An atrocity that still lingers

Trip Start Aug 14, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

Flag of Cambodia  , Phnom Penh,
Thursday, November 22, 2012

We arrived in Cambodia after a 5hr journey from Ho Chi Minh City. The border crossing was very painless and the bus was actually really nice. We followed a couple of guys to their hotel which they'd booked, with a pool, for only $10, but they only had $20 rooms left so we headed for somewhere else on our tuk-tuk. The next place was somewhere recommended in the Lonely Planet (which we are beginning to trust less and less for true descriptions) and the room was pretty horrible, but we took it anyway vowing to find somewhere better once we'd had a walk around. The heat was pretty stifling which didn't help! We found somewhere nicer to stay and told them we'd return the next day. At this point we found out that the cash points only give out American Dollars, but you get change from buying things in both dollars and Riel - and we thought Laos and Vietnamese currencies were hard to grasp!

That night we went to an amazing restaurant owned by a French couple and for a total of $14 we probably had our best meals yet! Chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce - yum! A bit more than we usually spend on dinner, but definitely worth it!

The next day we got up reasonably early so we could move to our next hotel. A tuk-tuk driver took us there and then asked what we were doing for the day. He was soooo lovely and suggested we go to the Russian Market then The Killing Fields and finally S-21 Museum all for only $15. This was very cheap compared to what we'd read and he was so kind, we couldn't refuse.

First stop was The Russian Market which was far more civilised than the market in Ho Chi Minh. This was the place I'd heard you could buy cheap seconds from American makes such as Hollister, Aeropostale, Abercrombie etc. as they are made in factories over here. So after buying a couple of t-shirts, a pair of shorts and hareems we were only $20 lighter - bargain!  We didn't bother with the meat!  

This may be a difficult paragraph to read; it was hard to write...

Next, we went on a very dusty journey (30mins) to The Killing Fields. Not knowing much about the Khmer Rouge before we got to Asia, we were recommended, 'First They Killed My Father' written by Loung Ung (an excellent book if you've not read it). This had given us some background to the harrowing times endured under the rule of The Khmer Rouge and its barbaric ideologies. I won't try and give a history lesson, but I can't believe we are taught nothing of the genocide which happened here only 30-odd years ago. In short, The Khmer Rouge emptied the towns/cities of people and destroyed banks and places of entertainment so that they were reduced to ghost towns. Anyone refusing to leave was killed on the spot. They forced everyone including young, old and sick to walk for days into the countryside then work in the fields farming for up to 14hrs a day on the brink of starvation (many vulnerable people simply died from this). They took people to any one of the 300 killing fields in the country if they were: connected to the previous government; educated; wore glasses; of Chinese descent; was a professional including all doctors, nurses, lawyers and teachers or was an acquaintance of any of these people (they were tortured to reveal all the people they knew before they were killed). In the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled, they wiped out approximately 20-25% of the 8million population. So we knew that this Killing Field was going to be a sombre experience. And that, it was. There was a very informative audio tour which guided us and explained more about the atrocities in this place which was once a peaceful orchard and graveyard for Chinese communities. Mass graves litter the site shown as deep depressions in the ground. Many skeletons have been exhumed and the Cambodians pay their respect to these people with a memorial stupa where their skulls and large bones are held. They found a grave of headless bodies, one of naked mothers and babies whose skulls they had bashed on the big tree trunk nearby and the largest grave with 400 bodies. I know this is hard to even imagine in our society, but it happened recently and should not be forgotten. What angered us more was that the UN, including our own country, continued to support the Khmer Rouge with weapons and money after the Vietnamese had liberated the country in 1979. This was because they didn't recognise Cambodia or Vietnam as countries since the Americans lost the war against Vietnam and didn't believe in communism. This meant that people were not safe from attacks/invasions from the Khmer Rouge for another decade. What was once a peaceful orchard is now that again with the odd bone, tooth or piece of clothing coming to the surface over time with the rains. There is a primary school close by, so this quiet, sombre place is in juxtaposition with the sounds of children playing in the distance. A sign that the people of Cambodia are looking to the future.

We asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us somewhere for lunch and then headed to Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21). It was once a high school, but when the Khmer Rouge took over, it was turned into a prison of torture. We got a guide after realising nothing was in English. He explained that it has been left the way it was found in 1979 which certainly gave it an eerie feeling. He took us to the torture rooms where people were forced to confess to things they hadn't done. This was done through beatings for hours, water boarding, pulling finger and toenails off with pliers among other horrific things such as eating their own excrement off the floor. A total of approximately 20,000 men, women and children were tortured and/or killed here - none of whom had done anything wrong. From this prison, 'prisoners' were taken at random at nighttime to The Killing Field we visited earlier in the day. The hundreds of photographs (mugshots) of people killed at at the prison show similar regimented documentation to the Nazis and the Holocaust. Their display at the museum is haunting and put faces to the loss of innocent lives. Seven people survived this museum and a couple of them have been coming back to the museum to share their story and sell their books. We met a remarkable 81yr old survivor who rides his motorbike there most days. His life was spared because he was a good mechanic and could fix the typewriters needed for the 'confessions' of the prisoners.

It was an emotional day, but one we were both glad to experience. On our first day in Cambodia we had learnt of the harrowing past its citizens had endured, but after this day, we learnt they are also the most friendly nation of all countries we have visited. Everyone we meet is kind, witty and want to say 'hello!' We know we will like the rest of our month here simply because of that.
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