indoors.  I had taken in so much that day that the following one I spent very low key, writing and editing photos between lunch at Friends and dinner and a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a spot overlooking the river below.

Kate and Lydia departing in our tuk tuk.

Delicious Bahn Xeo for dinner - a taste of Vietnam.

The view from the Foreign Correspondents Club.

The following day, after spending the morning doing research, I found a mototaxi that would take me all the way out to Stephanie's office building - the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC, commonly referred to as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, a court established between the Cambodian government and the UN to try senior members of the Khmer Rouge for violations of international law during the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s.  There was an important hearing as part of "Case 002/02" happening that day, part of the trial against Khieu Samphan and Huon Chea, two senior Khmer Rouge leaders.  

I found my way back to the courtroom and watched the last portion of the hearing.  While the actual discussion that day was on a lot of legal procedural items and not all that interesting in and of itself, the actual court was very intriguing.  The court itself was behind a glass wall, which had curtains that closed at the end of the proceedings, lending a theatrical performance feel to the court.  On my side of the wall and curtains sat dozens of locals, whose lives had been dramatically impacted by the Khmer Rouge.  All of the judges, members of the defense team, and civil lawyers wore robes of various colors, and everyone spoke in either English, French, or Khmer.  Everyone inside the court (as well as the foreigners watching) wore headphones tuned to one of the languages,  so that whenever anyone spoke in English, for example, I heard that person's actual voice, but whenever someone spoke in French or Khmer, I heard the voices of translators.  (The Khmer version was piped in over speakers to the locals watching.)  A few days after I had left, I saw in a Cambodian newspaper that both Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were sentenced to life imprisonment, having been found guilty of crimes against humanity.

When the hearing wrapped up, I met Stephanie and hung around the office until it was time to catch the bus back into town, where we quickly changed and headed out to visit some friends of Stephanie's who were having a crepe party (gotta love the French)! The apartment had a nice little patio where we sat and chatted while the guys made stacks of crepes in the kitchen.  We quickly devoured all of the savory crepes, filled with ham and cheese, then started on the sweet crepes, filling them one by one with Nutella or roasted chestnut spread.  I wound up leaving a bit early, catching a moto back to the apartment, enjoying the cool breeze and tiny pinpricks of rain and the feeling of freedom as we cruised through the streets on the back of the scooter.  The following evening we had another night out - splurging on $4 manicures before grabbing a hot dog from a street vendor and heading out to a birthday party for one of Stephanie's coworkers, where I met a number of people that we would be spending the weekend with, on a trip to nearby Kampot.

I got up early the next morning to finish packing for the weekend getaway, paying a visit to the Royal Palace before my bus ride to Kampot.  The ground of the palace looked and felt very similar to the Thai Royal Palace, from the architecture to the white and gold color scheme, though a bit less glitzy.  The first building I came across was the Preahtineang Tevea Vinichhay, a long building decorated with colorful, detailed ceiling frescos and sparkling crystal chandeliers.  Passing through a gate into a second large pavilion, I went straight into the central building, a temple of the Emerald Buddha.  While there was a central area of worship, there were icons and other objects in every corner of the temple.  Outside, a pair of stupas and a statue were displayed for King Norodom, and a small temple on a rock covered in foliage sat off to the side.  I quickly made my way through and out to an exhibition space, where I saw an entire room filled with identical silver and gold elephant statues, another with textiles, one with seats (saddles?) for the royal elephants, and finally, a long diorama depicting a royal parade.  

After returning from the weekend getaway in Kampot (I'll cover that next time), I spent a quiet final day in Phnom Pehn before venturing off to Siem Reap for a few days.  I had a tasty lunch of laarp and did some research at Romdeng, enjoying the fresh air in their garden.  As I sipped on my coffee, I had the opportunity to hold one of the tarantulas that they raise on site, who had hitched a ride on one of the waiters!  (Fried tarantula is one of the restaurant's specialties, and while I was happy to hold the live one for a few minutes, I was not interested in tasting one!)  

Once Stephanie returned from work, we set out to try a kickboxing class with a couple of her coworkers.  The start of the class reminded me of my Krav Maga training with lots of conditioning that left my legs burning.  Next we did punches and kicks across the floor, then spent time at a series of stations, one of which was sparring with the instructor, and we finished with core work.  The class was fun and challenging, and our instructor was full of energy, though he only new a handful of words in a mix of French and English!  After class, we met up with three other people from the court (meaning I was hanging out with a total of six French expats), visiting the hot dog stand near Stephanie's house for dinner.  Despite not understanding half the conversation, it was a fun night, and a great way to spend my last in Phnom Pehn.  

Viva la France / America!

When I met Stephanie nearly ten months prior, I could have never imagined that we would be able to have an entirely different adventure together on the opposite side of the planet, in another place far away from either of our home countries.  But, that's one of the real beauties of travel.  Making connections and sharing experiences with people from all over the world, as travelers and expats, in all corners of the globe.  I'm incredibly thankful for both of the experiences I was able to share with Stephanie, and I hope one of these days we're able to connect again in an entirely new place.  

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