Adventures With Bears To The Devastation Of The Killing Fields

Heading to our little plane to Phnom Penh

After 5 wonderful days in Siem Reap, we caught our next flight to Phnom Penh, the current capital of Cambodia.  Once again, we found ourselves immersed in a culture of incredibly friendly people.  I can’t even begin to describe how warm, caring and friendly the people are in SE Asia.  As you will recall, I was not overly thrilled about flying a 67 seat prop plane to our next location.  The reality….it was one of the best flights we’ve taken from city to city in SE Asia.  Unfortunately, we arrived smack in the middle of traffic hour, and it was horrendous!  Phnom Penh’s traffic rivaled the city of Bangkok.  Our 30 minute ride to our hotel took over 45 minutes.  We checked into our room and this is where the fun begins……

A mechanic adding oil to the prop engine. Just what you want to see before takeoff!
A quick snippet of our flight from Siem Reap on a Cambodian Angkor Air prop plane.

As we started to settle in, Dan quickly realized that his IPad was missing…..not missing, but left in the seat back pocket on the airplane :(. Believe it or not, this has happened once before!  Several years ago on a flight from Europe to Philly, the same thing happened.  Needless to say, the iPad was gone forever.  So, Dan begins to frantically call the airline to try and track down the iPad.  Their advice:  Go to lost and found at the airport.  Are you kidding me???  That means another 45+ minute drive back to the airport in traffic :(. They can’t tell us if the iPad is even there!  So off we go to the airport.  I’m pretty sure I know how this is going to end (been there, done that).  We head to the airport once again.  Oh wait…it gets better!  We end up getting rear ended (I am shocked that this has not happened a few times before given the crazy driving here!).  This results in about a 20 minute delay of arguments between the parties involved.  It was low speed, so there was not much damage and certainly no injuries….we are all perfectly fine!  We finally get to the airport and find our way to lost and found.  They don’t have it….shocking.  They call the airline, and OMG, they have the iPad!  Are you kidding me???  They tell us to go to the check in counter to pick it up.  After a bit of time, and coordination efforts, we get the iPad back.  Score one for the integrity and honesty of Cambodian Angkor Air!  We could all learn a thing or two from their ethics!  After all that, we finally get back to our hotel and settle in for the night.  Tomorrow, we have a big day scheduled…..a full day learning and participating in a rescue bear sanctuary.

They actually found and returned the lost Ipad! Yay the good guys at Cambodian Angkor Air!
Relaxing after a stressful travel day at Phnom Penh rooftop bar

After crossing a mega-lane round-about in frogger type fashion, we arrived at our pick up location.  We had over an hour drive out of the city and into the jungle.  Once again, the traffic was hellacious and downright scary.  Of course, we arrived safely and were ready to begin our adventure.  We started off with a slideshow that taught us about the sun bears and the moon bears, and why “Free The Bears” came into existence.  We learned that bears were captured in order to harvest the bile from their gallbladder for use in Chinese medicine.  Needless to say, it was done in the most horrific and cruel means possible.  In addition, bears were trapped, using steel cables, to be sold as exotic pets and for meat.  This often left the bears (or any other animal caught in the trap) with missing body parts.  This bear sanctuary happened to be a part of a bigger wildlife sanctuary which housed an incredible number of animals (many with missing limbs).  After our introduction, we were taken around to see the various groups of bears and observe their behaviors and interactions.  We then went to the “kitchen” where we chopped up amazing numbers of guavas and mangoes for the bears’ meals.  Once finished, we began the preparation of the bear treats.  These consisted of bamboo tubes and hard balls that we filled with bananas, sweet potatoes, mango, and guava.  It was finished up with peanut butter and grass.  From there, we headed to the enclosures and tossed the treats in (one at a time to ensure each bear got his/her own treat).  We then sat back and enjoyed watching them play with their treats in order to get the food out.

