Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is an anthill prodded by a curious boy.
Tuk-tuks rev their engines, signalling the beginning of their nightly hunt for fares. Food vendors close the glass doors of their small shops on wheels and begin to pedal or push them through the streets. Cyclists pull medical masks higher over both mouth and nose to ward off smog. Compact cars and hundreds of motorcycles are added to the soup of vehicles that zip through the streets. Lane markings are forgotten as the Khmer people calmly cut each other off, drive down the wrong side of the road and turn left into oncoming traffic.
To understand the sad history of Cambodia, we stepped through the barbed wire-flanked gates of the Tol Sleung genocide prison. Once an old high school, the communist party Khmer Rouge turned the building into a torture and execution prison. A sign above the entrance warns visitors that laughing or even smiling is not allowed. Our footsteps echoed eerily as we walked past metal beds, wooden cells and the haunting pictures of victims. It was a sad reminder of a past the country will never forget.
After one day in the capital, we took a bus to Siem Reap, the city that is famous for the largest ancient religious structure in the world, Angkor Wat. A strange combination of madcap driving, Khmer karaoke and the bus air-horn made up our entertainment. If anything had wheels or legs and was moving on the highway, the Mekong Express bus thundered past it on either the shoulder or down the middle of the road. With the blistering sun frowning down on us, we walked across the causeway towards the soaring towers of ancient Angkor Wat. The excitement and thrill that welled inside me kept me hydrated.
After the masses of tourists at the ruins, our eyes were opened to “the real” Cambodia. Our tuk-tuk driver, Lyga, introduced us to his family in his hometown of Dam Dek. Without hesitation, we were invited into their thatch home and were immediately treated like old friends. After knocking down coconuts with a twenty-foot bamboo pole and drinking the milk, we left his father and were off to the local market where the vendors hardly ever see tourists.
Every set of eyes looked at us in amusement because we were different to them. When Cambodians see something new or different, they laugh but it isn’t out of malice. After the market, we were off to the killing fields where the people built canals under the reign of the Khmer Rouge. If they were found to be against the regime, they were taken away in trucks to be killed.
Lyga’s father arrived on his motorcycle. With his son translating, he said that he worked in the very field that we stood beside. When he was taken to be killed, he leapt off of the back of the Khmer Rouge truck. Tears streamed down his face as he told his story. His sister was the only other person in his family to survive the Khmer Rouge.
We left Siem Reap with unforgettable memories. While we bumped along the