Teaching here in Myanmar offers a slightly better benefit in the form of holidays than in America. The school calendar is similar to the U.S. In number of days but is interspersed with more holidays and subsequent respite from the classroom. They often Make for four-day weekends. The last of these weekends landed us in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where history and cultural intrigue were its lure. Siem Reap was a destination two years back with a visit to the Angkor Wat complex, which still escapes a description. This was a trip to their big city.
Phnom Penh is that typical SE asian city abuzz with a tangle of traffic that would send most westerners scurrying for safety. This anarchy of cars, motorbikes, Tuk Tuk’s and pedestrians can make one wonder as to what purpose any painted lanes or turn signals even have. Yangon has much Similar vehicular discord but disallows motorbikes thus making this Vespa world something to get used to. But for Phnom Penh, it works. Public bussing has yet to be resurrected after it was killed off under the Khmer Rouge In the mid 70’s and likely adds to congestion woes. Rail transport, too.
Phnom Penh has a history museum, royal palace and foreign correspondents club that we visited. The latter, where journalists would meet in the heyday of the Vietnam war, is a great place to imbibe some local draft and Imagine what colonial life was like. Historical photographs on the wall depicting the French impact and old city provide gives the mind direction. Spread around are local markets that add color to the gray of cement and pavement. Turning the corner on a city walk offers up to a world of foods with venders swatting away insects from meat and poultry, and an array of motorbikes under repair.
Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Cambodians have a character that is warm and inviting. According to one talkative Tuk Tuk driver the Cambodians, however, do combine their Buddhist belief with a bit of Hinduism. The museum had lots of sculptures of Buddha and Shiva from the same time periods. And it does seem diffferent than Theravada Buddhism practiced in Myanmar. As implied, the locals here are nicer than imaginable which begs to reason as to how something like the Khmer Rouge genocide could befall a place like this. Phnom Penh today is a million shy of its 1975 self when the horror ensuing under Pol Pot led to the loss of nearly one of every four Cambodians. Over two million were marched from the city to the countryside to become farmers. Nixon’s secret bombing campaign here is another conversation alltogehter. Unexploded ordinance still wreaks havoc and children today have to be taught how to identify these dangers in the countryside.
With closer look you can see that Phnom Penh is still working to reestablish infrastructure that is taken for granted in most other places. The loss of a professional class left the country bereft of those knowledgeable about governing, teaching, policing, anything. No doctors to treat the sick, Attorneys to mitigate concerns or engineers to design and build. Now Cambodia boasts of several universities which have been rebuilt in the past four decades, so they are moving forward.
The Tuol Sleng genocide museum was a high school converted into a torture prison by the Khmer Rouge. Thousands suffered through with just a mere handful surviving. The “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake” said by Pol Pot contradicts many western ideals but does demonstrate some thinking that could lead to such an atrocity. The resulting groupthink and sociopathy are reminders of the empathy and compassion so needed in today’s political climate. Still there is much cognitive dissonance with the character of Cambodians and this sordid past.