Wednesday, March 20, 2013

This is the tough part

“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.”

― Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wednesday March 20 2013 - 1145 a.m.

Well I'm off the boat and on my own at last. Not that I am complaining though. I really did enjoy the boat. Very comfortable quarters, Fantastic staff and even if I at times disdain my fellow tourists, my boat mates were a great group. Everyone was friendly to a fault and didn't monopolize the guide or the groups time. Welll, maybe Annalise did a little, but maybe that was because she reminded me of myself in some ways.

Right now I am at the hotel I'll be staying at overnight, before heading to other pastures, greener or otherwise. It is a hotel that was built in the (maybe) 1950's. Not quite the Communist blockhouses of Krakaw or Skopje but it certainly is not a modern hotel by any means. They are trying hard, but it is obvious that the hotel was built pre- A/C as there are glass windows that open from the sleeping area to the bathroom. But the room is spotless and it does have an elevator. It's location is directly across from the Royal Palace and up the street from the Foreign Correspondents Club (F.C.C.) so the location is hard to beat.

I left the boat around 9 this morning and Ry was there to escort me to the hotel. We caught a remork-moto (Tuk-tuk) for 3 clams to  the hotel. The room was not available as expected. Since I was told that check in was 2 p.m. I did ask to see a room before committing but nothing was available or clean to see. So I left my luggage and wandered down the street to the first coffee shop I could find and sat for a bit sipping coffee and watching the world drive by as I reviewed Lonely Planet to see what we had missed yesterday that was on my must see for today. There wasn't too much.

There was the French Embassy where Cambodians and foreigners alike too refuge when the Khmer Rouge too control of the city. The Communists gave the option of turning over all the Cambodian Nationals or killing everyone within the embassy. I can imagine the 20 seconds the French needed to think about that one. I took a couple photos of it, but the huge wall that now surrounds it really makes almost no photography worthwhile. Then I has told the Remork-moto driver I wanted to see the National Library. A supposed great art revival building. I say supposed because He stopped at a bookstore similar in size to a Barnes and Noble. Lost in Translation would have been a very apt description.

Next and finally on the list was the Russian Market. There is nothing Russian about it other that back in the day it was the shopping mecca for the tight fisted Russian Babuskhas on vacation here. A warren of tight alleys reminiscent of the Souks of Morocco or Istanbul, only much less touristy and much more intimate. You could hardly pass another person without turning sideways. It was mostly patronized by the locals with a smattering of camera clad tourists. Myself included. There was beef hoof and plucked chickens with their feet still attached. Fresh fish, dried fish and some meats I don't want to give too much thought about. The next aisle had the jewelers in glass enclosed storefronts. Lit brighter than the sun and probably air conditioned. Did I mention it was an hot as a closed oven in there? Then there was silk alley, and tailor alley and at prime intersections there was the Prada, Versace, Chanel knock off bags and purses. I took several pictures. I didn't make any and I left with no more than I entered with.

By the time we made back to our starting point my room or should I say 'a room' was available so I grabbed it.

Yesterday was a day of ups, downs and up again. Per the schedule breakfast at 7 until nine but departure from the quay at 8:45. The river is low this time of year so it was a minor Nepalese trek from the boat to the shore. The complaint part wasn't the climb itself it was the darned stems were about six inches high and too wide to take two at a time. It was like climbing a hill on a bike in low grear. Lots of motion, little movement.

Once at the top there were fifteen pedicabs waiting to take us to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. Concluding at the National Museum. The Royal Palace was nice, pretty and interesting. Of course it was filled with mega numbers of my brethren. Camera toting tourists. Some following their versions of Ry the tour guide and some solo with the blue bound copies of Lonely Planet Cambodia. The king was outta town with mommy in Bejing, she is seeing a doctor there. So we weren't invited in for lunch. He's single and unmarried and there is  some speculation to his sexuality, but he is the king so not too much speculation. The rules of succession ar completly unexpected to me. The king is elected by a consortium of palace and government officials instead as we normally expect it to be done.

Then we strolled/sweltered over t o the Silver Pagoda. The entire floor is covered in 2 pound squares of pure (97%) silver. We got to walk on carpeting covering the silver. But there were places here and there that you could see the silver. I remember mom spending an afternoon with silver polish before Thanksgiving. If you were going to polish this floor for Thanksgiving, you'd have to start on the 4th of July.

Then back to the pedal rickshaw and my unmarried driver. Unfortunately I think he had more grand children than teeth and I never did find out how many water buffalo he had, so  I  declined his generous  offer of marriage.

Lunch and a couple hours of free time before our next trek up the stairs and off to the "Killing Fields" and S-21 prison. I used that time to wander around town a little. I was in search of a place to break a 100. I asked for a bank and was told where the ATM was. I should have asked for an Exchange, so it took longer to get pointed in the right direction than I had hoped. I did find one in a huge outdoor market. Of course English was not a language spoken. Dollars, Pounds, Rials were spoken fluently and translated via calculator. I nust wanted to break the bill, but noooo... He was an exchange and he was going to do an exchange by cracky. He wanted to do 50/50 but my cargo pants wouldn't be able to hold that many bills, he settled on $10 which was manageable.

