I blame Australian journalist John Pilger for my morbid fascination with Cambodia.
Ever since I saw his documentary on Year Zero I knew I had to come here. But now that I have, I still can’t work out what to make of it.
You see with half their population under 18 (the Khmer Rouge basically wiped out an entire generation) and an estimated third of the population living on less than US $1 a day, I was expecting Cambodia to be basic, derelict and heartbreakingly beautiful.
So when I arrived in Phnom Penh the last thing I was expecting to see were hundreds of these.
I have never seen such a dense concentration of fancy cars in all my life, the saddest part being it’s mainly Government officials who drive them, a government I might add still run by former Khmer Rouge honchos.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Phnom Penh with its lush open spaces, sidewalks you can actually walk on, new buildings, and Lexus’ is a facade. You don’t have to venture far to find extreme poverty.
My cyclo driver actually lived on his cyclo.
And just outside the city is the slums, riddled with cats, dogs and children. The ones I met at the orphanage got up every morning at 5am to begin a gruelling day of music, dance, English and Khmer lessons to try and dig themselves out of the poverty they were born into.
Sadly many end up in the sex industry, so predominant here there’s a sign on my hotel door under ‘do not smoke’ asking me to please refrain from bringing home underage sex workers.
Cambodia certainly has its fair share of problems to overcome, but at least they openly recognise their past. It’s a start.
S-21, the largest Khmer Rouge interrogation centre in Phnom Penh, is now a museum.
Between 1975 and 1979 thousands of predominantly middle class Cambodians (and New Zealander Kerry Hamill) were tortured in places like this before being sent to the killing fields to be exterminated. In those three years at least 1.7 million (conservative estimate) Cambodians were exterminated, or died of disease and starvation under Pol Pot’s plan to wind back the clock and turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia.
On arrival at S-21 every prisoner was photographed and as you walk around here the thousands of people trapped in these photos hopelessly stare out at you. It’s indescribable.
The killing fields, just outside Phnom Penh at Cheung Ek, is strangely peaceful considering this is the place where men, woman and children were beaten and bludgeoned to death.
As you wander around it’s impossible not to stand on people’s remains. Every time it rains more bones and teeth bubble up from the soil. I’m glad I wore shoes.
As much of a realist as I am, I will never understand how humans can be so brutal to each other. I also don’t understand why the wheels of justice for the Khmer Rouge leaders have turned so slowly, so slow in fact Pol Pot died on natural causes (or possibly at his own hands) in 1998 and never faced justice. Trials for the other leaders only began in 2007.
Enough of the morbidness, there were also some unexpected moments in Cambodia that I will never forget.
One was being asked to help out in a children’s English class before dinner at a family homestay. The seven year old I chatted to had only been learning English for four months and could already count, recite the alphabet, name body parts, colours, animals and have a basic conversation with me starting with, “hello my name is Mealea and I’m very pleased to meet you.” I have never met a child so desperate to learn in all my life.
The dinner which followed upstairs, in a simple bungalow which housed 40 people, was memorable for another reason. Myself and my Canadian roommate got chatted up by a 27-year-old Cambodian English teacher, not because he liked us but because he’d worked out it would be cheaper for him to marry a foreigner than a local where it could cost him around US $5000 for a good wife. We politely turned him down, but we did help him drown his sorrows with tarantula vodka.