My second day in Phnom Penh would be an emotional one since I was supposed to visit the Killing Fields. I hesitated on doing this because it would be depressing and sad, but I felt it was necessary. It was necessary because every place in our world has history, drama, and tragedy along with spectacular beauty and happiness, and I always feel like seeing the history of each place, no matter how grim, is seeing the truth of life.
I took a tuk tuk who would take me to the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields for just $20 for the whole trip, even waiting for me outside while I went inside each place. The pollution in Phnom Penh might have been the worst I have ever experienced in all my travels, perhaps rivaling Lima, Peru. It was extremely difficult to breathe in the back of the tuk tuk, and I thought I might even throw up. The driver noticed from his rear view mirror, I think, how uncomfortable I was trying to breathe through my sleeves so he stopped and got me two masks. I would tip him more for his kind gesture, I thought.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was the prison where approximately 17,000 to 20,000 Cambodians (there were a few foreigners among them) were tortured, interrogated, and killed during the Pol Pot era. The prisoners were kept chained by their ankles all day. Their toilet was a small metal box which was disposed of every two weeks. They were tortured constantly, fed tiny amounts of food, and there were barbed wires outside for those who tried to commit suicide. The women, especially, tried to throw themselves off the building since they were raped often. When I saw a picture of a mother with her baby during the tour, I asked what happened to the baby. Another tourist near me said the babies were just thrown violently against the wall so the mother could witness the baby’s destruction. Unimaginable horror. I found myself wanting to rush through and out of the museum, feeling suffocated. I think I left after 45 minutes, maybe an hour, but it was much too long.
When I came outside, I was happy to see my tuk tuk driver, although I wasn’t escaping to a happier place. He was taking me to the Killing Fields where massive grave sites exist with even some graves that were not yet excavated. Upon pulling up in the tuk tuk I noticed immediately that there were butterflies, a sign of hope and transformation in my mind. Then all throughout the park I saw butterflies everywhere: yellow, white, and oranges ones galore. So I imagined that the people that were buried there were for sure at a better place, and the butterflies gently fluttered around reminding everyone that all the tortured souls were no longer being tortured. Yes, this made me feel better. After going inside the memorial where 5,000 human skulls were visibly displayed, I was reminded of how precious and short life really is.
The drive back to the hotel was about 40 minutes on the tuk tuk. Through bumpy dirt roads I saw Cambodia’s life pass by: some cows, kids on bikes, other tuk tuks passing by, the working class doing metal work or using hammers, a few emaciated dogs here and there, and lots of moto bikes. Sometimes the combined speed of my tuk tuk and the wind would almost knock my hat off, but the breeze felt heavenly because of the hot weather. When I was getting close to my hotel, I was glad the difficult part of my day was over. Realizing I still had time before dinner I asked the driver to drop me off at the Royal Palace which was on the same street as my hotel but just up the road. I hired an English speaking guide at the entrance so I could speed up the tour. When I am by myself, I tend to get lost taking pictures and taking too much time on a single shot. When there is a guide, I am forced to move along. Besides, I wanted to take a nap before dinner and I didn’t want to lose my track of time. The beauty of the palace eased the stress from the few hours prior, and seeing orange-robed monks made me happy. I always dreamed of taking a picture of the monks, and I finally had the opportunity with the help of my guide. When I asked why the monk’s robes were orange and sometimes a burgundy-like hue, the guide said the robes represent the colors of the sun. When it was a little past 5 pm I decided to walk back to my hotel to rest and take a nap before dinner. After seeing numerous monks and some Buddha sculptures on the way, I was calm with no signs of stress from the previous hours. My nap was heavenly.
When dinner time came I was picked up by Bill again on his moto bike. His friend, George, would also join us as we sat across from the Mekong River along a sidewalk cafe that served Italian food. I mentioned that the atmosphere reminded me of Miami and the guys agreed. There were many passers by including kids selling bracelets, tourists, and some freaks (you don’t want to know!) There were fans above the ceiling of the outdoor cafe so it cooled us down in a nice way. There was a perfectly shaped full moon, and the size and clarity was absolutely stunning as the three of us looked up in awe. George mentioned that the moon that night was supposed to be a green moon, a term that I have never heard of before. After having two glasses of wine as well an entrée of linguine with clams, it was time to call it a night since I had to take a flight the next morning to Siem Reap. George decided to give me a motorcycle tour of Phnom Penh under the green moon before dropping me off at my hotel. I love the thrill of a motorcycle ride, and this was my first one outside of the U.S. George was kind enough to stop completely so I could take a picture of the full moon, and by this time we were very close to my hotel. We said goodbye, and I wondered if I would ever see him again, even though he lives in Chicago. I would sleep well that night because I was thoroughly relaxed from the wine and the nice motorcycle ride. For a moment right before drifting off to sleep, I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming. An incredible journey awaited me the next morning when I would take a plane to fly to Siem Reap to finally see Angkor Wat. I honestly, truly, did not know what I did to deserve this epic travel adventure. As the cliché goes…Dreams DO come true…