"Everything I did, I did for my country" - Pol Pot

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

After our bus ride from hell and a good two hours staring out of the bus window watching the outskirts of Phnom Penh slowly go by in the crazy traffic, we made it to the central market. As usual we were surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers all trying to get our business.  So we agreed a price and hopped on board.  We usually book hotels and hostels right in the middle of the action so we don't need to worry about tuk-tuks and taxi’s during our stay and I can only guess that the reviews I had read about the hotel we booked lied extensively about the location.  We left the bright lights of the waterfront, wizzed past the royal palace, and just kept going until we got to the Khmer ghetto filled with flats that looked like they were held together with nothing but mildew and bright garish flashing lights of 24 hour "massage" parlours.  Houston we have a problem!

As it was we only had one full day in Phnom Penh so we decided to suck it up and deal with the fact that we would not be having any nice evening strolls in the area around our hotel and we would be spending significant amounts of time negotiating with tuk-tuks, damn you trip-advisor!  For anyone heading to Phnom Penh do not stay at the Diamond Palace number 1, stay at the Diamond palace number 2, in fact don’t stay at either, they both suck in their own special ways.  We tried number 2 on a trip back through Phnom Penh and whilst it was at the centre of the action it had a built in air hydration system, also known a big hole with water pouring through the ceiling, pure class!

So the main reason for our stay in Phnom Penh like pretty much everyone else in the city was to immerse ourselves into the horror of Khmer history and to learn about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  This like many other places we have visited was a pretty depressing and eye opening trip and once again reminded me that my education sucked.  How was I never taught about the horrors that occurred in Cambodia just a few years before I was born, oh yeah is it because it didn’t affect the rest of the world and therefore no one gives a damn, silly me!   

So once again better late than never it was time to expand my education for myself.

Between 1970 and 1975 there was a civil war within Cambodia.  The Khmer Rouge (the communist party of Kampuchea) with the support of the North Vietnam and Viet Cong verses the Government Forces of Cambodia, the South of Vietnam which were supported by the United States.  As you can probably work out this was more an extension of the Vietnam War than a civil war.  In 1975 the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot took power and there began the most horrific 4 years whereby approximately 3 million people out of a population of 8 million would be starved, tortured and brutally murdered.

The Khmer Rouge campaign is one of the bloodiest in history and I personally find it impossible to believe that this was allowed to happen less than 40 years ago, yet you only need to look at the news to see what is happening in Syria right now to see the horrors of war and how terrifyingly quickly things progress.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population into agricultural communes.  The entire population was forced to become farmers in labour camps, farming rice. The total lack of agricultural knowledge by the former city dwellers made famine inevitable. The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.

Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered, to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halt of almost all economic activity: even schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and industrial and service companies. Banks were raided and all currency and records destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.

In addition to the forced labour Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge began executing select groups who they believed to be enemies or spies.  Anyone perceived to be intellectuals, therefore all doctors, teachers, lawyers, anyone who could speak a foreign language and even anyone who wore glasses were killed.  All religion was banned leading to the murder of many Buddhists, Muslims and Christians.

Pol Pot once a teacher himself began to enlist children to fight and kill for him as part of the Khmer Rouge as they were  more easily coerced into his way of thinking, yet another layer to the evil that was Pol Pot.

All over Cambodia prisons and killing fields were set up and controlled by the Khmer Rouge.  People would be taken to the prisons and tortured for information before being transferred to the killing fields where they would be executed and tossed into mass graves.

So there you go there is a brief history of the why, who and where of the Cambodian genocide.  So here we are in Phnom Penh the home to the most infamous prison and killing fields.

