Somber In The City

Trip Start Jan 03, 2012
Trip End May 02, 2013

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Salita Hotel

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Friday, February 3, 2012

Cambodia has had a turbulent history of foreign occupation and civil war which has contributed to its current poor socio-economic status. A visit to the Choeung Ek Killing Field and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a must to learn more about the horrible events that took place in this country in the not so distant past. 

The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, was in power from April 17, 1975 until January 7, 1979.  They envisioned a communist agricultural society, in which all were equal and hard-working, producing rice as their primary means of sustenance.  In order to ensure followers could be easily manipulated to adhere to their philosophies, they targeted people who were educated, could speak another language or wore glasses, as well as foreigners, for imprisonment and execution.  Of course, the leaders themselves did not adhere to the policies and lifestyle they strictly enforced on the masses.  As a result, an estimated 2 million people died either directly or indirectly (starvation, disease) in a period of less than 4 years.

We declined the $7 pp hotel tuk-tuk and the $5 pp street tuk-tuk and instead took a $3 pp mini-bus with Capitol Tours to get to Choeung Ek, located 15 km outside of Phnom Penh.  The Killing Field was once a fruit (longan) orchard before it became a horrendous massacre site – just one of two hundred 'killing fields' discovered throughout the country.  Today it’s an eerily peaceful setting that honours the victims and serves as a reminder of the genocide.  There’s a glass-encased memorial stupa in the centre that houses the bones and clothes of the 8,985 people found on the site.  It’s surrounded by mass graves that were excavated in the 1980s and even the ‘killing tree’ remains standing, against which babies and young children were smashed so as not to waste precious bullets.

Afterwards we were dropped off at the Genocide Museum, formerly S-21 prison, and a high school before that.  This was one of hundreds of prisons set up by the Khmer Rouge.  We hired a guide who spoke excellent English to take us through the four buildings.  His mother told him stories about her traumatic experiences; her father and brother were killed by the Khmer Rouge.  A few rooms, each with an iron bed (no mattress) and ankle shackles, were reserved for important political figures and those within the Khmer Rouge who were accused of treason.  Other classrooms were either crammed with 40 people or divided into individual 1 x 2 metre cells.  Each building was surrounded by barbed wire.  All prisoners were shackled and chained, made to sleep on the floor and only received one ladle of watery rice porridge twice a day.  They were forced to confess to "treason" through torture.  Some of the prison guards inflicting this torture were as young as 10 years old.

Of the 20,000 people imprisoned at S-21, only seven survived, solely because they had skills that were useful to the Khmer Rouge.  Two of those survivors are alive today, and we were fortunate enough to meet Bou Meng, a painter.  He and his wife were imprisoned in 1977.  His wife was killed but he survived because of he was able to paint realistic portraits of Pol Pot and other Communist leaders.  Separated from his children by the Khmer Rouge long before being imprisoned and never reunited, he suspects they were also victims of the times.

After many years of political and legal wrangling, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is currently underway.  The Chief of S-21 has been convicted but is only serving a 35-year sentence (19 years now because he spent 16 years in confinement before the trial).  The trials of four other leaders are in progress.  Pol Pot died in 1998 and escaped justice.

We had heard from others that visiting the Killing Field and Genocide Museum is haunting, but hearing about and seeing the images of brutality that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on innocent victims also made for a shocking and emotional experience.  It seems like every single family in Cambodia lost at least one member to the genocide.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, situated where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers merge.  Since the city has no public transit system, we spent the rest of our time strolling the streets, both to save money on tuk-tuk rides and simply because walking is a better way to interact with places.  The power went out a few times at night, darkening the streets to a slightly uncomfortable level, but there were still plenty of motorbike lights (and, oddly enough, lots of Lexus SUVs) whizzing by so we had no issues.

We splurged on a few souvenirs, including one from the shop attached to the good-cause restaurant we dined at called Friends.  The staff-in-training served up amazing meatballs and a fantastic ginger-spiced mango, pineapple, coconut crumble with ice cream.

Our next stop will be the beaches in Sihanoukville, a seaside town on the Gulf of Thailand.  Besides some serious sun, sand and sea, we're also planning to get our Vietnam visas there since the turnaround time is supposed to be way faster than in Phnom Penh.  And there may just be some fresh seafood waiting for us as well.
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henniterness on

Great entry guys! This might be too late for your purposes, but I applied for my Vietnam visa online and received it in my inbox. No need to hang around consulates really.

Audrey Letouzé on

It must have been quite a sad place to visit, but one you must not miss.

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