Expansion of My Soul

Posted: October 7, 2014

Lisa Dang
College of William and Mary
The Living Mekong, Cambodia & Vietnam

After four enthralling, yet class-intensive weeks in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we took to the road and headed off to the hustle and bustle capital city of Phnom Penh—home to atrocious traffic and near-death street crossing experiences; however, all of which are counteracted by the rich culture and experience the city has to offer.

The distance from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was no cruise. Riddled with potholes and unevenly unpaved roads, the roller coaster ride did wonders for my already aching back and persistent headache. Also, as an added bonus, the trip caters to adrenaline junkies thrilled at being tossed four inches into the air and the chance for a mild whiplash. Nine hours well worth enduring.

Our first stop in the city, a modern, chic restaurant just off the corner of rue 278, also conveniently the same street as our hotel. The food was heavenly and the unenclosed setting made for a relaxing and pleasurable dinner out. A proper hats off to our SAM, Tabitha Ballard, for arranging the food and accommodations—a solid anchor to the unpredictability of a new program. Her impeccable taste in the finer cuisines and restaurants are the sole reason for my recent weight gain. Lost souls we would be without her. Lost souls.

In a larger sense, emotions ran high during our trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Center. We entered through the rusted gates, surrounded by barbed wires of Tuol Sleng, the site of a former high school notoriously known to the Khmer Regime as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This was just one of 150 execution centers. Classrooms were converted into torture cells measuring only the length of roughly half a body; electrified barbed razor wires enclosed the prison; blood stained the tiled floors; and a foul stench scented the air. Hell reigned over S-21. The Pol Pot Regime’s desire to keep itself a secret and anonymous condemned all inmates to death.

To depict the ruthless reality of the leaders of the Khmer regime, the rooms of the museum hung photos of emaciated, decomposing corpses taken at the time of their imprisonment. Bodies were chained to iron beds with blood trickling down their slit throats. Pictures of victims lined the walls by the hundreds. Their mug shots—lifeless, expressionless, eyes glazed over with all hope seemingly obliterated.

My visit to Tuol Sleng was filled with a myriad of unwanted emotions, and Choeung Ek was no exception. Choeung Ek, one of the most infamous killing fields, saw more than 20,000 brutal executions. It is the site to many Cambodians that will live in infamy. The memorial dedicated to such tragic event is a Buddhist stupa littered with remnants of human bones and skulls. Flowers and incense sticks line the memorial, as a sign of respect to the tortured and executed victims.

Our time spent in Phnom Penh was short-lived but packed with a host of cultural experiences and deep-rooted history lessons. It has expanded my soul in inconceivable ways.

To end on a positive note, our final destination before returning home to Siem Reap to board a flight to Vietnam was Kratie, a small, rural province in western Cambodia. The main allure to the quiet town is the high chance of spotting the shy, slaty blue, bulging forehead Irrawaddy dolphins. These non-jumping dolphins, only break the surface every so often for a breath of air. We boated out into the Mekong River and spent the afternoon giddy at the sight of spotting any dolphins. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to see endangered species.

While we still have half a month of more traveling to do, the places we have visited thus far have been culturally rich and enlightening. I have gained a broaden understanding of Cambodia but there is still much more to learn. I know for certain that my time left in this country will contribute greatly to the expansion of my soul.