Today was, sadly, our last day in Cambodia. We arrived over three weeks ago and managed to make our way though a good part of the country. The people have been amazing, kind and generous despite their turbulent past. I am in awe of this country and while there are some issues remaining in the arena of human rights to be address they have made so much progress in a relatively short amount of time.
But more about today. We awoke with no real plan and the only thing that I had on my list that we had not managed to check off was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng was a high school but under the Khmer Rouge it was turned into a prison. Barbed wire was strung along the walkways to keep the inmates from committing suicide and classrooms became cells housing dozens of people at a time. Almost twenty thousand people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng where they were tortured into making absurd confessions after which they were sent to Choeung Ek, the "killing fields," for extermination.
In the beginning Tuol Sleng was used to house those defeated by the Khmer Rouge during the civil war but soon they were arresting academics, teachers, students, doctors, monks, and intellectuals of all kinds. Anyone capable of free thinking was a threat and had to be eliminated. I suppose it is only fitting that they used a school to eradicate the educated from around the country. Eventually the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge leadership reached new heights and they began to imprison, interrogate, and execute their own members.
Of course the confessions elicited were almost always fabrications but that didn't matter to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, it suited their purposes and fueled their paranoia so they felt they were justified. In the meantime the forced people out of the cities and into an agricultural existence. Many of them died in the fields and laboring on public works projects. Despite this movement of the population from the cities to the county and the new focus of agriculture many Cambodians were starving and in the end the Khmer Rouge's legacy was the death of millions of Cambodians.
Only seven people are believed to have survived Tuol Sleng. They were spared because they were believed to possess skills deemed valuable. It was here that the phrase, the "banality of evil" as employed by Hannah Arendt when talking about the actions of the Holocaust, came to mind. I was amazed that the irony of using a school as a prison didn't occur to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Surprised that the Pol Pot, an educated man, learned nothing from the Nazis and instead employed the same kind of perverse and detailed record-keeping in what were essentially death camps separated only by time and geography. It was systematic, almost like an assembly line of death. Nothing was learned from the prisoners and, ultimately, the Khmer Rouge accomplished none of their goals. Their grand ideas were so flawed that the only succeeded in killing the people best qualified to help them realized their vision for Cambodia. It was sad, such a glaring waste of human life, energy, and potential. Still, it reinforced my admiration for the Cambodian people, they have come so far and have managed to keep such beautiful souls despite their appalling history.
When we finished touring Tuol Sleng we returned to the apartment. Francene ate some leftovers and labored over some work related issues. Araceli, and I to a lesser extent, made some dressing for a green mango salad and for our own leftovers. When we had eaten we decided to have a massage in preparation for our marathon travel days to come. It was a Khmer massage which while invigorating was not especially good for working out the aches and pains accumulated in almost a month of travel.
When we finished our pampering Araceli and I sprang into action. Francene had a call from Tim informing us he would be leaving work soon and we hoped to get most of our packing done before he got home. Unfortunately we are such disasters that it didn't happen, we were only about half packed when Tim walked through the door and I think he was a little bummed to see us getting ready to leave. We've all had a great time and really enjoyed each other's company. It was still a while before we finished packing and by then we had worked up a real appetite.
Knowing we wouldn't be getting any decent food for a couple days I chose the type and Tim chose the restaurant. Both Khmer and Indian food has been consistently good but I was ready for more of the latter before our trip, I didn't want any more fish for the time being. Tim chose Shiva Shakti, a really great Indian eatery not far from the apartment. I think my favorite part of the meal was the appetizer; chopped and spiced cashews sandwiched between paneer and fried. It was amazing and the dipping sauces made it even better.
As dinner drew to a close I think we were all getting a little melancholy. It is just hard to accept that such a great trip with wonderful people has to end. The first blow came when Brian and Nicole went home and now the rest of the team is about to split up. Oh well, real life beckons. So we returned to the apartment to shower and to finalize all our packing. Tim sneaked out to try to find the crackers we like so well but had no luck. It would have been nice if he found them but the effort alone was so incredibly sweet.
Soon our drive arrived and we were packing our stuff into the back of the car. With a final check of our preparations from Papa Tim and a hug from our third musketeer, Ms. Francene, we set out for the airport. I type this now sitting at the terminal waiting for boarding to begin. I am sure there will be a minor disruption to the regularity of my posting in the next couple of days but I should be able to get caught up quickly.
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 16-35/f2.8L Mark II
16mm, f2.8, 1/500 sec @ 100 ISO