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    Monks cross in front of the notorious prison known as S-21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, now a museum containing the history of Pol Pot’s brutal regime. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

Phnom Penh holds some grim sights for tourists

With only a day and a half in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Bucko and I had a lot of ground to cover. However, I know the ground; I’ve covered it many times before.

The fairly recent history of Cambodia, including the U.S. bombings during the Vietnam War and Cambodian Civil War, then the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, has created the grimmest of sites on a tourist’s “must-see” list. I’ve seen it all before, but Bucko hasn’t, so for half a day we were immersed in horror.

Our first tour was of the notorious S-21 Prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where hundreds of people, mostly educators and officials, were tortured and starved. There are vivid photos of emaciated people and displays of torture devices. We followed this up with a solemn tour of a “killing field” from the Pol Pot era, complete with mass graves and a giant monument housing thousands of skulls from the bodies exhumed there.

Visitors have left clothes, bracelets, ribbons and other mementos to honor the dead. I had a painted shell with me, one I got inspired to make after learning about Amelia Shells, but one with no identifying sticker on it, just gold paint. I had painted a heart on this shell, but the shell broke in transit, right in the middle of the heart. I solemnly added this broken heart to the pile, my own token of remembrance.

My Cambodian colleague and close friend (my “Little Brother”) Srey Chanthy survived that period, but most of his family was exterminated. He wrote a book about this, and I had the honor of reading it in draft form a couple of years ago. I was delighted to find this book on sale!

Phnom Penh was not all sadness and pain. It’s a vibrant city with a waterfront full of small restaurants and bars serving delicacies like fish-amok and cheap, cold Cambodia beer, just what we needed to raise our spirits.

In the afternoon, we strolled through the local food market and I snapped some shots of various Asian fruits that are not widely available outside this region. We ate our fair share of pink-colored dragonfruit with its white flesh, and mangosteens and rambutans with their own juicy, white sections. Wonderful.

Then I noticed a stall with a woman selling what I thought at first were hard-boiled eggs. A closer look revealed the truth. These were duck eggs with nearly hatched baby ducks inside, boiled up and ready to eat with a spoon. I am usually adventurous in my eating habits, but even I couldn’t look a cooked baby duck in the eye and get it to my mouth.

Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts for sure, with horrible sights mixed in with grand gilded temples and pagodas, and landmine victims roaming the tourist streets begging for handouts. The people are cheerful, friendly and polite, despite it all, and if they can keep smiling, there’s no excuse for the rest of us not to smile and live on, too.


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