While in Cambodia we had the opportunity to visit the landmine museum. We were surprised to see that this facility was founded and funded through the efforts of the Canadian government and a Canadian NGO! How exciting!
The mission of the facility is twofold:
• To establish a land mine museum in Cambodia for the purpose of providing land mine accident prevention awareness and public education.
• To provide educational facilities, programming and rehabilitation facilities for survivors of land mine injury.

The museum taught us a lot about the history of landmines, their origin, manufacture, function, and most importantly, the debilitating damage they can do to the human body. Landmines were created to maim. The logic being that an injured soldier is a lot more taxing to a war effort than a dead one. Which, I guess is true. Unfortunately, more often than not, these mines are left in the ground long after a battle – lying in wait to injure and kill civilians, their livestock, and even endangered species.

I have to admit seeing our tax dollars at work here gave me just a little twinge of pride for our little country. It probably didn’t cost a whole lot to have this modest facility, to educate the public and to help clear numerous minefields throughout the country, but this effort has made a big impact on this country and to those who have suffered injuries because of landmines. When we told locals we were from Canada, more than once they expressed their gratitude to our government for assisting in their rebuilding after years of war and conflict. That felt pretty nice.

You can get more information on this organization and how you can help here.

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The Killing Fields were the place the Khmer Rouge took their prisoners to be executed, once they had finished extracting information from them. There were over 350 of these Killing Fields around the country, with more being uncovered. The government has preserved one of these fields, Choeung Ek, just outside the capitol of Phnom Penh as a memorial. Upon arriving, the location looks like a farmer’s field, nothing extraordinary. There is one “building”, a glass Buddhist stupa, which contains the skulls of approximately 8,000 victims. Some bear obvious evidence of the violence visited upon them…tool marks, holes from bamboo stakes, and massive fractures. Bullets were expensive, so as much as possible they tried to use other methods, such as hammers, spades, burying alive, or the use of a machete. For children, it was easiest to beat their heads against nearby trees. The number of skulls…piling high into the sky, each one representing a person, a life lived. It was almost too much to take. And we hadn’t even seen the actual fields yet.

Walking around the site you notice dozens of sunken impressions in the ground. Each one was a mass grave. Unearthed in 1981, authorities are still unsure as to how many people met their end here. The fields have remained nearly untouched since then. Pieces of clothing and human bones quite literally litter the site, poking out of well worn paths, and accumulating in piles under trees, and bleached white by the sun. Every rainfall reveals more. The patterns on the clothing particularly struck me. I wonder if they might yet be recognized by a family member? A favourite dress, a well-worn blouse…I guess it’s possible.
All in all, visiting the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng prison was an incredibly emotional experience for both of us. I had studied the horrors of the Holocaust throughout school, and I thought I was somewhat desensitized to the horror of it all. I was so naieve. Cambodia was just so completely raw. I asked Mike how Cambodia compares to a place like Dachau, which he visited in 2002. He said there was no comparison. At concentration camp sites there are high tech museums, clean displays and modern sculptures representing rebirth and other abstract themes. Here, it is so recent, so gritty. And so completely in your face. It is difficult to say if the passing years and the continuous arrival of hordes of tourists will necessitate more protection of the site by the creation of a museum, but as it stands now, it is a fitting memorial for a simple and generous people so decimated by the ravages of extremism and civil war, and a place I will remember forever.

Tuol Sleng was a highschool in Phnom Penh that was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison. Men, women and children were tortured into naming names, creating a vicious cycle of thousands of innocent people being tortured and eventually killed. When the Vietnamese captured the city in 1979, they located the prison by the smell. While people were generally not killed in the facility (unless they died during torture), the Khmer Rouge had left in such a hurry that the remaining 14 prisoners had their throats slashed, and were left to decompose. The Vietnamese took a photo of each room as they found it, and this photo is now displayed in the room, along with the articles that were present – a metal bed, gas can for urination, and box for fecal matter. Sometimes, torture tools were also present. Upstairs, makeshift cells dividing the former classrooms housed hundreds of prisoners. The cells are unchanged since liberation, and bloodstains are still present on the floors.

Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented everything. We know approximately 20,000 people were brought through this facility. Before entering, each person had a photograph taken, and in this prison-turned-museum, each photograph along with the names of the individuals and date of arrest is displayed. Rooms after room after room of these photos are on display. Women with newborn babies and young children were not excluded from the torture and eventual death. Some, including children, have their ID tags pinned directly through their skin. What upset me the most however, was the looks on the faces of these people. Some were clearly terrified, others resigned to their fate, and others still were smiling. Perhaps they had no idea what was to come? Perhaps it’s a strange reaction we all have, to smile when someone points a camera at you. I don’t know. But looking into their eyes was heartbreaking. The pictures were so modern. These people were the age of my parents.
Our guide was also a victim of the regime. She told us the following story:
“I was 10 years old in 1975, and I remember everything. My father, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, they all died. Boys and girls were separated. My shoulder was swollen from carrying supplies to the camps. My shoulder hurt. I wanted to tell someone, but I can’t. So I was quiet. I moved back to Phnom Penh in 1983”.
It killed me. I even get welled up thinking about it. She turned to Mike and I and asked “My English, do you understand what I’m saying?”. We could only nod.
What I felt like saying was, I can understand the words you speak, but I cannot understand all this. And I still can’t. I just can’t wrap my mind around it.
Question: What is the best footwear for trekking in the jungle and climbing ancient stone steps?

Answer:

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The first 3 days in Cambodia we spent in Siem Reap, the second largest city. This area is home to the hundreds of temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries. Wehired a guide for the day, as we did not do our research and thought we would get more out of it with some local help. For 50 USD, we hired tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Son, and a guide, Johnny to show us the sites. Johnny learned English while living in a UN camp as a child (as it turns out, most Cambodians have experienced living in a refugee camp – the lucky ones lived in ones run by the UN) Johnny was a great guide. He was very informative without being boring. He was our age, which meant we could also connect on a personal level. He told us stories about meeting his wife, his frustration at the corruption in government, as well as sharing information on the latest styles of shoes (he preferred Adidas). But I digress – We started off watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat. This involved getting up at 5:00 am (and for anyone that knows me, they also know how much of a hardship this was! And I didn’t even put on any makeup!) Angkor was a sight to behold. And it is impressive. I have only seen it in books, and in person, it blew my mind.

We also saw a number of additional temples, all unique in their own right. The Khmers were true craftsmen…the carvings were so intricate and detailed, featuring Buddah, mythological stories, folk tales, and the beautiful Apsara dancers (boobie ladies). Many of the temples were completely abandoned and only “rediscovered” in the 1800s. Some have been overtaken by large trees. I think we both enjoyed the temples further away from the tourist trap…where you could really see the them without obnoxious tourists getting in the way (of which there were many, sadly).

Some additional tidbits:
– Angkor Wat remains the largest religious structure in the world
– the temples were designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992
– the temples are still used by the monks for prayer and ceremonies
– Entrance fee for 1 day = $20 US, 3 days $40
– this money does NOT go to preservation, but to a private company
– restoration is funded by UNESCO and 12 foreign countries, not the Cambodian government
– theft and looting of statues (or just their heads) is commonplace…items are most often purchased by Westerners through routes in Thailand
So anyway, we spent 2 days exploring these structures and it was fantastic.
And after a hard day’s work we settled down for some local brew…


This past week Mike and I visited Cambodia. I will be writing a few entries on this, because the experience shook me to the core. First a bit about the country: Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy of 13 million people. It has an amazing history, and was the centre of the Khmer Empire, one of the most successful in the history of Asia. They had a complex and sophisticated society from approximately the 1st-14th centuries. As a tour guide explained to us, from the 14th century until the 1990s Cambodia experienced a dark and sad history.

Throughout this time, Cambodia was fought over between the Vietnamese and Thai Empires. Eventually, in the mid 1800s it was “colonized” by the French, who like any Imperialist force, exploited the country’s resources and people until 1953, when Cambodia gained independence. The country began to develop and prosper until the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, who sought to transform society back into its original “pure” agricultural state. The means to this end included emptying the cities and massacring the educated, the professionals, doctors, nurses, and even those who wore glasses. It is estimated that more than 2 million were killed from 1975-9.
Cambodia has only known peace since 1998, and even then the odd armed clash breaks out, most recently in 2000, when 60 people were killed in Phnom Penh. The landmines planted during these conflicts continue to wreak havoc, the resulting in Cambodia having the largest number of amputees per capita, with 1 in every 236 people having lost one or more limbs, not to mention those that didn’t survive. In a country where the government is corrupt and broke and social services are non-existent, NGO’s and donations from foreign countries are the only means in place to help the aged, disabled, and the orphaned in this country. It’s a pretty bleak picture, but it improves every day.
All of that being said, Cambodia is a fascinating, beautiful and wonderful place, with kind and fantastic people. And to repeat an old cliché, this trip was something we will never forget.
So that is the context. The next few blogs will hopefully provide some details of the experiences we had over 5 short days in this amazing place.