High, Low, and Sunny

Arriving into traffic madness in Phenom

We went out until about 4:30AM our first night and ate breakfast at about noon. Erika and I met up with Shane and Arielle again for some fun and food in Phnom Penh with the goal of reaching Kep or Kampot to unwind and have some crab. But mostly just for crab, green pepper crab.  Apart from being a bit bleary eyed we were looking forward to the day. Sunny (Sunn Ny), our taxi driver from the other day found us right away and after some quick negotiating (he’s a realist), we were off to a shooting range. We heard rumors, stories, and thought why not give it a try and shoot big guns you couldn’t shoot back home. Erika and I have lived in Idaho and Arizona, and had the opportunity to shoot all sorts of big hunting and hand guns, but neither of us has a big comfort level with them, even if we hold them with confidence.

We arrived at a military base that had all sorts of options ranging from handguns to shooting a cow with an RPG (rocket propelled grenade).  It costs $350. We opted for a mounted 50 cal (machine gun), an M4 (assault rifle), and the world famous Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK-47). We waited, DSLRs recording, earphones on, Erika is seated at a loaded 50 cal. and all she has to do is pull the trigger. We’re in a long, hollow brick bunker and all the locals have only their fingers in their ears – one using bullet casings as earplugs. We’re eager, unknowing, and BOOM! The loudest noise I’ve heard and felt in my life and everyone except the Cambodians jumps, recoils, and exclaims OM*G! The only one laughing with joy was Sunny, who got a big kick out of watching Erika pull trigger on the machine gun. It was a massive shock with an even bigger dose of adrenaline.  Thankfully we had chosen to start with the biggest gun and work our way down so our hearts could recover. Thank goodness we went to the shooting range first because what came next neither of us were prepared for.

The soldiers killed people by hitting them in the head because gunshots waste bullets. For children and babies they held their ankles and swung their heads against this tree. They are continually discovering clothes and new bones as the rain brings them up from the ground.

From the gun range Shane and Arielle went to the Russian Market in town, while we went to the memorial site known as The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek). It’s a place of remembrance with a museum describing (in extreme detail) the genocide and atrocities directed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. This trip has allowed us more reading time then we’ve ever had before, so we had read about the politics, first account stories, and had an idea as to what the Killing Fields were. Reading it in a book was vastly different than seeing pieces of clothing, bone fragments, and teeth coming up from the ground from the monsoon rains. Nothing prepared us for seeing a monument stacked with unidentifiable but categorized (age and gender) skulls. We felt tremendous sadness and both felt like crying (or throwing up or passing out) every other minute. Our volunteer guide we hired was helpful and was the only way to visit the site and actually come away with a storied perspective. We exit past the amputees and beggars, sad, a little depressed, and saying little to one another about our thoughts. Sunny finds us, smiles and we ask him whether or not he’s ever been inside.  He says yes then informs us that his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. There is very little of the population that wasn’t affected (3 of 7 million died), and senior citizens are few and far between. The scrappy little boy begging upon our arrival was still at the tuk-tuk and we declined him again. Sunny gives him some fruit and candy and laughs at the kids smile. I now feel miserable.  But that’s not the lesson, the point is to educate so that it doesn’t happen again.

The Gallows

We head to S21 (Tuol Sleng), a prison of the Khmer Rouge that used to be a high school. It held prisoners unknowingly awaiting execution, after their torture and confession. If they didn’t confess then, they did at the actual Killing Fields where they were forced to sign a confession letter before being bludgeoned in the head.  Walking from cell to cell, you see photos of how it looked when the prison was discovered with the only change being – no body on the bed or floor. The stains, bar windowed lighting, scratches, notations, barb wire and creepy echos all remained the same.

The bright light throughout this emotionally exhausting day was Sunny.  Before we head back to the hotel we ask him how he got his name.  He tells us that sometime in the 90s he had a dream that he was speaking to the sun. The sun told him things that changed his life and so he changed his name to Sun Ny or (Sunny). His name fits his personality perfectly and it was him, with his stories, demeanor, and infectious laugh that brought us from our lowest lows, back to life.


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**Travel Tip: Sinh Foo Guesthouse right down the street from the FCC has not only fantastic food (fish or chicken amok), but a great room and location on the river for $20 USD.  A tuk tuk for the day should be around $10.  Friends restaurant, a sister to Makphet in Vientiene, has really tasty dishes, but get there early as they close around 9pm. Pontoon is the big club in town, but after 1AM, just say, “take me to a place that has drinks, lots of people, and food,” and you should end up somewhere cool (no idea where but it was fun).



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