Phnom Penh: Dark past, bright future.

PhnomPenh.Tuktuk

Let’s go back to Cambodia.

After several days of templing, bicycling, and wandering around the fascinating streets of Siem Reap, we journeyed south-west by means of a comfortable Giant Ibis bus to the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh.

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One of our main reasons for visiting Phnom Penh was to pay homage to and understand more fully the atrocities of the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1978.  The horrific acts during these years annihilated more than 25% of the Cambodian population, splitting up families and leaving a permanent scar on the country.

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We visited Choeung Ek, otherwise known as the Killing Fields, and opted for the audio tour, which provided us with in-depth explanations of what happened at various points within the grounds via a remote headset.  The tone of the grounds was very sombre.  It was very difficult to comprehend what actually went on here… such senseless acts of brutality and violence… committed by Cambodians against their fellow Cambodians.

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A more in-depth explanation of the genocide can be found here, but we’ll give you the brief run-down.  Pol Pot, a tyrant and radical communist was in power, and decided to pursue his lofty socialist dreams of turning Cambodia into a working class farming society by getting rid of anyone who did not fit his mold of “ideal.”  If you were among the educated, disabled, elderly, young, religious enthusiasts, of other ethnic origins, or were too weak or opposed to performing incessant laborious tasks, this automatically qualified you for imprisonment, and ultimately, death.

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Here in these fields, millions of people were brutally murdered.  It is estimated that around 2 million innocent men, women, and children lost their lives here.  To reduce the use of expensive ammunition, soldiers in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime (usually young, uneducated countryside males) were encouraged to use alternative methods such as beating and bashing with tools or natural elements to take the life of those who arrived at Choeung Ek.

Killing Fields

The turmoil ended three years later when communist Vietnam intervened and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime, sending Pol Pot into exile.  Interestingly, Pol Pot was never actually captured and died many years later of natural causes.

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Around the grounds are several fenced-off mass graves where thousands were buried.  It is common for fragments of bone and clothing to surface throughout the grounds after heavy rainfall.  These items are collected and stored.  In the centre of the grounds stands a commemorative stupa filled with the skulls of victims.

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The audio tour provides the option to listen to several people share their stories of what they went through during this time.  Though few who entered the Killing Fields ever left, the stories of ex-members of the Khmer Rouge, as well as a few people recounting memories of losing family members in front of their eyes left us feeling physically ill by the time the hour-long audio tour had ended.  As stories like this should.

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Visiting the Killing Fields was a sobering, unforgettable experience that we would highly recommend to anyone visiting Phnom Penh.  It is important for people to know and understand what went on in Cambodia and experience just a glimpse of the horror that humanity is capable of.  In doing so, the lives lost in this monumental tragedy are honoured, and important perspectives undoubtedly gained.

Cambodian smiles

Our deepened understanding of Cambodia’s dark past sheds new light on the country’s present state.  One thing we noticed from our very first encounter with the Cambodians we met in Thailand is that, in general, Cambodians are very cheerful people.  Their beautiful smiles make frequent appearances, and are quite infectious.    We acknowledge this is a huge generalization, but it was something that really struck us.  Despite the fact that their families and their country have been through some very dark circumstances, they appear to have a joy and a contentment that is truly moving.

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We move now to a place that will forever hold a special place in our hearts: An orphanage called Place of Rescue.  Nestled just in the outskirts of  Phnom Penh is a beautiful haven for children, the elderly, and families in need.

Place of Refuge School

Originally started as a refuge for families touched by AIDS, Place of Rescue has expanded to include a baby house, a granny house, multiple houses for orphaned children as well as  an on-site school.  This non-prophit organization is a living and breathing example of what it means to care for the orphans and the widows of our world.

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Although orphanage visits are slightly controversial, we had a definitive purpose in visiting Refuge.  Friends of ours in Edmonton, Joel and Esther, have been trying for years to adopt a gorgeous little girl named Sarah.  Their journey has proved beyond frustrating on many fronts, but they have not given up.  Read more about Sarah’s story here.  While we were in close proximity, we took the opportunity to go meet Sarah and take some photos and videos for our friends who so long for Sarah to join their family.

Place of Refuge

One might expect an orphanage to be a bit of a sad place, but we were surprised by the light-hearted, camp-like vibe that pervaded Place of Rescue.  The children were curious, playful, caring, and cheerful.

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A mind-blowing and heartwarming story that hit the news after our return is that children from Place of Rescue had donated a total of $900 from their own “pocket money” to help the victims of Calgary’s flood.  Cambodian orphans donating to the downtrodden of Calgary, Alberta, Canada?!!  This sounds like an anomaly.  But after meeting the kids here,  it is hardly surprising at all.

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Our hearts were touched and humbled by the joy and contentment of the Cambodians, a people who have gone through so much and continue to face many challenges, yet embrace life with a gratefulness and gracefulness that is so very beautiful.

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