The City That Never Sleeps: Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, the city that never sleeps, is our new home for the next week. Whether it’s the late night streets pumping dance music or the early morning aerobics classes in the park, there is rarely a dull moment in Cambodia’s capital city.

Our bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was interesting to say the least. With a constant horn blaring, we sped through the countryside past floating villages, rice fields, shanty towns and tarantula markets, stopping occasionally for the odd cow crossing. By the time we arrived, there were no complaints about kicking back and watching a movie. The Killing Fields took over the screen and set up the somber mood for the next day.

Much like Angkor Wat, the recent tragic history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia plays an important role on the psyche of the Cambodian people. Taking over the city in 1975, the Khmer Rouge put in place a “Year Zero Campaign”, under the guidance of their leader Pol Pot. Cities were evacuated and a mass exodus into the countryside began. The regime broke down the family system, forced everyone into labour camps, and tortured and murdered those who might threaten the new regime.  The educated, professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) anyone who spoke anything other than Khmer and people with glasses were among those classified as “threatening”.  Sadly, children too were murdered as the regime feared kids who witnessed or knew of their parents deaths seeking revenge. During this horrific period, Buddhism itself was denounced by Pol Pot and monks, the most revered members of society, were forced to disrobe and were subject to torture and murder as well. Needles to say, the group headed out for a heavy day.

First stop, the s21 prison – an infamous torture prison used for interrogation during the genocide. About 14,000 people came through the prison and only 7 survived. Blood stains on the floor, barbed wire everywhere, and haunting faces of all the victims transformed this former high school to an extraordinarily unsettling place.  Our final stop at the Killing Fields pushed our boundaries one step further as we walked around the mass grave site where so many Cambodians lost their lives. One of many, this location is one of the most famous Killing Fields on account of the number of victims brought through, including those from the S21 prison.

In desperate need of some positive energy, the next day we headed out to A New Day Cambodia to deliver some cameras for the photography workshop. ANDC is an orphanage which is home to children who mostly grew up in the garbage dumps and slums on Phnom Penh. The children live, play and study together and have formed what some of them called one big family. We had the pleasure of giving the intermediate class presentations on Canada and the USA. We were all surprised by how fluent their English was! Afterwards we played Octopus, football, and the O.G. classic, samurai. Before leaving we had time to just hang out with the kids on a more casual level and get to know them. We told stories, sang songs, played more games and learned lessons from our young amigos.

After saying our goodbye’s we went for a perspective-inducing walk through the local garbage dumps and slums. What amazed us is how happy the people were everywhere. We realized that their is a misconception that poverty and unhappiness go hand-in-hand.

Then it was off to Tiny Toones, a drop-in centre where kids learn break dancing, english, computers and music. There are also education programs about sexual health, personal  hygene and drug awareness. We all participated in a break dancing/hip hop dance class. Many of us left with bruised knees and egos after attempting to do stalls and other challenging moves that the Tiny Toones crew demonstrated with ease.

After the class, Tiny Toone’s leader, KK, invited us out with the dance and rap teachers to the opening of a new club downtown. We had a great time partying with the TT family. Highlights included their break dance battle, lady-boy lip-sinking performances and busting moves of our own on the dance floor.

A late night was followed by an early morning for us (no rest for the wicked!). We were out the door of our guest house by 8:30 am and off to the Royal University of Phnom Penh to sit in on 2 gender studies classes. We were asked to lead group discussions on female circumcision, otherwise known as female genital mutilation. This was a big challenge for us since Cambodian culture is much more modest when it comes to sexuality. In our small groups we found ourselves dissecting the readings, giving definitions of complex terms, and drawing diagrams of the female anatomy. The students were all very engaged and grateful for our talks. After the classes were finished, Kirstie (the professor) took us to a great local deli where the O.G.’s were super excited to eat authentic western food (corned beef, meat ball subs, pasta and cheesy fries).

After a bit of free time and a nice dinner at a local Khmer & Thai restaurant, the group debriefed our experience at s21 and the killing fields from two days earlier. It was nice to have a bit of time in between experiencing the raw emotions conjured by these horrific memorials and having to talk about it. We had each participant write something anonymous to reflect on the experience and then shared them as a group.

Today we woke up nice and early once again and headed off to an orphanage and school on the outskirts of the city called S.C.A.O. We had a great day hanging out with the kids, visiting the new school which is currently under construction and teaching english classes. We have funded two water tanks for the new school, which will be open for kids who cannot afford to go to regular primary classes.

Now it’s off to the pool for some much deserved Rn’R, and perhaps a Mojito or two! Later we will be going out to a local spot for a fun-filled night of Karaoke! We are very excited…