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A Day in Phnom Penh

June 24, 2011

By Danielle Lancaster

Two very special things happened to me today. Well actually there were many more, but two I will tell you about now.

After much consideration I decided to bring Mitchell, my 14 year old son, on a two week holiday to Cambodia. Well part of it is a holiday for him as he is also required to write and edit some of my writings for me so expect a guest blog from him soon.This morning we headed to the Russian markets here in Phnom Penh. They are a vibrant, large market with loads of souvenir and clothes stalls with vendors willing to barter. The food stalls are as varied as any Asian market. All parts of chickens freshly sliced and diced, fish and other assorted meats alongside brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, spices and herbs. Unfortunately the smell of the fish turned Mitch’s stomach and anytime we came near any of these stalls we were quickly diverted by his already pale skin turning another three shades lighter.

The sights of Phnom Penh were already taking hold on Mitch and apart from a cool set of sunnies and local scarf to assist soothing his sensitive skin from the sun’s beating rays, Mitch had come to the conclusion that we were already so much better off, what did we really need to buy.

So we headed back to our tuk tuk driver and in the background down a back lane, I spotted a white robbed nun. For those that don’t know, the role of the white robed nuns was the subject of a photo essay I undertook here last year.

Nearby local hawkers and stall owners informed us that she had taken up residence on the street in front of the building where her son, who had been her sole supporter, had died a year ago.

I asked for permission to approach and speak with her. Mitch asked if he could follow me and I said, ‘yes sure but this may not be your thing.’ As I greeted her in the respectable way, she then commenced blessing me. When it was over I turned to see Mitch’s face in awe. I introduced her to Mitch (now this is not easy as she could not speak English and I cannot speak anything but the basic Cambodian polite necessities) and she then asked Mitch to join her.

To cut a long story short, imagine a tall lanky white skinned teen being taught by a group of women how to sit next to a three foot high elderly woman. There was a funny side.

The serious side was Mitch’s reaction to the whole experience. His profoundly deep hug to me as we walked away and his grateful thanking of such an experience completed my day. However, unbeknown to me at the time, this was just the start.

Mitch meets a White Robed Nun, these nuns play an important role in Cambodian Society.
Image by Danielle Lancaster

Next stop was S-21, once Tuol Svay Pray High School renamed in 1976 by the Khmer Rouge and converted into a torture, interrogation and execution centre. Nearly 20,000 were forced to walk into this harrowing place and seven walked out. Today, S-21 Prison is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide.

Photos of faces, now ghosts entrapped within the walls stared out at us. Steel bed frames with shackles at each end, blood stained floors, ceilings splattered with blood and ghastly torture devices all were harrowing.

The grisly photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath were taken by Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January of 1979. A reminder of how photography can arouse awareness of the plights of other humans who deserve better.

Our privilege here was the chance meeting of Bou Meng one of the seven survivors. Bou Meng, lived because he could paint, and his task was to paint portraits of the dictator Pol Pot, a horrid and inhumane human that thankfully no longer walks this Earth. Tamborine Mountain High School, his signed biography is coming your way.

One of the seven who walked out of S-21, Bou Meng has something worthy to smile about.
Image by Danielle Lancaster

Photographically today I challenged myself to shoot on P mode (yes, Program or as some call it professional or pissed mode) solely to get it right using exposure compensation and white balance and the blessing of high ISO settings within Nikon. More on that challenge to come soon.

This blog is now long enough, although there is much more to tell, if you have read this far than I thank you for taking an interest in a country and its people I have grown to love.

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