A few days in the Capital filled with a morbid trip to Cambodia’s past.
Our trip to the Cambodian capital started the same way most of our journeys did, with a terrible bus journey. This time we had a minibus that was grossly overfilled. I sat at the back with two other westerners and we took up the whole row, but in all other rows they put four people in three seats including harry. There was also a complete lack of leg room and I simply could not get comfortable for the whole 6 hours. The road was terrible as well and the bus was bouncing around the whole time without suspension. An old history teacher of mine once told us a story about the torture training he underwent while in the military. One method used was placing the soldiers against a wall in a sitting position and leaving you there for hours. Harry and I felt like we had undergone this and were very happy every time we stopped and could leave the bus.
Cars and mopeds carried more people in Vietnam than they would in Northern Europe but we saw nothing compared to what could be observed in Cambodia. Cars would drive with the boot open and have bags hanging out the back attached by ropes on which people sat. They were literally sitting outside of the car above the road on the highway.
After our mini bus stopped we took a tuk tuk with two Americans to our hostel in which we had the first look at this city. Fewer than 2 million people reside in Phnom Penh and the city has quite an empty feel to it (that is compared to other asian cities; compared to Europe it is still buzzing). One thing the americans said on this ride was that the wealth of religion in developing countries is astonishing and Harry and I could not agree more, next to run down apartment blocks you had incredible new golden temples being build.
Once we arrived we found a most amazing Hostel, the best we would have during our travels. There was a large pool surrounded by mango trees and the rooms were incredible. On the beach we had slept in little more than a wooden shack so this was a refreshing change. Bathrooms with a separate rooms for the shower and the toilet (something rarely seen by us). Hot and cold water and an enormous shower head. The large beds with white bed linens and a proper blanket felt like heaven compared to the wooden berths you normally get. So after a bit of relaxing in the pool and harvesting mangos we decided to explore the city.
Our first stop was the central market, an impressive dome like structure with 4 wings coming off it from the colonial time. Inside the dome one could find a variety of counterfeit items ranging from sparkling rolex watches and jewellery to knock of designer clothing. Outside of the dome we found mainly food stands that had everything from giant living fish in miniature containers to frog carcasses and insects.
After a noodle soup we headed further south past quite a few embassies to a park with a large temple that looked very nice and shaded (April is the hottest month with temperatures in the mid 30’s up to 40 so shade is occasionally needed). One thing I found fascinating was that temples and temple like buildings were everywhere, even the electricity hut outside on the road was build in a temple like way with a golden winged roof. Not sure if that is the right way to spend tax money in a country that is as poor as this one.
We reached the park and found a fence going around it with no gate so instead of walking around to find one we hopped over. This plan backfired as a security guard started shouting at us. So over we went again and after a few minuets found an entrance at which you normally have to pay an entrance fee but whoever was working there must have been having a nap or something so we didn’t. We found a giant staircase lined by two gigantic seven headed snakes. Once we walked up this staircase we found a large “Wat” or temple at the top which one could enter. One thing I find rather annoying about South East Asia is that you have to take your shoes of everywhere and of course one has to in a temple. Inside we found several giant Buddha statues and a number of faithful praying to them. The smell of incense burning and cool air from fans almost sent us to sleep and we stayed here for quite a while watching monks collect offerings and the paintings on the ceiling that told the mystical stories of Buddha. Although they weren’t exactly the sistine chapel they were done very well especially considering that they are 600 years old.
We left the calming temple and the park to join the city life again, walking through markets and public gyms until we reached the mekong. The river was very wide and one could see how great the difference between dry and low season is by the great banks on either side. We walked to the royal palace but by this point it had closed. Walking back to the hostel it was nearing sunset so we thought about going up this skyscraper that we found as we thought it might have a nice view. Entering the skyscraper we found that it was still under construction and while some floors already had a few shops in them others didn’t even have windows or walls, the only thing stopping you from plummeting down was a bamboo scaffolding.
We went to the top floor on which we found a few empty shops and an empty restaurant from which we took a small staircase to the next level. Here we found an empty kitchen that was left unlocked and saw that we could open the windows. After climbing over the sink and hopping out of the small gap we had a 360 degree view of the whole city and could marvel at the temples and mekong below. One thing that was also fascinating was that for every ten skyscrapers we saw 9 were under construction and had cranes on them. This city is starting to boom with Chinese investments flowing freely, there are even plans to build a skyscraper that would, upon construction, be the second highest building in the world. Something I enjoyed about this city was that there are many alleys and roads lined by trees and many quiet areas, something you don’t get in other Asian cities so I hope this does not get affected by the recent, and soon to come change.
