Phnom Penh was a tough one. It hurt our hearts. Clawed away at our faith in humanity. This is a place that makes no secret of its brutal past. Instead, it puts it all out on display as a reminder to the rest of the world of just how dangerous it can be when power to falls into the wrong hands and as a way to honour the millions of people who died under the regime of the Khmer Rouge.
We made our way to Phnom Penh from Battembang via a local bus. We had lovely views out the window. Unfortunately the continuous pop music videos being played at full blast often didn’t reflect the beauty outside.
We managed to snag a deal online and so stayed at Teahouse, a beautiful and relatively fancy hotel with a swimming pool. The fact that it was a really small pool made us feel good about our level of fitness.
“I’ve just done 40 lengths, I’m on fire”.
Despite their recent history, the strength of Cambodian people shines through in many things, not least the development of Phnom Penh, its bustling capital. It’s hard to believe that just over 40 years ago the place was essentially a ghost town, after Pol Pot sent his army in to march tens of thousands of residents out of their city homes and into forced labour camps in the countryside. While it’s not the kind of city you would go for a romantic wander about in (some of the roads are nightmarish to cross), there are various cute NGO run shops, nice places to eat, as well as a shiny new shopping mall, if you’re into that. The huge Central Market is an interesting place to walk around as well. An amble through the streets of Phnom Penh, like many other places we visited in Cambodia, provides an insight in real people and their real lives.
The main points of interest for tourists who visit Phnom Penh are the Choeng Ek Genocidal Centre (the killing fields) and Tuol Sleng, also known as the S-21 prison. Both places provide visitors with an unforgettably harrowing experience and huge amounts of information. I would definitely advise anyone planning to visit to allow at least a couple of days for visiting these places. Trying to see both in one day would be unbelievably emotionally draining.
Our first visit was to the killing fields. We arrived with a shamefully limited amount of knowledge of the country’s past. Our visit to Battembang, guide books and some vague information we had absorbed in the past formed the basis of our understanding of what happened in Cambodia in the 70’s. Despite being born just a decade after Pol Pot’s revolution, we never learned anything about the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities at school. That said, we were here to observe and to learn.
Our visit to Tuol Sleng was incredibly insightful as well as being deeply disturbing in many ways. An extremely well put together audio guide led us round the former orchard that was used as a mass grave by the Khmer Rouge for around approximately 17000 of its victims. To avoid wasting precious bullets, prisoners from the nearby S-21 prison were transported here during the night where they were brutally killed.The remains of 8985 bodies were exhumed in 1980 and 8000 skulls are displayed behind glass in a memorial stupa. The skulls are arranged by age, sex. A stark reminder of the individuals that make up the huge numbers of deceased.A particularly haunting element of the killing fields is the human remains and items of clothing that can be seen in the ground. When the rain comes, rags and bones belonging to the dead rise to the surface. They are regularly collected and displayed by the caretakers of the memorial site but numerous bits of cloth can be seen emerging from ground below and what at first appears to be a piece of rock suddenly reveals itself to be a bone, once the eyes have adjusted.
There were a number of particularly horrifying details mentioned in both the audio guide and preserved and signposted at the grounds. Accounts of specific techniques used by executioners in were particularly difficult to stomach. But, in spite of how difficult it was to see and hear certain things, it felt important to take everything in and to direct our thoughts and hearts towards those who had suffered there.
Our second day in Phnom Penh was arguably even more heartbreaking, as we visited the S-21 prison and learned of the truly unbelievable treatment of all of the completely innocent victims who were taken here. Thousands of people were tortured until they signed false confessions to all manner of ludicrous crimes, knowing for certain that this would result in their death. The Khmer Rouge took over an old school (because they closed them all – educated people were automatically criminals) to imprison their victims and visitors to the site have the opportunity to observe all of the different areas in which they operated.
As many as 20 000 people are believed to have been held at the prison between 1975 and 1979. Of these, there are only 7 known survivors. Seven. Cambodians from every walk of life were arrested and coerced into naming family members who were then subsequently subjected to the same fate. Entire families were murdered en masse. There was absolutely no mercy.
Our audio guide spoke of the conditions in the prison which were absolutely horrendous. We were lead through stark and dingy torture rooms and prison cells where you could almost feel the fear of those who had suffered in them. We were also able to see the barbed wire put up to stop people jumping out of windows to end their own lives. Most harrowing of all though were the thousands of black and white photos of the victims that lined the walls. As part of their strict rules and regulations, every prisoner was photographed and registered, despite the certainty that they would be executed. The scared and heartbroken eyes of men, woman and children stared back at us as we did our best to cast our eyes upon each one in an attempt to pay our respects to each person.
Despite the sombre nature of our visit, we very much enjoyed our few days in Phnom Penh, learning about the country’s past and wandering through the streets.
Although we didn’t go inside, we visited the royal palace and enjoyed a walk along the river, where we saw ladies selling beautiful lotus flowers. We also saw lots of ladies selling sparrows by the river. Apparently the ritual of freeing captured animals is considered by many Buddhists to be an act of compassion, although it obviously bears no relevance to the ancient Buddhist teachings from which this act originates. That said, needs must and the ability to observe without judgement is a skill that takes a lifetime to perfect.