Writing about Phnom Penh

If you’ve been reading the posts on this blog from the few weeks, you might have noticed that the majority of the posts were about the places I visited during the one full-day we had to do a day trip in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during my trip to several Southeast Asian countries with my cousin about a year ago. The reason why we included Phnom Penh in our itinerary in Cambodia was to learn about the country’s history. We did accomplish that, but what I personally didn’t expect was the impact it had on me after the trip was long over. So, before continuing on with more blog posts from other places we visited during this Southeast Asian trip, I thought I’d write a little bit about my experience remembering, processing, and reflecting about this one day visit to Phnom Penh.

A travel writer named Dave Fox wrote in a book called Globejotting about the meaning of the word souvenir as a remembrance (or something to remember an experience with). Coming into this trip, I had an objective of creating a photojournal about the trip that I could use to tell the story about my experience as I visited places and experienced the culture. So, during this trip, in addition to taking photos, I also took short notes using my Blackberry so I would remember the interesting details I learned from the visit or those that are important to remember (like the names of the people we met).

When I got back home in the United States and worked on the photojournal, the short notes were very helpful in remembering the details of the trip, as without it, I would’ve mixed up many details that were somewhat similar between places we visited (e.g., there is a wall with ramakien frescoes at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, and there is a similar looking wall with ramaketi frescoes at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh). The one photojournal I wanted to create ended up to be too big to have as one album, so it ended up getting split up by cities that we visited. I was quite happy with this souvenir once it was done (around 600 photos divided into eight albums), but as I went through the process of putting together the captions to go with the photos, I realized that while a photograph may ‘speak a thousand words’ there are some things that it cannot convey (e.g., feelings, thoughts). So then I thought may be it would be an interesting exercise to take the short notes and the photos (including the thousands that didn’t quite make the cut for the photojournals) and retrace my steps during the trip and recount the experience in writing.

There is a site called TravelBlog that is similar to WordPress as a blogging site, but it’s specifically oriented towards travels (e.g., it’s indexed by travel locations). A lot of people use it to blog as they travel to provide a nice update to people they know who want to follow their journey as it happens (very nice especially for folks who are doing epic journeys like the Round the World travels). In my case, I didn’t use it during my actual travel, but I thought it would still be nice to write entries about my daily experiences during the trip after the fact.

I started writing the entries, and it went fine until I reached the day in Phnom Penh. The challenge with this one day is because of the emotional nature of the experience, and recounting the horror seen at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek was very difficult. If you go to TravelBlog and read entries from people who visited these places in Phnom Penh, the majority of them would either simply post photos they took there, or only summarize their experiences with words like ‘sad’, ‘angry’, ‘depressing’, or ‘appalling’. If you know even only a little bit about these places and their role in the Khmer Rouge genocide, those are the right words to describe these, but someone reading the story wouldn’t necessarily know much or learn about it beyond that. So rather than simply doing the same thing, I tried to write down more descriptively what I saw and experienced there, and added relevant facts around it so even those who had not heard of the Khmer Rouge atrocities (like I was prior to the trip) would at least take away something after reading it.

The process of writing the ‘one day travel entry’ for Phnom Penh ended up taking me almost three months to do. I could picture the experience very clearly in my head, but it was very difficult at times to find motivation to sit down and put those in writing, especially when it’s difficult to find words to express what I felt about it. In some cases, I ended up browsing through sites on the Internet to learn more about the historical aspects of this and the impacts it had on people, rather than writing the entry itself. It also caused me to reflect on what I think and believe about some very difficult topics that the Cambodian people had to struggle through, such as the idea of forgiveness and retribution, and how to deal with hardships.

In the end, I did manage to finish writing about that one day in Phnom Penh, and in the last few weeks, the posts in this blog, especially those that are related to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, were largely based on what I wrote last year.

The photo below was one that I ended up selecting as the cover photo for my photojournal on Phnom Penh in flickr. It’s the memorial stupa at Choeung Ek that from far away it looked quite majestic, and served as a wonderful way to honor the victims at this site (it housed the remains of the victims found in the nearby mass graves).

Memorial Stupa

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One thought on “Writing about Phnom Penh

  1. Heading there next. Am in Laos right now and every country I visit seems to surpass the other one in the emotions they elicit. Really liked your post though I don’t know if I can take any more emotions!!

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