We climbed down the skyscraper and got back to the hostel and planned a trip for the next day. With two girls we met in the hostel we would rent a tuk tuk and drive to the S 21 prison and the killing fields.
After a relaxing breakfast by the pool and a quick flick through the Phnom Penh Post we got on our Tuk Tuk and made our way to the S 21 prison. Before I continue I would like to say that unlike Vietnam, Cambodia is a country that I knew very little about before coming here. My knowledge of Cambodia’s history was very limited to just about knowing Pol Pots name, but noting about what he did. After this day I knew a lot more and if you don’t want to hear about the horrible things that happened I suggest you stop reading now.
We got to the prison and instead of all getting audio guides we decided to split one to share for economical reason. I would listen and then reproduce the most important information to my small audience. S 21 was a prison in which the Khmer Rouge (the Cambodian communists) put their opponents, and people whom they accused of being opponents and then tortured. One horrible thing was that the Khmer Rouge not only imprisoned those whom they accused of committing a crime but also the family and friends, even infants, so that there was no one left to seek revenge. The first thing we saw in this prison was a graveyard for the few bodies that the Vietnamese troops found here upon liberation. A plaque read that of the 14000-20000 people kept here only 7 survived (another 7 died a few days after liberation).
The building was a school before the Khmer Rouge forced everyone out of the cities and many of the inmates used to teach here. Barbed wire and metal meshing prevented escapes and suicides, and the classrooms had been split up into tiny cells, or mass cells with long iron bars with many shackles attached to them. Once prisoners were brought here they were stripped and put either in a room with many others or their own cells if they were important suspects. Here they would be woken up at 4, fed a mere couple of spoons of rice and get hosed down (once a week). After this morning ritual would begin the torture; waterboarding, electroshock therapy, lashing and a variety of other horrible torture methods. While walking from cell to cell we saw horrible photographs of corpses or soon to be corpses lying beaten on the floor. As we looked down at our feet we saw that the blood stains were still here. One particularly shocking image was a prisoner beaten to death, the thin body entangled in a metal bed frame. We stood in the same cell and the bed frame was still there. The murder of the inmates was not the aim of the prison, that would happen later. The main aim here was to get a confession for whatever imaginary crime the inmate was accused of, once this was achieved the prisoner would be relocated. On average a prisoner would spend three months here. Like in post-Lenin Soviet Russia the Cambodian communist party purged itself many times and many of its high ranking members ended up here. By the end of the regime over 3/4 of its original membership was dead, so no one was safe. Even prison guards often ended up as inmates themselves. In a few cells in another building the four of us saw the photos of the inmates that were taken on arrival. On the audio guide I got to listen to inmates as well as guards describing their time here. Listening to men that beat thousands of men, women and children in the most horrible ways and that even killed some was very interesting and the feeling of hearing the voice of a killer in your ear is indescribable.
Walking back I saw an old man sitting on a chair chatting to two young Cambodian girls, next to him there was a sign with a book, which had the mans face on it. It dawned on me that he was one of the 7 survivors. I wanted to talk to this man but I found it very hard. What question could I ask that would be worthy of his incredible story? How could I even possibly understand and empathise what he must have gone through? Once again this is hard to put in words but this man felt almost unapproachable and I did not feel worthy to talk to him, I felt almost ashamed for what had happened to him.
We left the prison to find our driver ready to take us to the next location on this historical trip, the killing fields. While the prison was still in the city the killing fields were about 45 minuets outside of town. I would advise anyone who does not mind spending a bit more money to take a taxi instead, as on a Tuk Tuk you get a lot of dust in your face and it is also not exactly the safest means of travel. After having lunch at a restaurant we entered a beautiful garden area with a beautiful temple inside. This was outside the city and in beautiful countryside so there was hardly any noise. There was a field surrounded by beautiful blossoming trees and colourful flowers and many white butterflies were dancing in the gentle breeze. If we didn’t know better we would have though ourselves in a botanic garden or a park. The first clue to what this area really was came when we approached the temple. It is more plain than they usually are, just white and black and no gold or paintings decorating the walls. There is a glass wall and we saw that it was filled with something white but we could not make out what it was. As we approached it dawned on us. Inside this tower was giant glass column filled with bones and skulls. Looking at them closer they each had a sticker dot on them with a different colour on them. Each colour represented a different death, death by wooden club, death by iron pole, death by machete and so on.
