memorial, photography, politics, The China Chapter, travel

ភាពភ័យរន្ធត់និងបដិសណ្ឋារកិច្ចនៅរាជធានីភ្នំពេញ – Phnom Penh: The Capital of Horror and Hospitality

After a few days in Siem Reap, Melissa, Kerensa, and I were ready to see the busier city of Phnom Penh.  Our Siem Reap driver took us to a bus depot where we boarded a Giant Ibis bus.  If you are ever traveling across Asia and want a great, affordable means of travel, Giant Ibis is the way to go.  The bus we were on boasted wifi–although coverage was not always great–comfortable seats and outlet plugs.  For a country that doesn’t even have electricity in many homes, the bus…was unexpected in the most pleasant of ways.  Giant Ibis’s Phnom Penh site manager, Nou Sokhien, would also prove to be most invaluable in the next leg of our journey.

Pictures Taken En Route to Phnom Penh


Our arrival in Phnom Penh was pretty nondescript.  We arrived at the bus terminal and were again picked up by a tour guide and driver.  They took us along the shore of the Tonle Sap River to our hotel, the King Grand Boutique Hotel.  Kerensa’s room was ready as soon as we got to the hotel, so we headed up to her room where we were taught how to use the fancy door locks.  Of all of the hotels on our trip, I think the King Grand was one of my favorites. (Tangent here…I would normally save this until the end of the blog post, but this post gets a tad heavy and this incident is so trivial in comparison.  The King Grand was spectacular except for one server, who took entirely too long to give us change from our bill at the rooftop bar.  After waiting for nearly an hour, we went down to the lobby to find him goofing around with hotel guests.  Don’t eat dinner on the rooftop there and you’ll be fine.  Most of the staff was incredible, the rooms were nice, and the location was top notch.)

After taking a respite to settle into our rooms, we found that the hotel was an incredibly short, convenient walk away from the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda (officially the Temple of the Emerald Buddha).  We wandered to the palace, paid a small entrance fee and poked around.  There was some (royal, I’m assuming?) event taking place in the Hor Samritvimean, so a few of the palace buildings were off limits to both foot traffic and photography.  But that didn’t stop us from meandering about the stupas and enjoying the palace grounds that seemed complete with large pictures of His Majesty, Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia.


After touring the palace, we met up with Diana, another teacher from Chengdu.  We ate at Friends the Restaurant and spent a little time investigating their adjacent store.  Most of the proceeds go to charity, so you have to shop, right?  We also made plans to visit the killing fields and genocide museum the next morning…


I felt a long pause was in order there and I took a pause when writing this entry too, not really sure how to write about such a heavy day.

Before going to Cambodia and Vietnam, I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War and even less of the reign of the Khmer Rouge.  I always associated the USA with fighting–albeit perhaps sometimes blunderingly–on the side of right, opposing evil.  But rarely is history so black and white.  I’m no scholar on the matter, so if the topic of the Vietnam War and Reign of the Khmer Rouge really speaks to you, please investigate it further.  What I’m writing is only the history of the time as I have learned it from being in Cambodia, taking tours, listening to interviews, and talking to Cambodians.

The Khmer Rouge took power of Phnom Penh easily.  Cambodians in the 1970s were tired of being bombed by American fighter jets, a causality of the war with Vietnam.  The citizens of Phnom Penh welcomed the Khmer Rouge with open arms in 1975, thinking the tide of violence would recede.

In less than 24 hours, the people of Phnom Penh knew they had misjudged the Khmer Rouge.  Citizens of Phnom Penh were expelled from the city, forced to work and dwell in the countryside.  But that would be nothing compared to the horrors that were to follow.  For the next 4 years, until 1979 when the North Vietnamese Army drove the Khmer Rouge from power, the regime purged Cambodia of all the indecent people opposed to their idea of a classless, agrarian society.  Such indecent people included doctors, professors, and foreigners.  These people were rounded up and taken to prisons like the Tuol Sleng Prison that we toured.  Here, prisoners were tortured until they gave up names of others who were against the Khmer Rouge’s regime.  These newly named people were then picked up and tortured themselves.  Even a number of Khmer Rouge soldiers actually wound up being tortured and killed at prisons like Tuol Sleng.  Out of the 17000-20000 people who made their way through Tuol Sleng, only 7 to 12 are reported to have survived.


When the Khmer Rouge ran out of room for bodies in Tuol Sleng, they sent people to killing fields, like Choeung Ek, located 15 km (9 miles) south of Phnom Penh.  There, people were made to dig mass graves for themselves.  Then Khmer Rouge soldiers hit them with shovels until they were dead.  Infants were swung against a tree, dying instantly from the trauma, and were then tossed into a pile of corpses.


