Phnom Penh – A Whole Lot of Sadness
This day of the trip is a hard one to write about for two reasons: We were told some horrid stories, some of which I’ll repeat here, and because there’s a lot of history behind these places. So I don’t end up writing a history essay, I’d recommend filling in any gaps in your knowledge first. Take a look at the Wiki pages of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
First, though, a little background. We had taken the long journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by bus. It was the first we had used that had air conditioning. Heaven on Earth. Arriving in Phnom Penh, we had our obligatory orientation walk around the city, and settled for some dinner. This is where my new favourite food was discovered; Khmer Amok, a mild curry with chicken, carrot, onions, spinach and rice. It was amazing, and if I had one ounce of cooking ability, I’d recreate it every night.
The next morning, we were taken to S21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Its use between 1975 and 1979 saw approximately 20,000 people killed, and was only one of at least 150 security camps across the country. During the tour, we were shown the torture rooms and the museum artefacts: rubber sandals fashioned from car tyres, prisoners’ possessions, waterboards, signs prohibiting smiling, cabinets filled with skulls, miles of barbed wire and the tiny cells in which prisoners were kept with rules forbidding talking, eating for days on end and often sleeping.
As if that isn’t harrowing enough, the inner walls of S21 are covered with pictures of victims; dead, mutilated and broken. All of this really hit home when our guide stopped us all and told us that four of his brothers and a sister had been brought here and killed. How he does it, I can’t imagine, but he now counts his neighbour as one of his very best friends. This neighbour was one of the few executioners at S21. When asked if there was a possibility this man had executed his siblings, he simply shrugged and replied, “It’s in the past”.
The real shock of the morning was still to come. Our guide proceeded to inform us that out of the 20,000+ people brought here, there were only seven survivors. Two of them are still alive today. Chum Mey was kept alive for his skills fixing machinery. He was tortured for two years, his fingers broken and his fingernails pulled out. He was drowned and resuscitated and whipped with wire carrying 10,000 volts. He watched his wife and newborn child shot by Khmer guards with AK-47s in the paddy fields. We rounded the last corner of the camp, and there, standing in the shade with his supplied chair pushed to one side, was Chum Mey.
After a brief chat with Chum Mey, during which he showed me the cell he had been kept in, we headed to another horror in Phnom Penh; the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. For four years after the Cambodian Civil War, the site was used to execute over 25% of the population of Cambodia. There are an estimated 20,000 grave sites, from which nearly 1.4 million victims have been recovered.
The Killing Fields are as close as one can get to being surrounded by death. The first thing one sees is a giant stupa filled to the brim with victims’ skulls. As you continue round, you will encounter casual, almost humorous signs that read, “Please do not walk through the mass grave”. As if you have to tell me twice! We were about half way round when our guide stopped and pointed at something on the ground. He calmly told us that the rains bring bones to the surface that have not yet been collected.
The kick in the shins needed to top off a very real day came at the end of the Killing Fields tour. A Chankiri tree, adorned with thousands of bracelets, accompanied with a sign reading, “Killing tree against which executioners beat children”. Next to it, a mass grave where they were eventually disposed of. The rationale? “To stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths.” The tree and the grave are decorated with the bracelets of thousands of visitors. The only colour in an otherwise dismal place. A nice touch.
The mood was sombre on the way back to the hotel. The scariest thought was that, in the grand scheme of things, this didn’t happen a long time ago. My parents were both in their 20s, and have since told me they remember reading about it as it was happening.
Over dinner, the chatter turned from sad to glad, then to excitement, for the next two days were to be spent in our own little slice of paradise; Sihanoukville…