Nov 27 2010


When we left Vietnam yesterday for Cambodia, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I kept thinking of the part in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Committed, in which she gets chased down the street by a horde of begging Cambodian children and holes herself up in her hotel room.  Or, for that matter, the stories I’ve heard from other travelers of what an emotionally difficult place it is to travel, due to its recent history with the brutal Khmer Rouge.

We haven’t yet met hordes of street children, but I could see how that second part could be true. This afternoon included a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, a former high school that the Khmer Rouge used to detain and torture more than 17,000 people between 1975 and 1978, nearly all of whom were subsequently executed in the infamous Killing Fields. It is a terrifying place, more so because its setting – a high school, still with pull-up bars in its grassy courtyard – is so mundane. As Peter pointed out, one of the most disturbing aspects of the experience was noticing that the checkerboard-patterned tiled floor shown in the gruesome photographs of the murdered victims was the very same one that we were standing on. It’s one of those places that are important to visit, but deeply upsetting.

Tuol Sleng

As a result, we decided not to visit the Killing Fields themselves, much to the disappointment of the many tuk-tuk drivers we encountered around town. (Tuk tuks are two-person chariots pulled by motorbikes.) That was one of the most bizarre parts of walking around Phnom Penh. About every five minutes, you’re approached by a guy driving a motorized pedicab asking you – in a very cheerful voice — if you want a ride to the Killing Fields. It’s the same tone one might use to offer a trip to the Royal Palace, or maybe a romantic tour around town. “Hello, you want tuk-tuk? Maybe visit Killing Fields?” The only thing odder than their advances was the fact that the admission to the Killing Fields — $3 according to the latest Lonely Planet – is controlled by the Japanese company responsible for repairing the road that leads to it. I’m not sure whom, exactly, I think should be getting the money, but I don’t think that’s it.

Another legacy of the craziness of the Khmer Rouge – which, in addition to restarting the calendar at year zero, decided to abolish money – is that no one seems to want to use Cambodia’s official currency, the riel. Instead, they use US dollars. I don’t just mean that prices are quoted in dollars, as they often are in Vietnam with a poor exchange rate. I mean that the dollar is the de facto currency. You buy things in dollars; you get change in dollars; they’re even dispensed by ATMs. (People use riel in place of quarters, but that seems to be about it.) Locals deal with riel more often than tourists do, but they use dollars as well. Does anyone else find this weird, that an entire country can decide to use a different country’s currency? I feel like that’s somehow against the rules.  But the problem-solver in me thinks this might be an excellent way to combat our immense national debt: just get other countries to give up their currencies. Who needs the Euro? They can just buy a ton of dollars – thus sucking up some of our potential for inflation and making them more dependent on our success. I recognize there are large holes in this theory of global economics, but I’ve been walking around all day in 90-degree heat. At the moment, it seems to make a lot of sense.