We then continued to walk around the fields and the lakes and looked at the mass graves, each with a very numerical description of how many bodies were found here. One thing that was particularly shocking was a giant tree with many ribbons on it. Here the Khmer rouge would hold babies by their feet and smash them against the tree. They would then be thrown into a pit were they would be buried alive (if still living). Several hundred baby bodies were found here. Walking around we saw a few bones still lying around and countless excavated and non excavated mass graves.
After walking around the site we entered a museum where we learned about how the people were executed here. In order to save money they would be kept in a wooden hut blindfolded after being brought here by the Khmer rouge at night. Then they would be taken to a pit and bashed on the head with a bamboo stick or a machete. Then a second person would cut their throat open with a knife and throw them in a pit. Once a few hundred had been killed the pit would be closed and a new one opened. No inmate stayed here for longer than a day. Of course all murder is brutal but I find it very hard to understand how people could do this all day long to fellow humans. The museum also talked about the Communist Party and the Angkar (literally “the organisation”). So far we did not know much about why 2-3 million people were killed in this genocide (Cambodia had a population of 7 million at this time). Brother number 1 (or so they called Pol Pot) and his henchman wanted an extreme form of agrarian socialism and wanted people to live off the land. Hence people were forced out of the city and all infrastructure was destroyed, telephone lines, hospitals, temples and churches. All people that had connections with the previous government or foreign governments were executed. All foreigners; vietnamese, thais, australians and so on were also murdered. People that owned shops, had an education, were openly religious or even wore glasses were also murdered (ironically Pol Pot, educated in France, enjoyed literature and wore glasses). The rest was forced to live in rural communities, eat together, sleep together in big huts and work together producing rice. Family bonds were discouraged and children taken away from their families. Many died from famine or curable diseases as impossible to reach quotas were set for each acre of land, which led to overworking the soil and medicine was also outlawed.
When visiting a museum or a place where terrible things had happened you are normally in depressing surroundings, aka a Concentration Camp or the prison we went to in Hanoi. What I found so strange about the killing fields was the beautiful surroundings mixed with the terrible crimes and details one could find around the place.
On the Tuk Tuk back we encountered something that I hate about Asia. While driving a moped driver kept driving next to our Tuk Tuk, on the left and then on the right staring at our female companions. He followed us for over 10 minuets and kept asking odd questions. At a traffic light he asked me if they were married. To that question I replied that they were in fact both my wives and asked him not so kindly to bugger of. The rest of the Tuk Tuk laughed and the creepy moped guy drove of angry at the fact that a joke had been made at his expense. Another similar situation occurred in Bangkok, a few girls were walking in front of us wearing dresses and this beggar sitting on the floor just ran his dirty hand in one of their skirts (dirty is not referring to the fact that he was a poor man but to his actions). Western girls in bikinis will also often attract crowds of asian men taking photos of them. While understanding that their culture is different to ours I don’t believe it justifies their behaviour and its something I hate seeing. And I am obviously aware that this is behaviour is not found in all men here but I have never seen something quite like it in the last 18 years of living in and visiting other parts of the world and it has happened a lot in the 4 countries I visited here.
In the evening we enjoyed the pool and went out partying with the girls we had met. A light hearted evening was needed to clear our minds after emerging from this genocidal nightmare.
After spending the night in the capital we would head to Siam Reap in the morning which was on the other side of the country.
PS. One thing I found odd was that hardly anyone in the west knows about the Cambodian genocide even though it had happened so recently.
PSS. What was going on in Cambodia remained hidden for quite a while partially due to the help of a group of Swedes. These swedes were quite anti american (as many european youths were after the Vietnam war) and visited Cambodia. Obviously what they were shown did not represent the reality similarity to someone visiting North Korea nowadays. Many communists sympathisers in the west held believes that are now known as “Cambodian genocide denial”. I will not go into more detail but I urge you to read about the Khmer Rouge regime that killed 1/3 of its own population. I also recommend the book ‘First they killed my father’.