Things I noticed in our first few days in Phnom Penh:


Driving in from the airport, in a small Tuk-tuk, in what I presume was rush hour traffic, with our bags piled on our laps as my legs fell asleep:

1) Teenagers seem to flirt the same: About ten minutes into our drive, we drove by this group of high-school-aged kids and I saw the guy take the girls phone. They playfully wrestled over it for a little while, laughing, before we drove off. I just thought it was cool that some things don’t seem to change. Even on the other side of the world.

2) Tuk-tuk drivers do not worry that a huge truck beats a bike every time: Traffic laws really don’t seem to exist. There is a line down the middle of the road that, in appearance, is similar to the one in the United States only it does not seem to be anything more than a suggestion to stay on one side or the other. When you get into a Tuk-tuk (google it if you have never seen one. It is essentially a motor bike with a covered trailer that you sit in) on the wrong side of the street it is probably better not to look because the first ten seconds of the trip are absolutely horrifying as they just dart out in front of the oncoming traffic. Even large trucks. So far, we have had no accidents though. (Knock on wood). Well we were slightly bumped by this motorcycle crossing the intersection in a Tuk-tuk yesterday on our way to the market. Both parties just kept driving, but it was pretty funny. That must happen all the time though so I am not going to count this as an “accident.”


At the “sunset bar” Wednesday night at the Mad Monkey hostel:

3) Only in hostels does flip-cup feel like a cultural experience: It was really fun on our first night here watching people (including Will and Jenna) from all over the globe play flip-cup. Hostel culture is its own and super interesting. Rhianna put it well: “there is something beautiful about a group of people that all value the rest of the world enough to leave where they are.” I think she is right.


At lunch on our first day touring after we saw the Royal Palace with Venerable Sokheng:

4) Cambodian children are so so so precious: There was this little kid (maybe 5 years old) selling bracelets in the restaurant. We were next to this tourist couple with one of those big DSLR cameras that the kid was just enamored with. It was so cute: he kept running a few feet back, getting his picture taken, and then hopping back to look at the screen with the biggest smile on his face. Perhaps it was a ploy to get them to buy a bracelet, but whatever, it was adorable. Good thing I don’t have a nice camera because I totally would have purchased all of his bracelets after that.


At Ounalon, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Phnom Penh

5) I am not flexible enough to be a monk (along with other reasons that would undoubtedly disqualify me): Venerable Sokheng took us to one of the main Buddhist temples in the city (Ounalon) and taught us how to meditate in the Cambodian tradition. The way you have to sit cross legged is impossible with your right foot on top of your left knee (impossible for me, if you are someone with any flexibility whatsoever you would be probably be just fine. Will, Jenna, and Rhianna struggled much less). This has led to my first goal of the trip: Stretch and practice sitting cross-legged so that I can eventually practice meditating and maybe one day in the future actually be able to do it. (*Update: I wrote this two weeks ago and am delighted to say I spent about 30 minutes the other night sitting cross-legged. Check.)


Every time I eat food, which I regret to say, is much less frequently than I am accustomed to:

6) portions of food are tiny!!!: I guess my brother David always ordered two entrees when he came last year (PROTEIN!). I might have to as well.

7) luckily, everything is ridiculously cheap: My lunch on day 1 was $2.75 for this delicious curry chicken dish. And the 10-minute Tuk-tuk ride from the royal palace to our hostel was 2 dollars! It’s already at the point that we look at a 5-dollar meal and go “ehhhh too expensive.”

8) and one more food related note, the waiters just sit there and stand next to you until you order: seriously. So awkward haha. (Especially when the only other patrons of the restaurant—the French couple next to you—get in a yelling match).


At Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21 Prison) and the Killing Fields:

9) On Friday, we went to the genocide museums. I don’t know how much you know about Cambodian history, but from 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge killed about 3 million people in their attempt to build a new “agrarian society.” That is a quarter of the population. And only 40 years ago. Hard to imagine. We went to the S21 secret prison where they kept people, tortured them until they confessed, and then drove them out to the “killing fields” (our next stop) to murder them. For the longest time, it was thought only 7 people ever made it out of S21 alive. History is telling us more than that probably did, but you get the idea. So, I guess the next thing I noticed was the terrible potential of humanity to act atrociously: Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, had this saying–“to kill the grass you must also remove the root.” So when they accused someone in a family of being agitators they would kill the entire family. Including the kids. There was this glass box in the museum of the victims clothing that they found. One of the outfits was this little tiny shirt and skirt made for a toddler. It was a white shirt with a blue collar, and then a blue and yellow skirt—faded from the dust and dirt accumulated over the past forty years. It was hard not to think of the little kid from number 4 selling bracelets when I was looking at it. It was smaller than him. About the size of my forearm.

10) Some of the victims were smiling: they had an entire floor of what used to be the prison dedicated to the “mug-shots” of the victims. Most of them looked as you’d expect. Grief-stricken, scared, angry, hollowed eyes, beaten, tired. Some even seemed to be accepting: proud, with clenched jaws and determined eyes. But then I remember one man. He was in the section titled “intellectuals” (it was a goal of the Khmer Rouge to kill all the intellectuals to start a truly agrarian society). He was smiling. Like it was a class picture. I couldn’t figure this out. I was talking with Rhianna about this and she said “maybe he didn’t know.” Perhaps. I have heard the Khmer Rouge often tricked intellectuals into revealing themselves by telling them they needed their help rebuilding society. But still, the stories about the prison were pretty clear that once you got there, you knew you weren’t coming out. So I really don’t know what to make of this. Perhaps he was defiant? Showing them they couldn’t break his spirit? Or is that too Hollywood? Or maybe he just didn’t want to be remembered by a sad photo on a wall? Whatever the reason, it made me think about all of the untold and incomplete stories that those pictures represent. When you hear the number: 3 million dead, you of course are heart broken. When you think about the multitude of hopes and dreams and stories that that number 3 million represents: ____, well I don’t know if there is a word for it.


On the drive back from the Killing Fields:

11) Maybe I am naive: You obviously don’t leave those museums with a smile. But it is amazing how quick one was drawn to my face. Perhaps this was wrong, but we were driving back from the Killing Fields through the outskirts of the city on a dirt road lined by homes. There were children playing soccer and walking around or just sitting on the side of the street watching us. Many of them waved and yelled out “hi.” Waving back, it was hard not to smile. Of course—waving—you don’t forget about the atrocities that occurred just a few kilometers back at the killing fields. But there is something so incredibly beautiful in that innocence. I don’t know, perhaps it is misplaced, but it is hard not to have hope in spite of all of the terrible people in the world. I like to think that there are a lot more beautiful people.


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