I spent 10 days in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia in August. Pictured below is my good friend Tami Becker; Tami works with XP Missions to fight human trafficking. We’ve known each other since 2004. Tami’s adventuresome spirit has led her all over the world but right now Cambodia is her home. I couldn’t get over watching her converse in Khmer with people. Amazing! I could say “hi” and “thank you.” The end.
If you don’t know anything about Cambodia, and I certainly didn’t, it is a tiny jewel of a country tucked in southeast Asia between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The architecture alone is worth traveling to see; I couldn’t get over the intricacy of temples and the elaborate scrollwork on houses and gates. (And no, I didn’t make it to Angor Wat; that will have to be my next visit.) Cambodia suffered a lot of war related to the US invasion of Vietnam, and in 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge led one of the the worst genocides in human history, killing possibly 3 million of its own citizens (accounts vary). So this blog is going to focus on some heavy stuff. I hope to give a fair and balanced story and not come across as patronizing or naive or melodramatic–this was a learning trip for me and the folks on my team of eight. We started with the genocide because despite being 40 years ago, it continues to have an effect on society. So, here we go.The first thing you see when entering the Choeung Ek National Memorial is this imposing stupa (shrine). Our first day was spent visiting here, listening to an audio tour of the atrocities committed. I guess I didn’t realize The Killing Fields are actual fields where people killed people. Duh. So here’s a field. It was beautiful. Peaceful. Sunny and breezy. We could hear children nearby at a school laughing and playing outside. Hard to imagine what happened here.Some comments were made that this memorial site was “underwhelming.” A simple wooden hut over a pit with what looked like bits of trash strewn around in the hardened soil. But those “bits of trash” are actual remnants of the victims. Their clothes. Their bones.Here stand a gigantic tree, decorated with hundreds of these bracelets (reminded me of how we leave flowers and candles as tribute). As I crouched for this shot, the audio tour related that this particular tree was where Khmer Rouge guards took babies by the ankles and slammed their heads against the tree, killing them. In front of their mothers.You can walk inside the stupa to see how thousands and thousands of human skulls and bone have been carefully cleaned, sorted, labeled and stored. Can you see the space between the shelves and the wall? It is uncomfortably narrow. It shoved you right up against the glass. I really don’t have words to describe how it felt, which is why I leave the photos for you to form your own opinion.Let’s take a break! For your viewing pleasure, a few images snapped on the street. Fresh coconut water for sale, and pineapple! I love street treats.This is the riverfront downtown, a popular place for locals as well as tourists. Our group walked around, praying for God to bless local businesses, for the government, for families, etc.The king’s mother. Cambodia is a monarchy but I think (and I’m no expert) that they’re rather like the British royal family. Figureheads, not actually creating laws.Typical architecture of a Buddhist temple. I could not get enough!I asked the monk to pose (in sign language and my two words of Khmer). He graciously obliged.This is Wat Phnom, another temple. Golly you should SEE IT AT NIGHT! It is completely lit up, like a golden torch in the middle of town. Sadly, I did not have a chance to photograph it at night. Those are seven-headed snakes on either side of the staircase.We were in the middle of downtown yet surrounded by lush green parks. Beautiful.Inside the temple.Back to heavier things: on Day 2 we visited the infamous S21 Prison. This is a view of the courtyard and one of the two main buildings. Formerly a high school, it was taken by the Khmer Rouge and converted into a prison where people were tortured and murdered. You can see the air vents above the doors of each room which were built to allow cooling air in while students learned. They were boarded up once it became a prison. In August, the cool season of Cambodia, it was in the mid 90’s and VERY humid. Imagine being in a concrete room in Texas, in August, with no air conditioning or ventilation. Exactly.One of the classrooms. In the second building, each room housed displays like this containing photographs of people who had been held there. Thousands and thousands of photographs. Portraits. Men and women, young and old, women with babies. It was powerfully impacting.This is one of the most famous photographs. This woman held a baby in her arms for her picture.In this room were very small cells which held prisoners.And here, outside is a beautiful monument to the victims.After two full days of listening and seeing stories of torture and murder, we were pretty low-spirited. It’s a lot to handle. So I end this blog with a few images of XP Missions’ work 40 years later. Their mission is to help rebuild Cambodia, restore its dignity, restore its identity. Below, you see ladies working at a community center. They are training in sewing and sell hand bags, scarves, place mats and coasters for income. They are all formerly trafficked in prostitution but now are building new lives for themselves.Here for a moment I show you Mom Kunthea’s home outside the city. It is peaceful. It is a place of beauty and care for four children with special needs like autism and Down’s syndrome. These kiddos (who could not be photographed) have been rescued from child trafficking and now grow up in a loving home. A gracious lady, Mom Kunthea welcomed us with hugs and kisses, and shoved bags of homemade mango sticky in our hands as we left (fruit roll-ups). Our third day was spent swimming at the local sports club with a group of kids who were formerly trafficked. For security we could not photograph them either. Sunday we visited Silk Island where we saw real silk worms up close and personal. The ladies who work here do amazing work creating gorgeous silk products.
Raw silk hanging on the post while the lady pulls cocoons out of the pot to unravel.Working on the looms to weave beautiful silk cloth.
Stay tuned for Part Two of my Cambodia trip! And thank you to all who donated to help me go, and prayed for our safety while there and back. <3 <3 <3