Learning about the “Free the bears” mission
Hello rescued sun bear cub
Moon bear
Robyn hacking mangoes apart with a machete to make bear treats
Assembling the treats into containers that will give the bears some challenge in getting their snacks
Next up were bamboo canisters that the bears could tear open
All done and ready for the field!
Happy bears!

By now, 1/2 the day had quickly slipped away.  We headed off to a Cambodian lunch with the locals.  After a period of rest, we were treated to a tour of many of the big animals in the sanctuary.  We observed lions, tigers, elephants, gibbons, monkeys, otters, leopards, etc.  Some of the highlights…..I held hands with a gibbon (but had to carefully watch out for the male who did not like his female interacting with us), fed an elephant, got close up with a magnificent tiger, and observed an elephant with a prosthetic leg!  It was an amazing experience!  It was now time to feed the bears again.  This time, we entered their enclosure (they were not in there, of course) and hid sweet potatoes, mangoes, and guavas all around (in pipes, tire swings, hammocks, etc.). Afterwards, we observed from outside the enclosure as the bears went on their scavenger hunt in search of the hidden treats.  Needless to say, it was a long and sleepy ride back home….but a very fulfilling day!

Hello baby monkey!
Feeding the baby under the watchful eye of mama
Holding hands with a gibbon while keeping an eye out for the watchful male

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Our final day in Phnom Penh took us on a dark and sombering journey.  We began our morning with a two hour audio tour of the Tuol Sleng (also known as S21) Genocide Museum.  S21 was the secret center of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured by the Khmer Rouge.  Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here.  There are only 12 confirmed survivors.  The photos and captions will take you through the very bleak and gut wrenching walk that we took through the prison.

High schools were converted into prisons….barbed wire added to keep the prisoners from jumping to their death to avoid the horrific torture.
One of the bigger cell blocks. All prisoners were chained or put in leg irons. You can still see blood stains on the floor.
Much tinier cells (just big enough for one human being to lay down in). Prisoners were chained in their cells with a canister to relieve themselves in. As one survivor recounted, if he moved in the night and his chains made a noise, he would be tortured. If one drop of urine spilled or missed the canister, he would be made to lick the floor until it was spotless. The inhumanity of what was done to these people was so overwhelming.
Chilling prison rules.
Prisoners would be hung by their arms from the wooden beam, high in the air, until they lost consciousness. They would them be lowered and their head would be stuffed into these pots of human excrement until they regained consciousness, and the torture would begin again.

From there, we headed to the Choeung Ek Genocide Center and the Killing Fields.  Here we did another walking audio tour through the killing fields.  Choeung Ek is the most well known of over 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia.  Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975.  They forced the evacuation of the cities to fulfill their plan of an agrarian socialist utopia.  As a result, millions of people (many from the highly educated and professional ranks of society) were brutally tortured and killed.  Entire families were wiped out under the premise that they did not want anyone left who might seek revenge.  Approximately 2 million (24%) of the population died.  60% were executed, and the rest died from forced labor and starvation.  Once again, I will let the pictures and captions tell this horrific tale.  Needless to say, the day was emotionally draining, horribly graphic, and heart breaking.  Prior to our experience with the genocide sites, we had been advised by some of the friends we had met here to see the movie, “First They Killed My Father.”  We watched the movie, and after our audio tours, I can say that the movie very accurately portrayed what life was like under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.  I highly recommend seeing the movie.

Temple memorial housing thousands of skeletal remains that have been excavated from this killing field.
One of the hardest sights to comprehend. Here, soldiers would take infants from their mothers, hold them by their ankles, and smash them against this tree. Excavators of this site were said to be completely overwhelmed by the blood and brain matter embedded in the bark of the tree. It is very hard to comprehend how any human being could be so evil.
The many dig sites where skeletal remains were exhumed.
Getting ready to enter the memorial.

Links to places visited in this blog entry:

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Nora Espenshade
Nora Espenshade
5 years ago

I’m speechless. Thank you for this illustrated walk through history. May it never be repeated.

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