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The High Highs and the Low Lows of Phnom Penh…

If Cambodia won them over by merely crossing over the border with claims of it smelling like fresh bread, then Phnom Penh stole the group’s hearts during our short stay there.

Following the movie, we took a stroll through the city towards the night market and past the brightly lit up Independence Monument and grandeur of Hun Sen’s home, towards the block long Royal Palace decked out in lights and photos of the King. Stopping for some brief exercise in the park with the aerobics session, we followed the scent of fresh popcorn to the riverside boulevard, where the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap meet. Brightly lit bars, cafes and restaurants line the lively riverside. Street kids selling the most common backpacker books. Khmer hip-hop blaring from the bustling night market set the soundtrack.

We settled down in a circle by the riverside, ordered delivery pizzas and were in for an evening of high energy, smiles, dances and new friends. I will not go into all the finer details but I will say that one of our not-so-keen-on-dance-parties-participants described it as, “the most fun I think I have EVER had dancing!

Crashing down from our high the evening before, we struggled through the intensely emotional day at the Killing Fields and the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21), now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Hundreds of Killing Fields can be found all over Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge period. In an effort to bring Cambodia back to the year zero and return to an agricultural society free of inequality and western values, the Khmer Rouge waged a genocide against its own people. Led by Pol Pot, they broke down the family system. All loyalties were to Angka, the organization. The cities were evacuated and everyone was sent out into the countryside to work.

At the beginning of the revolution anyone with an education or posed a direct threat to the regime were wiped out. Lawyers, doctors, soldiers, teachers, accountants, anyone wearing glasses, speaking another language, light skin… Whole families were targeted in order to ensure revenge on the regime was not possible. Over time, everyone became a possible enemy, not only to the regime but also to each other.

Over 16,000 people went through the S21 prison and only 7 survived. Famous for its brutal torture techniques, the Khmer Rouge interrogated individuals they thought were out to thwart the revolution. Men, women and children passed through this hell. Blood stains the floor. Barbed wire fences are on every level to make suicide an impossible escape. Photos of the victims line the walls with looks of not fear or sadness but either defiance or defeat. Tiny cramped cells with chains. Bullet holes litter the walls. A heavy and negative aura surrounds the museum making it difficult to breathe.

The victims of the S21 prison were brought to Choeng Ek, the Killing Fields, for their final moments. The excavated pits hold the memories of the 20,000 souls that lost their lives at this site. A pagoda stands in the middle of the site housing the skulls of the lost. A tree is marked as the baby killing tree. The sound of young school children fills the air with an eerie sound of the hope and future. Why didn’t we learn anything about this in school?

This is current history. These are fresh scars. Cambodia continues to overcome the odds and has not given up! Growing from the ashes of this broken society are the youth of today. Empowering the next generation is the only way to guarantee success tomorrow.

On that note, we would like to inform y’all that we are back on the bus! This time as an army of 50 strong! We have tacked on an extra 38 extraordinary people from Tiny Toones— The very people who are empowering Cambodian youth to make changes every single day. Heading to the beach for a holiday, cross cultural exchange, some karaoke, but above all to learn from each other about what it really means to be a leader.

Let the 2nd annual OGTT leadership begin! Next stop, the beach!

P.S. the air conditioning works on this bus…

what are you waiting for?