8.12.12 – 13.12.12
“在时光的幽谷中，不断反复回响着的，是你我心中无数次呼唤的回音吧. 一次比一次微弱，一次比一次遥远，却又一次比一次地更让人讶异.” – 席慕蓉 回音
3 months have passed between the Cambodia trip and now. It’s interesting how certain things, trivial as they may sound, stand out while other details simply blurred and faded with the passing of time. As we live our lives, how do we know which moments are the ones that we will remember in 10 years’ time?
Cambodia was an important trip for me – it has changed my perspective towards travelling. It has always been one of those places that I never quite thought about visiting. So when Eva asked me if I have ever been there and invited me to join her trip, I found it difficult to decline. The fact is when Singaporeans speak of travelling, we see Europe, US, the East Asia countries (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), Australia and New Zealand, it perhaps sound more luxurious to go to these places. But travelling is about what you get to experience there rather than which places in the bucket list you have been to and that’s another takeaway from the exchange program.
I flew to Cambodia the weekend before my examinations in HKUST with Eva, Anna (Eva’s friend), Constanza, Jennifer and Ben. It was a funny trip, we were tourists in the day and we became students at night as we studied the notes that we brought along. I remember very random details from the trip, I remember Jennifer’s alarm going off while we were waiting for the sunrise at Angkor Wat, I remember the conversations in the lobby of the backpacker hostel as we took turns to shower, I remember the long conversation I had with Constanza on the boat ride (we got quite a tan because of that), I remember the six of us squeezing on a tuk-tuk in Phneom Penh and I remember the conversation on the long tuk-tuk ride with Eva.
Cambodia is a country that has gone through many wars, most recently the Khmer Rouge regime which ended in 1979, and as a consequence of that, a majority of their population lives below the poverty line. It was hard to believe that once upon a time, it was the most powerful country in Indochina in the 12nd century.
1. Angkor Wat
We left our hostel at 4.30 am and took the tuk-tuks to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. To our surprise, there was already a long line of tourists at the ticket counter. And many more were there to watch the sunrise together. It was a beautiful sunrise – one that I would definitely remember. After watching the sunrise, we walked around the area and it was quite strange that we could walk on and climb all the ruins in this UNESCO heritage site. This came as a surprise because many other less impressive sites that I have been to put in a lot of effort in protecting their relics.
We also had to take the tuk-tuks to travel from one part of the Angkor Wat to another, I didn’t know that it was so big. We didn’t visit every part of Angkor Wat but we only left when we felt like we had seen enough of the temples. When we got to the tuk-tuks, there were many children without shoes who would rush towards us and ask us to buy postcards and bracelets. Wikitravel has warned us about this but it was difficult to reject those children.
We visited this site (I can’t remember its name) which was barely restored and there were big equatorial trees displacing the structures. Apparently, they deliberately left it as such because they wanted to give tourists a sense of what the traveller felt when he saw this empire hidden deep in the forests of Cambodia. That must have been quite an amazing feeling I could imagine. When I looked at those trees, I could feel the space of time between the empire in the past and myself. Metaphorically, it seems to say however great any human achievement is, it would not last the test of time.
2.Boat ride (Siem Reap – Phnom Penh)
We decided to change our plans and travel by the Mekong river to the southern part of Cambodia instead of riding an overnight bus. The river was wide and dirty but the view was serene and peaceful, I remember us spending some time debating if we were on sea or a river. Our boat broke down in the middle of nowhere but thankfully, we managed to stop by a small village. The villagers, mostly children, watched us curiously as though we were aliens. We walked around the village, stopping by one of the houses, watched how the ducks and the chickens ran near our feet and took photos with the children. It was a nice accident. 🙂
3. S21 prison and killing fields
We hired two tuk-tuks and visited S21 prison first. It was a lot more intense than I have expected. S21 prison was a school complex, later turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime where the soldiers interrogated, tortured and killed many people (mostly people who worked in the public administration and their families). We saw blood stains on the floor in the rooms, objects of tortures, realistic paintings of the different types of torture, skulls and many photographs of the prisoners. In some cells, there were even photographs of how the victim was found dead on the walls. It was a a very intense experience, mainly because the place felt untouched after the genocide so much so that it was impossible not to imagine how those people suffered in the prison. What pained me the most was that right outside the museum were two survivors and they were painting the scenes of horror and selling them for a living. I wish that the Cambodia government do something to help them.
The S21 prison made us feel so depressed so much so that when we reached the killing fields at Choeung Ek, we didn’t even go near to the commemorative stupa that held the skulls of the victims. At least 1.7 million people were executed here between 1975 – 1979. There were numerous mass graves in the killing fields and it is said that after a heavy rain, bones and clothing of the victims often surface themselves. There was also a Chankiri tree which children and infants were smashed against because their parents were accused of crimes against the Khmer Rouge so that they wouldn’t take revenge for their parents’ deaths. It’s crazy just how cruel human beings could be towards one another. I wish that the deceased get proper burial soon instead of piling the skulls on top of one another in public display.
4. Silver Pagoda
The Silver Pagoda was located right next to the Royal Palace. When we were there, there were many monks in the complex praying as the late Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk just passed away then. Because of his death, visitors were not allowed to enter the Royal Palace. The Silver Pagoda was a beautiful place with South East Asian architecture and a tinge of French influence.
On the last day, we went to this village (2 hours tuk-tuk ride away from the city) and taught a group of Cambodian children English. It was a nice getaway from the busy city center. Apparently, that village was one of the “luckier” ones because it was affected by the Vietnamese war and there were many landmines so because of that, the government came to remove those land mines and develop the place at the same time. The wife of the teacher in the school cooked lunch for us with the rice that they grew and it was such a lovely gesture. The children were rather hyper-active with short attention span but once we took out our cameras, we quickly gained back their attention. What I remember best was that in between the classes when we were taking a walk in the village, a group of children came towards us and showed us around the village, introducing us to their parents and grandparents. The children kept plucking grass and leaves along the way and gave to us as though they were a bunch of flowers. At the end of the walk, we ended up with this whole “bouquet” of grass and a couple of “necklaces”. The children seem so satisfied with life at this point, I wish they could grow up feeling that exact same way.