This day was always going to be one in which questions would be raised more than answered. These stories will stay with me for the rest of my life. Security 21, an old school converted into a prison, was the central administration building for the horrible atrocities that occurred over four years. Almost 2 million people lost their lives. Over the course of this day we were exposed to the realities of an extremist regime, but also the actions of human’s basic survival for life. Kill or be killed. From time to time I would take myself out of the environment to try and process what I was seeing. It wasn’t possible, and this is the most difficult part for me. Just like some of the students on this adventure, I had more questions than answers. The killing fields were indescribable. The headset provided the awful truth. One must experience this for themselves. Although this was tough and confronting on another level, this was a necessity if we are to fully understand what has shaped contemporary Cambodian culture. In some way or another everyone in Cambodia has been effected by this act of genocide and, upon reflection in the afternoon, it was clear that our young men were moved.
The afternoon proved to lift the spirits of the boys and the staff. A quiet boat ride on the Tonle Sap River to the Mekong River, provided the perfect environment for some more quiet reflection. Getting onto the boat we were approached by young children begging for money. A confronting sight in itself but then a girl as young as six or seven walked up holding a baby that must have only been weeks old. Some of the boys couldn’t help but dig into their pockets. Mr Thai mentioned that this river flows two ways. When it is the dry season (November to May), the Tonle Sap drains into the Mekong River. At this time the river is only as wide as the Brisbane river but, looking at it now it’s hard to believe it. However, in the wet season, beginning in June, the heavy rains flow back to fill up the Tonle Sap Lake.
Along the banks of the Mekong the social divide between the rich and poor is saddening. In the shadows of one of the biggest hotels on the Mekong float small fishing boats who live off the river. Mr Thai informed us that these are one of the many minority groups that are a products of Cambodia’s rich colonial history. The Cham (Muslim), who live on these boats, are sea-faring people originating from the islands of Southeast Asia. The building is owned by man who controlled petrol in Cambodia and he generated most of his money when the government gave him part owner ship of all the ticket sales to Angkor Wat. No surprise that the government would want to do a favour for the man in control of the petrol in Cambodia.
The authentic experience that followed the boat trip was culturally fulfilling and genuinely very interesting. It was a tour of a local community who are fourth generation silk pressers. The students certainly got behind them making some interesting purchases. The staff even provided some local fruit for us to try and other small delicacies.
Soon after the boat trip back along the Mekong, we arrived at the central Phnom Penh markets, renovated by the French after the saw it becoming a little dilapidated. For me it was not the busy market in which pushy sellers throw numbers at you that provided the highlight of this section of the adventure, but simply crossing the main road in order to get the markets. It was like a game of Frogger at the last level where any wrong move spells disaster for the little frog (us). Surprisingly, the traffic seems to part like the water did for Moses and we cross safely to the other side.
With that epic day done, it’s off to the Kampong Cham province to start on the real purpose of this visit, to help others. I’m learning that we all have a lot more to give and I can’t wait to see the boys in action and get involved myself. I’m sure that moving out to a more rural environment will present us with new confronting images of the real Cambodian life and the Geography teacher in me is excited about that.
Signing off for day 2,