We started our tour with the obligatory visit to the Killing Fields.  Like so many places where terrible things have happened the Killing Fields send a chill down your spine.  Now just a serene patch of land with a temple to commemorate the deaths that occurred here, the horrors of this area are all too clear to see still now 40 years on.  As the audio guide walks you through the site you see the remnants of the mass graves with bones and clothes of victims still coming to the surface during heavy rain.  The undulating grass is still a reminder of just how many graves were on the site.  The most harrowing area on the site is a huge tree, now covered with friendship bracelets by people wanted to show a mark of respect.  This tree was used as a weapon and children and babies were swung head first into the tree to kill them before they were thrown into one of the many mass graves.

There is another huge tree in the centre of the site which was used to hang speakers from.  Loud music was then pumped through the speakers to cover the sounds of the screams of pain and horror from the people being executed here.

Prior to their transfer to the Killing Fields the prisoners were held at the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge prisons, S21, a former high school.  Around 20,000 prisoners are thought to have been held at s21 between 1975 and 1979.  From the outside S21 still looks like a normal school save for the barbed wire covering the outside of the balconies and the gallows which stand in the centre of the courtyard.  The barbed wire is said not to be there to stop people escaping, but to stop them being able to jump from the balcony to commit suicide.  Inside the school the rooms are converted to either prison cells made of wood or bricks or torture chambers and the walls are covered with the photographs of all the people who were held at S21.  It is horrific to see mothers with tiny babies and so many faces of young children adorning the walls.  Sadly S21 which is now called the Tuol Sleung Genocide Museum is run by a friend of the President and once again the entrance fee is pocketed and nothing is reinvested into the museum to make it more of an educational site.  Whilst just seeing what is left of the prison is a sheer horror in itself so much more could be made of this site to preserve and educate people about the Cambodian Genocide.

In 1979 Pol Pot was in such fear of a Vietnamese attack that he fled to the jungles of southwest Cambodia and this lead to the collapse of the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot remained in hiding in Thailand until his death in 1998.  Just days before his death it had been announced that the Khmer Rouge was going to hand him over to an International Tribunal.  His body was cremated before an inquest could occur leading to speculation that he committed suicide.

Unbelievably it took until 2007 for any of the perpetrators of the horrors that took place in Cambodia to be brought to account.  The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) were set up with international assistance to bring the key leaders and those responsible for the genocide to justice.  In February 2012, Duch, one of the most prominent leaders who was the head of S21, was sentenced to life imprisonment.  This is at least one small step towards bringing justice to the millions of people savagely murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime.

So there it is, my little history lesson on one of the most evil men in history and his campaign of terror in Cambodia.  Sorry if it is a tad depressing, but there is not much joy and happiness to be found in Phnom Penh.

That said as soon as we got home from our tours the heavens opened and the rainy season was upon us, thank goodness we got home when we did.  The hotel was shaking from the thunder and the monsoon rain flooded the street in minutes, we watched on from the safety of our balcony whilst the kids in the street below had the time of their lives playing in the puddles.

There was one revelation in Phnom Penh, we discovered Dairy Queen, this American fast food ice cream restaurant is possible the best discovery we have made of late.  And after a day of touring depressing museums there is nothing better than a huge pot of ice cream filled with chocolate chips and chunks of brownie, yum!

So we actually left Phnom Penh twice, once at the end of our stay to fly to Malaysia where we found some giant sweets to play with at the airport, but before that we got another bus……..

After much research we discovered the crème de la crème of buses,,,, the Giant Ibis a big beautiful bus with free wifi and movies and water and snacks and all things good so we booked it.  Only to discover that the big beautiful bus with all things wonderful doesn’t go to Sihanoukville, so we were bundled into a tiny minibus and were given the worst seats on the bus behind the driver with the engine block under our feet and therefore no leg room at all.  Oh good this is going to be a comfortable 4 hours.  Thank goodness we have a movie to watch, when I say watch I mean watch as there was no volume.  Thankfully Finding Nemo doesn’t have too much of a storyline to follow so it kept me entertained for a couple of hours.

Hello Sihanoukville, the beach paradise of Cambodia…. Or is it???!!!!
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