The Killing Fields

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Where I stayed
Silver River Hotel

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I usually don't comment on the hotels we stay at as long as they offer up the basics of cleanliness, running water, and a reasonably comfortable bed but our introduction to Phnom Phen hotels was somewhat unique in that the lobby had been cut in half by a flimsy divider and and small parking garage was set up on the other side. This space obviously used to be the hotel restaurant as our breakfast was served out on the street- not sure who the business tycoon was who decided that what the hotel really needed was an indoor parking lot and an outdoor eating area but you always have to admire creative thinking. We only stayed one night before moving to a hotel with a vehicle-free lobby so DH didn't get too upset with the unexpected CO emissions in the room.

Phnom Phen is the capital of Cambodia and retains much of the French architectural flavour established during the colonial Indochina period- traffic chaos is a feature of the city but it's a far cry from the never-ending vehicle Armageddon we faced in Hanoi or HCMC- there's 'only' 2 million people here and a much lower scooter-to-people ratio here than in Vietnam. It was during the French period that Phnom Penh hit it's zenith (referred to as the 'Pearl Of Asia') but that pesky Vietnam war claimed it as another in a long list of casualties. Everyone was using eastern Cambodia as a battleground and refugees poured into Phnom Penh. When the Americans left Vietnam, they also stopped supporting the government of the day in Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge  communists quickly overran the remaining army and entered Phnom Penh in 1975. It began what has to be one of the most horrific mass murders in history- most of us have read about some of the events  (and even more have seen the  movie "The Killing Fields") but it really brings it home to be at ground zero of the Khmer Rouge insanity. Virtually the entire population of Phnom Penh was forcibly relocated to labour in the rice fields (as part of some sort of idyllic communist paradise envisioned by the Khmer Rouge). People labeled as intellectual, lazy, or a political enemy would killed. How the world community could sit by while Pol Pot and his band of communist lunatics murdered a quarter of the Cambodian population is a true mystery (2 million out of a population of 8 million at the time). To be fair, the magnitude of the atrocities was likely not understood because of closed borders, but Vietnam War fatigue and the unequivocal Chinese support of Pol Pot were less forgivable. Even when the Vietnamese army rolled over the Khmer Rouge bully boys in just over two weeks, the international community continued to recognize Pol Pot as the head of Cambodia/Kampuchea. Overwhelming evidence of the brutal atrocities still didn't bring justice- Pol Pot was allowed to die of old age (albeit hiding out like a cockroach) and only 4 senior members of the Khmer Rouge are currently facing trials (over 30 years after the fact!!) and of those, only 1 has expressed regret over his actions. With this history as an oppressive backdrop, it was time to start exploring Phnom Penh and what we found was a city of vibrant, friendly people. Yes, it's chaotic, and yes, it's in need of a good scrubbing, but it was not hard to see the Pearl of Asia if you looked hard enough.

We spent the first couple of days  wandering and getting oriented (along with abundant ice cream time in the Blue Pumpkin Restaurant). The highlight had to be the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda- this complex wasn't quite on the scale of the palace in Bangkok but it was very impressive nonetheless. After the relative gloom of some of Vietnam's temples, it was nice to see temples and buildings that gleamed and shone under a bright sun again. The National Museum was a great introduction to the Khmer people at the time of Ankor Wat, and Wat Phnom and Wat Botum were both worthy of some of our time. Day markets and night markets abound but there was nothing particularly unique about any of them.

I'm not sure there's an appropriate time to be firing vintage Vietnam era weapons but it didn't seem right to be doing it first thing in the morning. That, however, is exactly what we were doing. We were shown to a table and given a menu of weapons options- "would you like a latte with your AK-47?". The most popular weapons were the AK-47 and the M16 (Russia vs America) but you could also fire an anti-tank rocket ($350) and throw a hand grenade ($150)- for these latter two you had to travel another 60km outside of town and after some debate (I really wanted to throw the pineapple) we decided to stick with the firing range (not what DH was used to back in her glory days- this shooting range was basically a long hallway with a defenseless coconut tormenting us from the other end). To start our coconut assault we chose the AK-47 and, given that it was the weapon of choice for the communists, I'm not sure how they won the war- the sight-lines were obviously defective (or the coconut was moving) and we ended up spraying rounds all around this impossible target. DH was having nightmare flashbacks of her annual qualifying so I knew we had to pull out the heavier artillery to get this job done. We chose the Browning M2 Machine Gun on a tripod which required us to sit in behind it and fire in bursts- I managed to wing the mocking coconut but DH seemed to take pity on our wounded enemy and blasted our remaining rounds well over his head (the coconut cost us $1 and escaped largely unscathed). I blame the inaccuracy on the lack of a Tim's coffee to start the day properly.

Our next stop was perhaps the most famous/infamous of the Killing Fields in Cambodia- Choeung Ek Extermination Centre. Much of the infrastructure was torn apart by locals after the Khmer Rouge was driven out, but it was still a very chilling experience to wander the grounds that were silent hosts to some of the worst kinds of human atrocities. This area was for killing only. If you were alive for any length of time after arriving it was only because the Khmer Rouge wasn't able to kill enough people quickly enough. The killing itself was particularly gruesome- because bullets were expensive, farm implements, machetes, and clubs were used- one tree was used to bash babies against. People were buried in mass graves, oftentimes still alive and all the while loud music and propaganda messaging was played over a speaker system. During this reign of terror, Cambodia lost over a quarter of it's population to the madness of Pol Pot. In remembrance, a pagoda stands in the centre of the Killing Fields and it is filled with the bones and skulls of those who were killed and dumped into these mass graves- I'm not sure it's the most appropriate way to remember these people but you can't deny the impact it has.

Still somewhat shocked by what we had seen, we stopped at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge (it was formerly a high school). From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000- unconfirmed reports suggest that only 7 people survived the prison). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners and since the Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers the museum today has pictures of many of these victims. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. For the first year of S-21’s existence, corpses were buried near the prison. However, by the end of 1976, cadres ran out of burial spaces, the prisoner and their family were taken to the Choeung Ek Extermination Centre we had just visited. We were both emotionally exhausted by the end of our visit- it's a necessary but draining experience for anyone in the Phnom Penh area.

After my traumatic haircut accident in Chiang Chong, I had been putting off a repeat experience but it was time to give it another try. Again, English was a challenge and after three different women had taken the scissors to me, I had visions of having to shave my head. The third one settled in and seemed to do a good job- I was sent to a back room for what I thought was going to be a rinse but turned into some kind of facial massage that included coating my face with somebodies leftover salad. Not sure what was happening, but while she was getting her hair coloured, DH was taking numerous breaks to come back to my area and take photos. We wrapped up our time in PP with a sunset cruise on the river and a visit to a local cinema that was playing a couple of English language flicks (we saw the 'new' Tom Cruise movie Ghost Protocol). The theatre was a little unique in that it was located on the 5th floor of department store and sold tickets with assigned seats- they also served popcorn and drinks in normal people sizes not the 45 gallon drums we had grown accustomed to back home- they did, however, play the movie at a volume level that rattled your teeth for the duration.

A tragic history but a resilient city- we really enjoyed our time in Phnom Penh.
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