Saturday, September 24, 2011
Our border crossing yesterday took longer than expected, a slow, invisible process, except for the stern Cambodian customs official who took up residence in the Captain's office on the Toum Teave. I did not take his picture. We resumed our voyage against a strong current, and arrived in Phnom Penh at midnight.
Road Scholar has designed our first day in Cambodia as a real education. At 8 am, Professor Leakthina presents an on-board lecture about the history of her country, including her own story of survival in the days of Pol Pot. She uses the nation's seven flags since its days as a French Protectorate as a theme; before then, the Kmer people saw no need for a national banner. King Sihanouk, now in his 90s and retired, is a familiar presence, from his days as a "celestial being," the god and founder of independent Cambodia, which he declared "the republic that people love" in 1954. Later, he became a Buddhist monk, and then a member of the Kmer Rouge, until he reassumed the throne.
Our education continued all morning, with unforgettable and searing visits to the Section 21 Interrogation Center, and later, the Killing Fields. The stories were difficult to hear, and we were given the option not to attend. Those of us who did saw history where it happened, painful, raw, and real.
The Interrogation Center is preserved as it was used by the Kmer Rouge, with tiny brick cells built into the former classrooms of an elementary school in downtown Phnom Penh. Other rooms display the photographs Pol Pot's military forces took of all prisoners as they entered, not knowing their fate, some of them smiling for the camera. Of the thousands of prisoners who were detained here, only seven left alive.
The Killing Fields in nearby Choeung Ek are astonishingly raw, preserved as a series of grown-over excavations surrounding a tall Buddhist memorial, whose stone-and-glass walls house 5,000 skulls of the people who were executed here between 1975 and 1979. Our tour guides at both locations were men who had experienced the horror of Pol Pot's cruelty first-hand. Road Scholar's program planners had done their job well; other groups had younger guides who told the same stories, but without the feelings ours were able to share. It was the most emotionally powerful morning of our journey, followed, thankfully, by a free afternoon to reflect and explore the city on our own.