Sunday, February 27, 2011

Visit to Tuol Sleng, and then the Cambodiana Pool

Today has been another mixed bag.
Shortly after moving into our apartment, I noticed on the map that we live on exactly the same street, Street #113, as the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison and Genocide Museum, to which where more than 20,000 people taken and never returned during the Khmer Rouge regime--it's about 10 blocks away. It gave me a dark impression of our street, but then you have to grapple with that history just about everywhere in this country, and anyone over the age of 30 must be touched by that history all the time.
This morning, I took the kids there to learn more about this dark time in the country's past.  I talked the boys through it on the way there and Tik was pretty scared as we got out of the tuk-tuk at the gate. Ernie knows the history pretty well now-- that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, and at first everyone was so excited about the revolution. Then they started killing all the people with money and education and social connections and urban background. They took over this school-- the Tuol Sleng High School-- surrounded the place in razor wire, and used the classrooms as cells for interrogation and torture. More than 20,000 people were killed in 4 years from this place, mainly Khmer Rouge officials and their families who were accused by the party of conspiracy against the party. The place isn't sanitized or arranged at all like a museum, just rooms with pictures of the corpses that the Vietnamese found when they took the place over, and torture devices laying on the floor and metal frame beds and bars on the windows. One floor of the place is now arranged with bulletin boards covered with the mug-shots of prisoners as they were brought it. The kids were really sad to see how many of these were children and babies. I had to remind Tika that it's a museum and we're only here to learn about what happened, that nobody is doing that here today. Ernest has had some soul-searching about how people could be capable of this kind of violence, and at the same time, how many former Khmer Rouge are just ordinary older-people today, and how the rest of Cambodia seems to be optimistic and loving children.
 In the afternoon, we headed over the Cambodiana Hotel, a big old Soviet-looking concrete structure along the river just where the Tonle Sap combines with the Mekong and the river is super-wide. The hotel has a pretty pool deck with lounge chairs and a cabana, and kiddie pool with a concrete slide that looks like Breshnev designed it. But surprisingly enough, after I splashed some water on it, the kids could slide down it pretty well, and so they did this for most of the afternoon. We also took a walk down to the hotel's covered docks along the river for a break. It's a wide, silty, slow river, dotted with barges and fishing boats and little tour boats. We watched a guy in a rickety boat pulling up fishing net, and a bunch of gardeners planting shrubs for the hotel near the water.
When we got back to our part of town we stopped by the tailor to see if today is pick-up day on Tika’s dresses. It took 4 people to relay to me that they won't be ready for three days still. I feel like a moron when I try to communicate here, because I have only figured out that Sosi-deh means Hello and Okoon means thank-you.
We've got a lot to learn about this country, and we're very fortunate to have this opportunity to see and hear and learn.