Off the beaten track

Trip Start Mar 11, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Santepheap Guesthouse

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

As anticipated, our second day in Phnom Penh was an emotionally draining one! First stop was the Tuol Sleng prison, also known as Security Office 21 (S-21), a 1960's school block which served as the Khmer Rouge's premier security institution from 1976 to 1979. It's primary purpose: interrogation, torture and extermination of  'anti-Angkar elements' i.e. >12,000 innocent civilians (farmers, engineers, teachers, misisters, diplomats and their families)... essentially any Cambodian with any semblance of free thought, education or skill that was deemed a threat to the Khmer Rouge's new regime!

The building has been preserved in the state it was found at the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, complete with claustrophobic cells and group detention rooms where prisoners were shackled to long iron bars by their ankles, forced to lie immobile for 2-4 months awaiting their fate. Interrogation rooms still house the iron bed frames to which prisoners were bound prior to being tortured, with graphic photographs of horrifically mangled bodies found in situ when the building was recalimed. Perhaps most haunting of all however, is the vast collection of mug-shots documenting the prisoners as they entered the prison, each a study of human emotion - dispair, hate, defiance, pride, confusion, fear.. and on the faces of the indoctrinated young guards (many of them barely into their teens) sadistic smirks and half smiles that turn the stomach.

From Tuol Sleng, the majority of prisoners were ultimately shipped to the killing fields at Choeung Ek. Told simply that they were being relocated to another secure unit, they were blindfolded and driven to a field 15km outside the city, forced to kneel at the edge of a mass grave and bludgeoned on the back of the kneck before having their throats slit (or not!) and being pushed into a mass grave. Load speakers playing music were used to cover the sounds of the screams and cries so that workers in the nearby fields would suspect nothing, and DDT was used to disguise the smell of rotting corpses (& finish off anyone who might not yet be dead!). 86 mass graves have been uncovered at Choeung Ek and a further 43 lie untouched. The skulls and bones of the corpses exhumed have been encased in a huge glass monument there- the sheer number is staggering!

After such a heavy morning, it was a relief to return to Phnom Penh in the afternoon for some lighter sight-seeing around the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda- both incredibly beautiful and ornate- and some chill-out time back at the guesthouse, watching dvd's & kicking back in hammocks on the roof terrace. [Film recommendation of the day: 'After the Wedding' (a Danish film with subtitles- can't recommend it enough)].

We left Phnom Penh bright and early this morning to move on to Kompong Thom, a little-visited town mid-way between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and home to the pre-Angkorian ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk (our attempt to get off the beaten tourist trail a bit!). Somewhat frustratingly the travel infrastucture here isn't really set up for independent jaunts like this and no bus ticket exists to split the journey between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap - you essentially have to pay for the total journey twice over if you want to stop over at Kompong Thom, but at $5 a ticket it's not going to break the bank... We've covered off the ruins this afternoon, and I have to say were slightly disappointed with the site itself (a little dilapidated and not as extensive as we'd hoped), but the ride out and back by moto was a good excursion in itself taking in some beautiful countryside and giving us a chance to see some authentic village life as we sped by. Now sheltering from an almighty storm (our second since arriving in Cambodia) which has turned the roads into rivers in a matter of minutes.. I guess wet season is really upon us!
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