The entire day was dreary and depressing, but I appreciated it as one might a trip to Auschwitz, an area, preserved from the flow of time, showing humanity at its worst that we might strive to become humanity at its best.  Still, thoughts give me pause.  After being shut down in 1979, Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek were both turned into profound tourist stops in the 1980s.  In 10 years or so, are there going to be similar monuments in Syria and Sudan?  And who will play the role of the North Vietnamese Army, driving harsh regimes from the land?

memorial, poetry

Maya Rises

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

-Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

memorial, politics

The Man Who Lived for a Nation…

In 1963, Nelson Mandela, arguing against South African apartheid, said the end of the cruel system was an idea for which he was prepared to die.  Instead, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, only to be released in 1990, when it was obvious apartheid was failing.  He passed away today at the age of 95.  Nelson Mandela did more than die for his country: he lived for her.

Credit Denis Farrell / AP

faith, memorial

Thoughts of my grandmother come unbidden and I smile.  I should really give her a call, I think, trying to remember the last time we spoke.  A second passes and my memories crash down on me.  There will be no phone call, not tonight, not ever.  She is no longer here and although she died a year ago, there have been moments in my life that I forget she’s gone.  And the thundering realization breaks my heart wide open every time.  I want to hear her voice so badly, my soul aches and my heart feels like it’s collapsing upon itself.

This–this vast emptiness I feel–this is heartache, heartbreak, and love all rolled into one.  It’s through this tearful heartache that I find a salty, curious hope: that I may crave conversation with my God as much as I yearn for it with her.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ~1 Corinthians 13:7

memorial, songs, travel

mémoire du piaf

piaf, taken from the bluegrass special
édith piaf: a brief melody
the places of piaf: a brief history
  • paris: in 1915, piaf was born as édith giovanna gassion to a mother who was a café singer and a father who was a street acrobat.
  • normandy: where she lived with her paternal grandmother who ran a brothel.
  • lisieux: piaf had impaired eyesight until she was seven due to keratitis, an inflammation of the cornea. one of the possible causes of this condition is herpes. regained her eyesight after a pilgrimage to sainte thérèse’s home in lisieux.
  • paris: where first sang in public at age 14, performing with her father’s acrobatic troupe.
  • paris: fell in love at age 16 with a delivery boy and had a girl, marcelle. the child lived until she was two years old.
  • paris: her next boyfriend was a pimp who took her money in exchange for not making her act as a prostitute.
  • paris: in 1935, louis leplée, owner of the paris club le gerny, convinced her to sing at his club. since she was so small (4’8″) and nervous, he nicknamed her piaf, or little sparrow. within a year, she had multiple records produced.

    Gerny's (By kind permission of Christina L Fisher)
    le gerny’s*
  • paris: in 1936, leplée was murdered. piaf was questioned, accused of being an accessory to murder, but then acquitted. she set on a mission to revamp her identity, which included changing her name to édith piaf.
  • worldwide: over the course of her career, she had many lovers and met with great success, starring in movies and having her voice in high demand.
  • new york city: she was not very popular in the states until a prominent critic gave her a great review; she went on to perform at carnegie hall twice.
  • france/us: in 1945, she sang la vie en rose. it was given a grammy hall of fame award in 1998.
  • plascassier or paris: in 1963, at 47, piaf died of liver cancer. she is buried in pére lachaise cemetery in paris, next to her only child. also in paris, a two-room museum, the musée édith piaf, is devoted to her legacy.
*credit: Christina Fisher

Tree of Forgetfulness

“No visit to Benin is complete without a visit to Ouidah. Accordingly, [we] dedicated the entire next day to seeing the eccentric city known for being the birthplace of Voo-doo and one of the most infamous names in the Atlantic slave trade.

“First stop was the Ouidah History Museum, housed on the premises of the last remaining colonial fort. Built by the Portuguese in 1721 as a trade and missionary base, the fort stood watch as millions of Africans marched by on their way to slave ships bound for the Americas. Today, the museum documents with accounts and artifacts how Ouidah came to be the busiest slave port in West Africa.

“From the museum we hired moto-guides to take us along the 3.5 km slave route from the city center to the sea. They competently led us through the six stages of the journey from slave market to the waiting ships. Among these stages is the ‘Tree of Forgetfulness’ which was believed to have magical properties that allowed whomever circled it (9 times for men, 7 for women and children) to forget their homes and identities, thereby freeing their souls from the pain of their imminent departure. The final stage is today marked by the ‘Gate of No Return’, a striking monument which stands meters from the water and commemorates the thousands of slaves who left that beach never to return again.”

Kate Puzey, a Peace Corps volunteer and fellow W&M alumna, posted these words less than two weeks before she was found murdered outside her PC home in Benin. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends. Anyone who met Kate can detail her endless well of patience, her compassion, and her beautiful, ceaseless smile. BoingBoing has an excellent writeup on the Benin community’s reaction to the death of this amazing woman. In her blog, Kate brought Benin to life whenever she had the time and opportunity. Her family members, in their interviews, echo the spirit of her words online. Kate loved Benin, her work there, and the Peace Corps. And her death, her family claims, should not deter others from trying to make a difference in the world by serving.

The Kate Puzey Memorial Fund has been established “to help causes Puzey believed in,” her father said. Donations can be sent to: c/o Smith, Gambrell, and Russel, LLP, Suite 3100, 1230 Peachtree Street, NE, Atlanta, GA 30309-3592.