The big red bus was waiting for us at 2:30 and we meandered through Phnon Penh traffic not stopping for anything, because we were a bus after all and the biggest thing on the road. maybe we would have yielded to a Sherman tank, but not much else. As with most of the world Stop sigs, Stops lights and not squashing nuns and children were completely optional.

The 'Killing fields' are not one particular site when the killings were done, they were scattered about Cambodia to the tune of nearly 300. This one is the one that is the most famous, but not necessarily the largest (most efficient?). Anybody could be killed there, Men of curse, women, children and even babies. Nothing quite as civilized as a bullet to the back of the hear. Bullets cost money. So clubs, hoes, and even palm tree branches were used to dispatch the victims. The infants were sort of saved from that by a swift blow against a particular tree.Of the approximate 200 mass graves only about 2 thirds of them have been excavated. The remainder are left as they were found. During the rains the occasional bone or scrap of clothing rise to the surface and placed in special memorial boxes and bins. It was more sobering for me to see the odd bone lying on the ground or pant leg sticking out than a coffin sized glass box full of bones. It just brought the reality of the madness to me more. There was a memorial stupah tastefully filled with skulls that I opted out on.

On the bus ride from the 'Killing fields' to S-21 prison  Ry told us his personal story of those three turbulent years. He and his Father, mother, younger brother and 2 year old sister along with his grandmother  were rousted from their home in Phnom Penh and forced from the city to the countryside.  Dad had a motorcycle that was loaded with the big stuff, mom and granny had the rest, Ry carried 2 ducks and they were force marched out of town. Along the way he passed bodies lying on the roadside. If you couldn't keep up where you stopped was your point of departure from this world. They were forced to work the rice fields with a quota of 3000 tons of rice per hectare. If you worked too slow, you were 'enemy', if you became ill you were 'enemy' if you were educated you were 'enemy'. As were tradesmen and speakers of foreign languages and any number of other offenses. If you were 'enemy' you just went away, never to be seen again - or - worse to be seen daily as your body rotted on the side of a dike. Ry's sister went this way as did his grandmother, who died of starvation/exhaustion. The died where she worked in the rice field and was tossed over the dike like yesterday's trash.

Of course the kids were conversationally interrogated. Nothing heavy, just conversation with a nice "Ankor" about what his father had done for a living or what they were talking about after dinner. Sometimes, parents would just disappear after such conversations. He was told to lie about his father being a soldier and that hes poke French and his grandmother English.

At first the daily ration was rice, but as they rice was more and more sent to feed the soldiers fighting the Vietnamese or sold for export that a thin wattery gruel replaced the rice. He got caught stealing rice from the kitchen and was labeled 'enemy'. Fortunately he had a friend who's father was the head fed in this group and the boy intervened on Ry's behalf and Ry only had to dig a 20 foot water channel in the dark. The boy told him that if he was 'enemy' again he had used up his one favor. Ry was nine.

Dad now has to use a cane to move about and his mom has a form of dementia where she gets lost in the neighborhood and in the night screams for her daughter and mother. Of course treatment for P.T.S.D. is non existent.

S-21 was a large school where where prisoners were held for interrogation and confession. Eventually everyone confessed and were killed, or they died in the process. Each one was photographed and cataloged both on their arrival and upon their departure. At first the three story school buildings were just open, but way too many people were tossing themselves off the top floor and committing suicide. So they couldn't have that, so the balconies were screened in, with barbed wire. In some of the rooms the tiles were still stained with the blood of the prisoners. I think there were 17,000 people (both Cambodian and Western) who passed through this facility. When the Vietnamese liberated the the prison there were three prisoners left  alive (maybe it was six). The "Ankor" were killing them right up to the last moment. One of the survivors was on the grounds and was selling his autobiography. I felt it was a worthwhile purchase on a couple levels.

Back on Big Red and back to the boat. I was scheduled to leave the boat last evening and check into this hotel for two nights. The group told me to come back for the evening's entertainment. A group of orphans who were scheduled to do national dances and songs. I said "Sure" and went to the purser, Nevell to clear it. He said words to the effect "Well, shit. Your room isn't taken and we don't leave until nine tomorrow morning. Why bother checking out. Stay here." I didn't have any heartburn over that and asked how much I'd need to pony up for the extra night. He looked at me. I said "The Pandaw Company. How much?" His response I've translated to mean "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." I did tip extravagantly after that.

This morning was the email exchange and advice and contacts when I return to Siem Reap form my tour mates. Rally a great group. The boat holds 60 passengers, but were were 18. small enough to get close over four days and large enough to not be stepping on one another's space very much. I was not particularly happy about leaving them, but it was time to meet now people and get back on my own. Setting my own course instead of being nanny'ed for a few more days.

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