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Phnom Penh | Angkor Wat

Phnom Penh

It was clear from the second we stepped off the plane that we were no longer in happy-go-lucky Thailand. There was an unsettlingly militaristic feel about the airport, where armed soldiers with dark hollow eyes took our passports, relieved us of $50, and slammed our passports back down at us angrily without so much as an acknowledgement of our existence. Walking out of the airport in the dark of night, we found ourselves in a throng of 40 to 50 idle taxi drivers all vying for our U.S. dollars. (Though the Cambodian currency is the riel, most Cambodians will only accept U.S. dollars for purchases. It's impossible to get U.S. dollars from a bank, and ATMs and credit cards are nonexistent. To make matters worse, after paying for something in U.S. dollars, you're given riel for change. We found ourselves eventually having to board a casino boat to get a Master Card cash advance of enough U.S. dollars to last through our Cambodian tour.)

We had a serious case of sticker shock in Cambodia, as everything was quite expensive — we were paying U.S.-level prices in a third world country. To make matters worse for tourists, the Cambodians are incredibly entrepreneurial people and will do things like sell you a one-way ticket on a boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, then sell you a much more expensive return ticket once you're in Siem Reap, where the only option is to cough up the extra dough or stay in Siem Reap forever. Even the littlest children on the streets are master salesmen, coached by their parents on how to sell to tourists by inflicting the maximum amount of guilt.

Our first stop in Cambodia was the capital city Phnom Penh, which looks like a war zone with its bombed-out, dilapidated buildings, dusty streets, throngs of impoverished people begging for money or food, and dozens of limbless people everywhere.

In order to get around Phnom Penh, we rented a motorbike, which was equal to taking our lives in our own hands, as there are no traffic lights (or, as far as we could tell, laws), and streets are either paved with crowded masses of motorbikes or are dirt roads with water buffalo blocking the way and truck-sized potholes waiting to swallow us whole.

Though the Cambodian people are very friendly, their eyes don't smile with their lips, and it's abundantly clear that they've suffered greatly. Cambodia has been "safe" for about seven years, but we were told that people still never know what fresh hell is lurking around the corner. We got a small glimpse of the fear the Cambodian people must live in when we visted the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is the primary-school-turned-prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed thousands of Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge documented the genocide so well that it's now possible to see hundreds of graphic, gruesome photos of people being tortured and killed, as well as the very torture devices used to kill them, complete with official "staff memos" instructing soldiers as to how the torture should be carried out. Perhaps more scary is the fact that the Khmer Rouge soldiers who committed these crimes (some of whom where brainwashed children at the time) walk the streets freely to this day, often openly making light of the fact that they got away with their crimes. This could change in the near future as Yale University is funding a project at the museum to bring war crimes charges against specific Khmer Rouge soldiers and is having some initial successes.

We also visited The Killing Fields, which are ironically green and peaceful... until you come upon the mass graves or the mountain of skulls that now reside in a glass-encased building. We watched a group of naked Cambodian children laughing and playing in the muddy water between the graves, their happy voices ringing through the otherwise somber silence. We handed out boxes of raisins to some of the children who begged us for money, and left with our hearts in our stomachs as word of the raisins spread like wildfire and dozens more starving, dirty, matted-haired children came to find that we had run out.

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