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Genocides, Non-Profit Radio Drama and Dumps, Oh My!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

What do these three things have in common? Our Pacific Discovery group experienced them all in Phnom Penh! Phnom Penh is a city separated by a large gap with riches, development, and corporate jobs in one corner, and with entrenched, dump-diving, amputated poverty in the other. But in the space between exists a vast amount of wonderful, inspiring, and driven non-profit NGO's that are committed to helping solve to complex hurdle of poverty that so many in this country are subjected to. During our stay in Phnom Penh, we visited quite a few NGO's (Non-Governmental Organisations which basically means non-profit orgs). Non-profits have been a staple of our trip in Cambodia, as it is the poorest country that we will have visited on the trip. We would visit the Toul Sleng Prison to learn about the genocide that went on during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Equal Access to learn about marketing messages and educating young Cambodians, and to KDFO a school for impoverished children who live in a dump (literally).

The Toul Sleng Prison used to be the main prison of the Khmer Rouge in their genocide of the educated and the weak back in the 70's. By the bloodstains, scratches and inhumane conditions unmodified from that time, it shows. Its still on the walls!!! The prison really goes for the shock factor and pictures (such as to the left) of skulls and cases of human bones make their point. After seeing all the nitty gritty of Toul Sleng, I (and many others) decided that we didn't even need to go see the actual 'killing fields' because it was just more of the same, only they actually made full sculptures and stuff out of the human skulls there. Point made, alot of people died. What wasn't as clear though was who, when, why, how concerning all the killing. From what I gathered, Communist Khmer Rouge initially focused on killing all the city-dwellers (the emptied Phnom Penh) and the educated, but sort of moved on to killing anyone, even people in their own faction. 15% of their entire population to be exact. So it was chaos. Yet most people in Cambodia don't even know much about it. This is because they were born after 79 when the communist Khmer were overthrown. It has created a big generational gap in their society.

Creating awareness and helping educate kids is were Equal Access, the NGO we visited the next day, comes in. Non-profit radio drama for sure, we got to go into the studio they use to create their radio educational programs and do our own radio drama! The messages the skits carried were...use government recognized programs if your going out of the country for work (directed towards women so thy dont get trafficked into the sex industry), and use a condom so you don't get AIDS(directed at young guys who like to party or think they're too cool). This was the most organized NGO (I thought) we had visited thus far; the difficulties of getting modern messages out to most of the (mostly rural) Cambodians is not an easy task. They explained how they managed to do that to us, the politics of working with radio stations, government censorship, the impact of their programs, and the various other ways they seek to inform Cambodians about the Khmer Rouge, sex, safety, etc. They presented their material as in a very professional yet hands-on manner, as if we were potential investors, and as a future businessman myself, this approach worked. Their website is EqualAccess.org.

The last thing our group did in Cambodia was visit a dump and take kids who went to the dump-school out for a nice day. The conditions at the dump were appalling, and the fact that people live/work there is even crazier. It looked like a scene out of Mad Max in this dump, all the bedraggled people sifting through garbage, clamoring after each new garbage truck that enters to pick-up the most aluminum cans, plastic bottles or cardboard. The people that make the most money pickuing up trash are the guys who have the most kids not in school. Very low life-spans at these dump camps too. After a walk through the dump, we went to a school at the edge of the dump called KDFO Children (I have no idea what it stands for) and took some of the kids out for some real culture, not their trash.
We went to a very nice play complete with backlit cutouts, a ladyboy actors, a small Cambodian music ensemble, and some wonderful actors. The play was of some famous Cambodian mythology and, although performed in Cambodian, its plot consisted of some fued between the king of the monkeys (a man) and the king of the Tigers, complete with a romance subplot. The kids enjoyed this, and the subsequent play workshop immensely, and it feels wonderful to have helped these children have a unique experience and expose them to some 1st-worlders despite their awful circumstances.

All in all, experiencing the 3rd-world in such a full on way has been a complete culture shock, and I am still trying to fully grasp my head around questions and answers of extreme poverty. Through our Pacific Discovery groups visits to various NGO's including Equal Access, Friends Restaurant (+vocational education, job training), and KDFO Children, I am happy to see that there are many motivated individuals out there figuring out solutions, and managing to make an impact despite the wide gaps of culture and communication that lie between us. Hope everyone is well!

(The city center Paragon)

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on March 13, 2009 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Cambodia, Johncrestani, Pacificdiscovery, Phnompenh, Equalaccess and Ngo

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Sunset in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I guess we've been in Cambodia for a week now. We spent the first night and two following days, exploring the ""pearl of Asia" as the city was known before the Khmer Rouge revolution that started on April 17, 1975. We actually missed this horrifying anniversary by only one day arriving on the 18th.
The first night that we got to the city we tried to check out the Riverfront and around the Royal Palace area. We were famished after the river trek, so we ate a pizza, then had a drink at the foreign corresspondents club, tragically immortalized in the movie the Killing Fields.
The next morning we wanted to switch to a hotel closer to the city center. The place our tuk-tuk driver recommended, the Her Royal Highness hotel, was a bit dodgy,but was nice because of the short distance to the Royal Palace.
After we got settled, we took off in the morning to find a city without basic sanitation services. Trash was littered everywhere and worst of all, composting on the sidewalks. At first we weren't that impressed, but once we reached the Royal Palace we couldn't get over how majestic the palace was. Best of all, there were huge cumulonimbus clouds over the palace, making it look like a piece from the game, Candyland.
Unfortunately, the palace takes a ciesta from 11:30-2 so we just missed going into the Royal palace. We got something to eat and went to an internet cafe down the street to pass the time.
Traditional Khmer architecture differentiates itself from other Southeast Asian architecture with ornate spires and a unique decoration that looks like a stick and juts from the corners of the buildings. The weather started clouding up but the weather held. There were stone monuments were almost as impressive as the palace itself.

2nd Day

The 2nd day took a turn for the worse since any part of a trip to Phnom Penh now makes a stop to the Killing Fields and S-21, a prison that could be compared to Auschwitz in the amount of mass killings that happened at the prison.
We made it to the Killing Fields which was a couple of km out of town. We ended up getting an English speaking guide to show us around. The first sight, is a monument with a glass area to show skulls of victims killed on the site. Next, we walked around the mass graves and were shown sugar cane plants that the Khmer Rouge used to decapitate their victims.
S-21 prison, was similarly gruesome. It was originally used as a high-school. The classrooms were converted into prison cells. The Khmer Rouge would execute prisoners, simply to make room for the new ones. Part of the museum was dedicated to first hand experiences told by Cambodians. Here people talked about reasons they joined the Khmer Rouge. It was interesting to read that some Cambodians didn't feel that the individual soldiers should be punished for the genocide.
Right now a trial is taken place to punish as many as 5 former Khmer Rouge low level leaders are being judged. We didn't really talk to anyone about the killings. I got the feeling that they wanted to move on from the past. We both tried broaching the subject with our tour guide at the Killing Fields but he seemed aloof and did not want to go into details. It could have been that his English was not very advanced.
The next day we took off and went to Sihoukville on the Southern Coast of Thailand. More to come.


permalink written by  zachel on April 18, 2009 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
from the travel blog: Zack and Rachel's Asian Chronicles
tagged KillingFields, Phnompenh and RoyalPalace

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