We arrived in Phnom Penh early on Friday morning. Chris Merritt, from New Future for Children orphanage, met us at the airport. We flagged down a tuktuk, negotiated the deal with the driver to get us to our hotel and then to NFC to meet the kids.
Tuktuk is the fastest way to travel in Cambodia but you have to have a good driver. There are no “rules” to driving here – no one cares what lane they are in, they don’t stop at lights, and pull often pull u-turns in the road with little warning. Add the fact that there are about 200 motorbikes to every car and you’ve got some crazy streets! There are little “shops” along the roadsides that sell gas in litre bottles, just enough for a you back on the streets.
We dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way to the orphanage. There were some initial preparations we had to do, kids were still in school, so Chris made some curry chicken and we ate lunch.
The kids started to gather in early afternoon. Mike and I spent the next couple of hours teaching them some simple magic tricks. All of them learned and some of them excelled. We worked with smaller groups so we could give some individual attention to those who needed it.
We took the opportunity to take those students aside and share with them some more difficult ones. We would see how well they would master them the next day.
Around 6pm, it was time for us to get back to the hotel and get some rest. There are few choices for transportation from NFC because it is in one of the more rural areas of the city. Remember those motorbikes?
We’ve been going strong since we landed in Vietnam almost a week ago, sleeping little more than 4-5 hours a night. We were both exhausted. Chris joined us for dinner at the hotel; afterwards, Mike and I relaxed in the pool and were in bed by 9:30pm.
We were up around 7pm the next morning. I had the chance to sit outside before the heat climbed above 95 and talk with Cindy on Skype. It’s a great way to start the day! Chris arrived with a tuktuk drive to let us do a little sightseeing in Phnom Penh before heading back over to the orphanage.
Our first stop on the trip was outside the city. A 20km tuktuk ride to the Killing Field,s as they are now known. This is a memorial to one of the worst genocides in history. Under the Khmer Rouge, millions of Cambodians were slaughtered – men, women, and children. Babies were used as target practice, thrown high in the air and shot. Or they would simply hold them by their legs and slammed the heads against the trees. Hundreds were beheaded. The details are too gruesome to describe in detail but I would encourage you to google it to find out more. This evil regime was in power from 1975 until the Khmer people were liberated in 1979. Three million people were killed – doctors, educators, intellectuals, and those with social standing. Over 20,000 people were slaughtered and buried in the mass graves of the Killing Fields.
After taking power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge set out to immediately revamp Cambodian society. Their first step was to rusticate the cities so that the “urbanites,” suspect for their regressive class background, could be reformed through hard labor. These reformed subjects could then contribute to the new agrarian economy focused primarily on massive rice production. Thousands of people died during the evacuations. The Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich, no poor, and no quality of life. To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private properties, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture. The regime destroyed the national bank, church, pagodas, temples, schools, mosques, churches, and hospitals turning them into prisons, torture chambers, and “re-education” camps. If you could not be re-educated to follow the reigme, you were tortured for a confession for crimes again the government and you were killed.
In January 1979, the Khmer people were liberated from the Khmer Rouge and this moment stands today as a reminder of the sacrifices that were made during those very dark years of the dictator Pol Pot.
Cambodia still suffers today in poverty and ignorance because of those educators, cultural icons, and confiscation of wealth by the Khmer Rouge. It will take many more years for them to begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.
After the Killing Fields, we made our way back into the city to the Russian Market, a large indoor and outdoor market where you can literally buy anything you want or need. I picked up a couple of souveniers and then we were on our way to visit on of the local wats.
This place is HUGE – a combination of local and tourists items from clothes, food, motorbike parts, DVDs, CDs, local and pop music, and much more. It filled several city blocks…but it was also a metal roof covered market so it was a lot like walking into an oven in this heat. Imagine how hot it was in there when we walked in the cooking area with hundreds of fires and burners!
We had a lot of ground yet to cover to see some of the city sights so it was back to the tuktuk. Here are just a couple of highlights – War memorials, Temples, Monks, Statues, etc. Here are some pictures.
After stopping for lunch by the river at a great, little Thai restaurant, we were on our way back to NFC to being working with the kids. Just as we walked into the restaurant, it started to rain. We’ve been fairly lucky since we arrived in Southeast Asia. It is the raining season but we’ve only experienced a brief storm or two in other places. Today, it was raining – hard! And it didn’t let up.
NFC had planned to do a small show at the orphanage for kids, staff, and some guests. In March, a group of volunteers came and build a stage in preparation of our arrival.
Unfortunately, the rain just didn’t stop and the area around the stage was a muddy mess. We had to move the show up to the driveway but the kids did a great job of decorating it. The Young Artist Group also had an art show of original paintings planned for a silent auction. One artist, Sopheak, did most of the paintings on display. He is amazingly talented and the depth of his art is incredible.
In spite of the torrential rains, we ended up with a fun audience and had a great time. Mike and I did a little magic, the kids did some Khmer dancing for us, and a few of the kids performed some magic.
We wrapped up around 9pm. It was time to leave NFC and head to our next destination. In such a short time, it’s hard to believe you can make a connection with theses kids. Many of the older kids became especially attached to us in these few days. Saying goodbye was difficut. After saying goodbye to all the kids, our tuktuk driver took us back to our hotel…in the rain.
Mike and I hadn’t eaten since lunch about 9 hours ago. There’s not much in the way of food out where we are staying. We walked outside the gate to a little VERY local place. No one here spoke English and they didn’t have a menu (not that we could have read it). So we just ordered beef fried noodles, chicken fried rice, and some mystery soup, all prepared as traditional Khmer cuisine.
Here’s what we’ve decided. We’re not big fans of traditional Khmer food! I wouldn’t say it was tasty, but at least it was filling. And the chicken fried rice had very little chicken and a whole lot of bones! Every bite had to be chewed slowly so you wouldn’t break your teeth! The mystery soup wasn’t bad. We gave some of the things we didn’t recognize to the dog sitting next to us. If he ate it, we tried it.
Today, we leave for Thailand. We will fly to Bangkok first, clear immigration, and connect to Chiang Mai for a couple of days. More adventure to come!