The Killing Fields

Today is Sunday. I read that a local tourist company offers flights with hangliders or something like an ultra light airplane. I though this would be a nice way of exploring the city with a bird’s eye and so I initially planned to do so today. However, I called these folks and they told me it would not be possible today. But next weekend. So I decided to see the notorious ‘killing fields’, which are located about 15 kilometers outside Phnom Penh.

I decided to take the moto. After only about 2 kilometers the very urban surrounding of the center (where I life) faded. The rather small urban area appears to be surrounded be a (slim) belt of industrial plants and a likewise slim belt of urban slums. The landscape outside this very restricted urban (metropolitan?) region has a very rural touch to it and appears to be dominated by rice fields. I saw a few people, particularly women, laboring hard in the heat of the noon with very simple tools and instruments. Some children follow their cows along the street. Many children where playing under the roofs of simple shacks. Others where lying sluggishly in hammocks. Much of what happens in the private sphere back home happens here on the street and it is fascinating to observe the rather laid back activity of these rural folks.

The quality of the road and the bad shape of the shock absorbers made me feel the difference between urban and rural very direct. Whereas the urban area has a number of modern streets (used in a rather chaotic and seemingly inefficient way, I may be wrong), the part of the countryside I was passing does not. It is a very dusty type of an unpaved road with deep holes in it. It has not been raining the last three days and I wonder how this ‘road’ looks like after a heavy shiver of monsoon-like rain.

Despite their name, the killing fields appear to be a very peace- and beautiful place not only at the first glance.


A tall tower with a colorful roof is located in the middle of a generous area covered with fertile vegetation and surrounded by rice fields. Some dogs sleep in the shadow of some bushes and some chickens scrape in the ground and cows graze close by. There are some holes in the grounds and signs tell that this hole and that hole is a mass grave. However, it is covered with grass and does not look too horrible.

There are many kids around who ask for money in a rather aggressive way. I gave some of them a reasonable amount, but constantly new kids emerged on the scene. Some of them, not older than 8, told me they would go only after I gave them 2 dollar. I felt very blackmailed and refused.

The group of children on the following photo was less militant. Maybe because the girls dominated this group. They asked for 100 Riel and I gave them 500, because they were five. However, they tried to persuade me that they are eight. But I insisted that they are five. I did not manage to convince the girl to the right, who is still doing calculations.

The content of this aesthetic tower offers a strong contrast to the surrounding peaceful scenery: carefully sorted along the age of the victims, thousands of sculls are presented in a monstrous cupboard which rises up to the roof of the building.

Tour guides stressed that these people where killed mostly with axes, sticks and swords, because the murders did not want to waste bullets.

Although it was Sunday, the place really was not very busy. I thought this is really horrible and it would be a good act to bury this stuff to symbol some reconciliation with this bloody past.

I spent about two hours and left again with the moto. I wanted to the Olympic Stadium, but surprisingly it was closed. So I went home and had some lunch at a restaurant in my street, which is run by Tamils from Sri Lanka. We engaged in a interesting discussion. One of them was has a French citizenship and his family lives in Germany. He was the first guy I met in this country who spoke fluently German. A Tamil from Sri Lanka who lives in Paris.

It was five when I left and I decided to read some literature, write some emails and these lines.
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Tuol-Sleng and the National Museum

Today is Saturday and decided to spend a touristy day. First of all, I slept until 10 am. Then, I went to a small restaurant in my street and had an extensive breakfast, while reading the newspaper.

Later, I went to the Tuol-Sleng-Museum. This really is a monument of Cambodia’s traumatic past.


Under Pol Pot, a former school was turned into a concentration camp in which 20.000 children, women and man were imprisoned, tortured and executed dreadfully here between 1975 and 1979. There are about four buildings on the compound, each with numerous and unbelievably small cells.


Prisoners were precisely registered and today one can look at countless photos of prisoners with the expression of horror in their eyes. Many of them children and women. The exhibition includes many of the original torture instruments and furnishings.


For me, this place was particularly touching because it seems to parallel German history.

I went back to my hotel and decided to visit the national museum, too. This time, I did not take the ‘moto’, but a ‘cyclo’. This is a really cool means of transportation. Provided one has enough time. Like a bicycle taxi. It is slow, but a good way of cruising the city, observing social interaction in the street and taking pictures.

A very attractive traditional building provides the space for the national museum. The base of the museum is quadrangular and encloses a beautiful inner courtyard. Exhibits are presented inside and outside the venerable high halls of the museum.


Many of the pieces date back to 400 BC and indicate extremely high levels of technical and craftsmanly sophistication. However, the number of motives is sort of limited. Every other exhibit is some kind of Buddha. After having seen the Tuol-Sleng-Museum before, I found it particularly strange how a people able of such high and complex civilization could fall into the kind of barbarism reflected in the exhibits of the Tuol-Sleng-Museum. Again, German history came to my mind. Although to my knowledge there was not much complexity or sophistication around 400 BC in Germany.

