Some of their faces show contempt or rage, others fear or an obvious resignation, while other faces are sadly innocent – a few even have smiles. I look at all the photographs they have of former prisoners at the Toul Sleng S21 Prison in Phnom Penh. Every photograph shows a little bit of humanity: the blind emotions of the children that were taken there, the rage of mothers that have just had their child taken from them, the dread of the old men that know they are doomed. All the heinous acts of torture and murder that were committed at this prison under the Khmer Rouge regime are documented.
The Cambodians were victims of the reign of Pol Pot, who ended the civil war that had been raging between royalists and communists. This all happened in the second half of the 70’s, and it’s admirable to see the forthrightness that Cambodians face their past. However, they don’t (nor should they have to) blame themselves. Only the military officers at the highest rank are considered culpable, everyone else merely an unwilling accessory.
The “Killing Fields,” about 12km outside the city center are an equally sobering experience. After the S21 museum I feel sick when goaded by tuk-tuk drivers to drive me there. I wait to go in the afternoon and follow the very informative audio tour. A quarter of the Cambodian population was killed in less than five years under Pol Pot, which is the equivalent of 87 million Americans being killed if the same were to happen there today.
In less than half a day’s journey, one can flea the remnants of a bloody history, the scams, danger, and dirt of Phnom Penh for the Gulf of Thailand. On Koh Rong Island, I roll up a joint with some pot that I acquired gratis in Siem Reap from a departing traveler. It is the afternoon and the water temperature is perfect.
As I’m trying to light up, I’m approached by a man in uniform and two men in plainclothes. They ask me if I’m smoking weed. I say no. They ask me if I bought weed on the island. I say no. They take the bag of weed that I’ve hardly dipped into and ask if it’s mine. I say no. They ask me if I smoke weed. I say no. They take it away and I’m approach by all the spectators nearby. No one has seen anything like it. The owner of the Italian Reggae bar on the dock laughs when he hears the story. It’s unheard of.
From the dock as the sun fades below the sea I watch local kids on the beach practice their cartwheels. A joint is being passed around and next to me a local expat yoga teacher explains to another backpacker the ins and outs of renewing one’s Cambodian visa. The next day I lay on the beach hungover.
The island is party party. Other backpackers that are staying in places that have a generator say their beds vibrate all night. In my guesthouse, like most of the island, power goes out at 2am. Though, I end up hanging out late at night and don’t get all that much rest. One day, I hike the 45 minutes to the other side of the island. Long beach is beautiful and a hippie backpacker’s dream. You can rent a hammock and a locker for the night. I take a boat back to the other side of the island, but there is no dock. I wade into the water with my bag above my head and hoist myself onto the boat. The water is clear and pleasant.
I wake up my last night sick. Even while I’m shaking with sickness, I can hear the backpacker proverb in my head: “Everyone gets sick in Cambodia.” I’m determined to leave the island so I take the ferry back to the mainland. I’m lying down on a cement bench in front of the bus company office when the agent asks if I drank too much the night before. I tell him I got sick and he offers a place on the floor in the office. I sleep for over an hour with a pillow and a fan at his feet. It’s one of the best naps of my life. The two-hour ride to Kampot is painless.
I spend a couple of nights in Kampot hanging by the river, witnessing the strange expat vibe of this former French colonial outpost. I hire a tour to see the pepper fields, which are famous in Kampot for some of the best in the world. My “guide” hardly speaks English and drives me around to a bunch of places I don’t even want to go. My questions about pepper go unanswered. I buy some pepper at an organic farm. I board a van to Vietnam.