….And so Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor fade into the distance as the next leg of our journey takes us on an eight hour bus journey to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It was a long, hot, but relatively comfortable journey-it’s pretty much a single road that runs the whole way.
As you enter the outskirts of Phnom Penh I definitely noticed a sense of foreboding, after the wonder and beauty of Angkor, being thrust into a capital city is quite a shock to the system. As the bus pulled in to our drop off point, we were greeted with the usual gaggle of tuk tuk drivers touting for your business-I find myself having to bite my tongue at these points,as after a long and cramped bus journey, having to try to negotiate with tuk tuk drivers isn’t at the top of my to-do list! All I really want to do is stretch my legs and consume the environment that I now find myself in-but that just doesn’t ever really work out, so you just have to click into ‘negotiate’ mode and try and get the best price for your journey.
It was at this point we met our driver, Thearea (pronounced Thierre), and his first input to our journey was to strongly advise us against our choice of area to stay in….However we were not to be moved, we had found a bargain and we were sticking with our choice. As it turns out the guest house was great, but it was in a really dodgy area of Phnom Penh, and we were advised not to leave the premises after dark for fear of getting robbed! “Welcome to the capital!”
Thearea talked us into hiring for him the next day to takes us round the must see sights of the city, and so we retired to our lodgings for some food, a couple of beers, and a nice early night before the sightseeing to come.
The next morning arrived and we set off to immerse ourselves in some of the more upsetting and dark details about Cambodia’s recent past. I am, of course, referring to the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Lifting directly from Wikipedia for the sake of accuracy:
‘The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide’
The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured, and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies”, including:
- Anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments.
- Professionals and intellectuals – in practice this included almost everyone with an education, people who understood a foreign language and even people who required glasses
- Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai, and other minorities in the Eastern Highlands, Cambodian Christians, Muslims, and the Buddhist monks. The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (ḥarām). Many of those who refused were kill. Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.
- “Economic saboteurs” – many former urban dwellers were deemed guilty of sabotage due to their lack of agricultural ability.
Those who were convicted of treason were taken to a top-secret prison called S-21. The prisoners were rarely given food, and as a result, many people died of starvation. Others died from the severe physical mutilation that was caused by torture.
Our first stop was to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, the place where 20,000 people were held, tortured and killed. Under the Pol Pot regime education was abolished, and so quite perversely the prison known as S21 was previously a school.
Thearea picked us up at the guesthouse as promised, and as our journey began-the real impact of the recent history started to become more and more apparent. Thearea is 46 years old, and he lived through the genocide that the country faced in those four years-and as we ride in the back of his tuk tuk, he began to share his personal account of what happened. The stories that he shares over the next two days are incredibly moving, he looks forward with hope and optimism despite the atrocities that he personally witnessed, and for sure Thearea emerged as something of an inspiration.
We arrive at the museum and the first block you enter is the part of the school that was converted into the torture cells, and the atmosphere is thick and menacing. As we went through the cells where the torture occurred, the mood drops significantly and you can’t help but feel upset and sickened at what had happened in these rooms-metal bed frames and iron shackles littered throughout, and ominous stains on the floors.
Through these cells and you come to a collection of pictures of some of the victims held at S-21, as well as many of the staff who were responsible for their incarceration. Many of the Khmer Rouge army were young children and teenagers, taken from their families at a young age, and brainwashed into following the command of the regime-often their first victims would actually be their own families, as part of the indoctrination to the army.
The torture cells, complete with leg shackles
Pictures of the victims found in the cells
The holding cells
View down on the prison yard
Feeling pretty overwhelmed, we continue our journey and follow what would have been the final journey for those who were incarcerated at S21, The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. There are many of these sites across Cambodia, roughly 1.4 million Cambodians were executed in total, but Choeung Ek is perhaps the most famous and is now a Buddhist memorial to the victims. It is believed that all 20,000 people who were at S-21 found their final resting places here.
As with all of the stories relating to this period, the history is horrific-prisoners were transferred blindfolded from S-21, being told that they were being transferred to another prison. They would arrive at Cheoung Ek at night, and they would be executed and deposited into mass graves. To make this even more disturbing, the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste bullets killing these prisoners, and so they were killed using implements found at the site-from using farming tools to club the victims to death, to utilising the serrated edges on a palm tree to slit throats-the details are things of nightmares. Men women and children were slaughtered here indiscriminately, and bizarrely the Killing Fields today are quite beautiful.
Still bone fragments rise to the surface during the rainy season and these are collected and displayed in memory, they uncovered some of the mass graves but made the decision to leave the rest of the site untouched.
As you walk round you listen to an audio description of the atrocities that occurred, and it is quite overwhelming. At the end of the tour you come to the final resting place for many of the skulls and bones that were uncovered, sorted by age, sex and method of execution. A final tribute to those who lost their lives not only at S-21 and Choeung Ek, but throughout Cambodia at the time.
I had some knowledge of Pol Pot and his war crimes before we came here, and I shall take away a little more…However this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the story of Cambodia and it’s people in recent history-and for sure I don’t have the words or complete understanding to do it any justice.
One thing that I can say though is that my experience of the Cambodian people has been fantastic-everyone that I have met has been so friendly and welcoming, given the fact that these atrocities happened in living memory for many-it’s testament to the resolve to move onwards-or at least that’s the impression that I get.
The Killing Fields
One of the mass graves
Walkway of reflection
The Buddhist Stupa containing the memorial
All the skulls organised over ten stories in height
Display of skulls in the Stupa