I met a young monk in the museum and we had a short conversation. His English was broken, but he kept smiling and I found him very sympathetic. Later, I sat down in the inner courtyard and had a cigarette. A guy from Japan was sitting there as well and we started a conversation. He was here to volunteer in an organization devoted to feed and teach children of poor families in Siam Reap. Later, the monk came to sit down as well and we managed to get a really cool multicultural dialogue (trialogue?) going. Also the Japanese guy’s English was kind of poor, but surprisingly (in the case of the monk, not the Japanese) both of them spoke Japanese. And the Japanese guy spoke some Khmer. Whenever we were not able to understand each other in English they were able to solve the problem in Japanese or Khmer. I found this to be a really interesting encounter and I am sure I will keep that in my mind for quite some time. And I am really thankful that I managed to take the following picture.


I went back to my guesthouse and had some rest. Later, I went with one of the employees to a cell phone shop to buy a … yes, a cell phone. Shelley advised me to do so because I won’t be accessible without it. Since there is no phone in the guesthouse and because I can access my email only on occasion. Cell phones are really popular around here and together with watches and motos the most important status symbols. Incidentally I hope this acquisition will enhance my social prestige significantly. Despite the fact that it is a second hand one.
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Small Steps

I overslept again today. The dilemma is the following: I can not sleep without running the fan, which is quite noisy. With the fan running, I cannot sleep without earplugs. But with plugged ears, I cannot hear my alarm clock anymore. The solution appears to be a high volume alarm clock, which I need to buy rather sooner than later.

However, I went by moto to one of the persons I met yesterday in one of the meetings. He is the country representative of his organization and happened to study very close to where I spend my last two semesters in upstate New York. And he provided me with a couple of good articles as well as a handbook listing all the development organizations in the country. So I found a rather small number of organizations which potentially can provide me with the kind of information I am looking for. After an insightful and very specific conversation I went back home and later to the compound of the Ministry of Interior, where ‘my’ project office is located. My interim boss Shelley flew to Italy today and I met another GTZ (Andrew) consultant who serves as my reference person (Andrew) for the time of Shelley’s absence. Interestingly, although GTZ is sort of a German government organization, I did not meet a single German yet. That is not to say that I need Germans around me. Shelley is from Canada, Andrew from Britain, another consultant is from the US, and the rest seems to be local staff. This appears to be a good thing, since it gives jobs and training to locals and enables them to manage their own affairs.

Silver Pagoda

Since I was there two hours before our appointment (I confused the time, possibly due to jet lag), I got the chance to talk to several of the local staff. This again was very interesting. Their general attitude towards minorities seems to be rather different (more critical, if not hostile) than the attitude exposed by foreign consultants. However, these short discussions are in no way representative. The climate in the office seems to be very friendly and positive. Particularly local people display a disarming smile on every occasion.

Andrew is another nice person. Although he is very busy, he dedicated about two hours to introduce me to his interpretation of the current political situation, which was quite interesting. However, he did not have much to say about ‘my’ issue. Actually, so far nobody had much to say about cultural minorities. People told me that there has not been much research on the situation of minority groups, although most of them agree that it is important to address the topic. Accordingly, the information I get is confusing and frequently contradicting. For the time being, it seems that I am rather on my own regarding the subject of my research.

Independence Monument

So far, it was raining heavily every day in the afternoon and I though this happens during the entire rainy season. However, it did not rain today. Unfortunately, because there is no cloud to shield from the brutal sun light and nothing to cool down the temperature to bearable levels.

Late in the afternoon I was back in my guesthouse. I went to a close by supermarket and was surprised to find everything one would expect in a Western retail store. Pricy, though. Apparently, this is a place where foreigners and rich locals buy. In general, I was surprised to find that there is a significant number of foreigners. Backpackers as well as people that seem to work here. This makes things easier. In Ethiopia, where I spend a couple of month, I was always the only white guy on the street. This got me much attention. More than I would have wanted, since I always felt ‘on stage’, which is a very stressful thing for me. Here, a white fellow is not such an exotic event and I feel I can more freely through the town.

The high number of internet cafes and cell phone shops is surprising, too. Virtually every other business seems to supply cell phones. And most of the rest are internet cafes. Everybody seems to have a cell phone and apparently people like to use them.

Later in the evening, I went to one of the internet cafes to check my email. Back in the guesthouse I started to read some of the papers that accumulate in my cupboard and to write down this here. Then I ordered a double shot of tequila. It turned out to be a generously filled water glass. I just had it and I better not continue writing at this point.
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getting accommodated in Phnom Penh

I went to bed at about 7 pm yesterday. And I woke up at about 9:30 am only because my colleague and boss Shelley was knocking on my door. We had an appointment at 9:15 but my alarm clock did not manage to wake me up. Even after 9 hours of sleep. As Shelley told me, she had to knock very hard and for quite some time.

