Ferry in Siem Reap, Cambodia, soon to depart for Phnom Penh (June 27, 2000). Three months earlier, in March, the ferry had been boarded and robbed by ex-Khmer Rouge. In April it had capsized, drowning Taiwanese tourists.
The following is from my journal entry for June 27, 2000 — the day I traveled from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the capital of a country that I had longed to visit since at least age 13, when I saw, and was impacted by, the movie The Killing Fields. The movie is about the Khmer Rouge regime as experienced through the lives of two journalists: Dith Pran, a Cambodian photojournalist, and Sydney Schanberg, an American reporter for the New York Times.
Got up at 5:00 a.m. for the 6:00 a.m. departure by truck to the lake, where we caught a 7:00 a.m. express boat ($22 for foreigners) to Phnom Penh. There were crowded seats below deck, but most of us tourists sat on the roof. The boat was fast and loud. The sound of the wind combined with the engine could not have been healthy. My hat, which I’ve had since working in Saudi Arabia three years ago, blew off my head and is now somewhere in the middle of Cambodia’s Great Lake, the Tonle Sap. This boat had been held up in March, but there were no problems today. The first hour was nice but then the trip grew long. It was actually cold at first but once we had entered the river south of the lake the sun was nearly unbearable.
Phnom Penh seems hotter than Siem Reap. The trip was advertised as 4-5 hours but took 6 hours. Was so glad Narin’s Guesthouse always has someone waiting at the dock to transport people. I got a single room for $3. Took a shower and then had lunch. Rested for an hour or two rather than face the sun again today. Woke up in time to see a thick, impressive rain and lightning storm pass over for an hour.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia (June 2000)
Tonight I walked north to the Central Market and then over to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) to look at the menu and see the photos on the walls taken by Al Rockoff who was featured in The Killing Fields. Graphic, powerful photos. Stopped by a hawker stand and chatted with the Cambodian guy there over a fruit shake.
Returned home on some dark and eerie streets, wondering how serious the guidebook’s warning not to walk alone at night really is. But in Phnom Penh, a city I consider a dream come true to visit, I want to take some risks. This city has been through so much hell and I feel in a sense like I’ve come too late to share with the innocent in their suffering. In some irrational way, I feel better if I can at least today walk alone at night and thereby take my own risk. It’s as close as I can come to sharing in the fear that people here have lived with, particularly under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
There is much poverty here. I heard that this morning a few blocks away from the guesthouse a policeman and his wife were gunned down by another motorcyclist, apparently settling some kind of score. This is a country that makes a person like me so happy but also so sad. The smile of the people are medicine for my heart; the corruption and disastrous history (of the last few decades) pierces the same heart. If I could, I think I might give one of my legs to some of the double amputees I’ve seen. At least in my more giving moments.
Interested in learning about about Khmer Rouge and the families it tore up? A book recommendation: