The Mekong Runs Deep

October 31, 2011

Any travel guidebook on Southeast Asia will issue stern warnings on visiting the region during the monsoon season. Getting from place to place can be a challenge, they say, and carefully laid tourist plans can be ruined by unpredictable weather. Yet here I was, arriving in one of the least developed countries in the region, right in time for the peak of the wet season. Cambodians have been through a lot in recent history, I said to myself. Surely I can handle a little bit of rain!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I arrived at the pier of Cambodia's capital city after an unremarkable boat trip from Chau Doc, Vietnam. Southeastern Asian cities had all started to blend together after spending much time in the region, but I did immediately notice some particulars of the people inhabiting Phnom Penh as well as of the city itself. Most Cambodians are of the Khmer ethnicity, have dark features, and simply look different than people from any neighboring countries. I found myself curiously staring at some locals, perhaps a little more than was polite. The pace of the city was much more laid back than that of bustling Saigon or chaotic Bangkok. Nary a traffic signal was to be seen in the center, and a mix of pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and Lexus SUV's driven by the nouveau riche languidly navigated their way through crowded intersections. 

Cambodian Auto Rickshaw, better known as a Tuk-Tuk

With all of the activity and commotion around me, it was easy to forget that not so long ago, this city was completely abandoned for nearly four years. When the infamous Khmer Rouge gained power in 1975, all of Phnom Penh's residents were either evacuated from the city and put into forced labor camps, or were tortured and executed. The genocide which took place during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ranks among the worst in human history. Two million Cambodians, a giant chunk of the country's population, lost their lives. I visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, and saw mass graves and an eerie stupa filled with the skulls, bones, and clothing of excavated victims. Afterwords, I stopped at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that was converted into a notorious prison by the Khmer Rouge. Thousands were tortured to death here. I really cannot put into words the horror that one feels while visiting these places, imagining the evil that once transpired where you stand. So, instead of writing about it, I'll share these photos that I captured in Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng, and hope that the mood conveys visually.

The memories of the Khmer Rouge's bloodthirsty reign undoubtedly still haunt many Cambodians. But over 70% of the country's modern day population was born after those traumatic events. While the legacy of internal destruction has left the country far behind in infrastructure, education, and other areas, the economy is developing. Two blocks from my hotel, Phnom Penh boasted a new shopping mall with a modern cinema showing the latest Hollywood hits. I was going to head out to catch a flick one evening, when sudden downpours persuaded me to change my plans. The photographic opportunity created by the flash flooding on the busy street below was too good to pass up!

The worst flooding in over a decade was swamping the region, and the flat landscape of Cambodia had been hit especially hard. This was clearly evident on my bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, launching point for visiting the wondrous ancient temples of Angkor Wat. From my bus window, I was stunned to see that the entire countryside was underwater. Rice fields were completely inundated, and the terrain looked more appropriate for watercraft than any land transport.

View of Cambodia's Flooded Landscape from my Bus Window

I arrived in Siem Reap and caught a tuk-tuk to a guesthouse. Immediately upon arriving, I overheard other guests murmuring about heavy rains to come. Sure enough, the next morning when I awoke the street in front of the hotel had been turned into a river! Overnight, the city of Siem Reap had been completely flooded in knee-deep waters. This was going to make exploring Angkor Wat an interesting venture indeed!


1 comment :

  1. Dear Adam-
    Your blog and travels are just amazing. I have spent the last half an hour catching up as 75 Spanish 201 compositions sit on my coffee table waiting to be graded. UGGGGGG. I so badly want to hit the road. With a 15 month old baby and a house mortgage, it's not the moment. Sometimes I wonder if it will ever be. How did I let myself get caught up in the American "Dream?" I so admire you... your sense of adventure, your compassion for the people you have met. WOW. I still think fondly back to some of those first adventures... mountain biking in the hills of Spain and hiking through olive orchards. Oh the things that you have seen. I can't even imagine. Sending you well wishes and abrazos. Thanks for the magnificent stories and photos. xoxox Juliana