Together, we went to one of the GTZ offices, which is located on the compound of the Ministry of Interior. Shelley introduced me to a couple of people working for GTZ, Asian Development Bank and UNDP. Everybody seems to be very nice and willing to help. And many of these people appear to be knowledgeable. I got many more recommendations and suggestions. However, these messages are ambiguous and occasionally contradicting.

In the afternoon, Shelley picked me up again and we went to a meeting of the Steering Committee for partnership. Again, many nice and knowledgeable persons. Although the meeting was not related to ‘my’ subject, these people encouraged me to contact them to get more specific information. Afterwards I went home and had some delicious Khmer foot in my guesthouse. Later, I started to review my notes and to read the literature I brought with me.

me at home

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Just Arrived in Cambodia

This web log is dedicated to my stay in Cambodia. I am going to spend 3 month in this fascinating country. However, this is not vacation. What I am going to do is working as an intern for GTZ, which is a German governmental development organization. The project is called ‘Administration Reform and Decentralization Project’. My task is to assess the current decentralization process with regard to the following question: Does it facilitate the accommodation of Cambodia’s cultural diversity and the needs and fair demands of ethnocultural minorities?

To make this web log more user friendly, I intend to create the following three categories: cultural diversity, traveling in Cambodia and private reflections. This way, it should be possible for interested people to find the kind of information interesting or helpful for them.

It should be mentioned in the beginning that this web log would not have been possible without the support of my buddy Thomas Mellenthin. In fact, a couple of days ago I did not even know what a web log is. However, now I am writing in it.

Right now, I am sitting in my room in the guest house Amok. I arrived only a couple of hours ago and do not feel like I am already here yet. The trip was sort of stressful, since I had to take the train from Berlin to Frankfurt. Particularly burdensome was to carry my fifty kilo or so of baggage, predominantly books. From Frankfurt, I flew to Bangkok (my first flight with a Jumbo) and from there to Phnom Penh. Both flights went smoothly and from time to time I was able to sleep. However, I do not want to bore the reader with too much uninteresting details.
This is the airplane I was flying with

A driver of the project, Pat, gave me a ride from the airport to the Amok. Phnom Penh is not a big city. From the airplane, Bangkok looks like an immensely big urban place. In stark contrast, until we almost touched the ground, I could not see anything except for jungle and water in Phnom Penh. Only in the airport area I saw the first settlements. Furthermore, I did not see houses higher than four stories yet. The city appears cleaner than I expected.
prior to landing in Bangkok

in contrast: prior to landing in Phnom Penh

The guesthouse is really charming. Although it is in the center of the city, it is surrounded by palms and various plants. Everything is green and there are many airy terraces in the shadow. My room is lovely, too. There is a huge bet, a desk and a cabinet. There are two big windows, although the only thing I see in both directions is the wall of the neighboring house. However, together with the van, these windows seem to make it easier to cope with the heat. Finally, there is a Western-style bathroom. Taken together, this seems to be a really attractive accommodation. And it is only 8US$. Or 10$, in case I use air-conditioning.

After I checked in, I took a moto (motorbikes that are everywhere and serve as taxi) to a bank to change some money. Traffic is very chaotic. Although there are lines on the streets, nobody cares and people appear to drive on both side of the street in both directions. Although relatively slow. I called my reference person Shelley and we decided to meet in the Amok in the afternoon. That gave me time to get a shower and a short nap. I felt much better after that. When Shelley arrived, we sat down at a table on the terrace. These tables are very low and people sit on pillows on the ground. Very comfortable. And I did not see other guests yet. The climate is very hot and humid right now. However, only minutes after we sat down it started raining violently, including thunder and lightening. That was really nice, because it cooled down the air considerably. Now temperatures are bearable.

Shelley is very nice, too. And knowledgeable. Since this is in the beginning of my fieldwork, I might tell some more. In her view, the national election on July 27 poses a severe security concern. Elections are always surrounded by violence and political assassinations. However, foreigners are usually not subject to political violence. However, the country is politicized to a very high extend. Everybody knows who is in which party. If you happen to be a supporter of a party other than your, lets say, village chief, it is likely that you lead a miserable life. This causes a problem for my research as well. It is very likely that people, particularly political leaders, will act very carefully and most probably won’t tell me much. However, she would advice me to start my fieldwork as soon as possible, to get some things done in the field soon. She advised me to be back in Phnom Penh a couple of days prior to the election. Than I should wait another couple before I get back into the field, provided that there is not too much turmoil.

Shelley told my about a couple of organization which might facilitate my research activity, among them UNDP and the Asian Development Bank. She presumes that the situation of cultural minorities has almost entirely been neglected, at least in the framework of the decentralization project. Our preliminary agreement was to focus on the following groups: Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham, Christians, Montagnards, and one insular indigenous group. However, particularly with regard to the hill tribes in the north and northeast, it might be very difficult to access them, since they live very isolated and are difficult to find. The Chinese are considered the most integrated group. Its members do not, unlike Vietnamese and Cham, live territorially concentrated.
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