Details of my last day in Phnom Penh, visiting the Killing Fields and S21, and my trip to Siem Reap.
13.02.2012 - 14.02.2012 33 °C
I've just arrived safe and sound from my six hour bus journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and figured it's about time I update my travel blog. The past two days have been reasonably relaxed as I haven't been packing out my days as much as I did in Saigon, but I'm glad to have left Phnom Penh and to have a change of scenery.
Yesterday I visited the Killing Fields and S-21, which was pretty much just as surreal as you could imagine. Matt organised a tuk-tuk for $15 which we split, and after a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup for breakfast he picked me up around 9 with a lovely driver named Andy. Our first stop was the Killing Fields, which cost $5 entry, entitling you to an incredibly useful audio tour which was available in many languages. The audio tour was matched with labeled stops and went into each area in depth, and offering options of listening to more information about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the horrors that occurred at the site on which we stood. The audio tape also had snippets of testimony given by survivors of the events, as well as guards and officers of the Killing Fields, which offered incredibly moving insight.
It was amazing to actually see the space where over ten thousand people were murdered. Basically anyone who was educated, had soft hands, wore glasses, or rose against the Khmer Rouge were murdered. Often people were told in prison that they were being relocated to a farm or workhouse and then arrive at the Choueng-Ek (the Killing Fields) to be murdered. Bullets were too expensive so people were generally killed by being beaten with regular garden tools, such as hoes, axes, shovels etc.
The fields themselves were actually incredibly beautiful, until you realise that the grooves and small mounds along the fields are actually the site of mass graves, where bodies were once piled upon each other and you can still find bone fragments, teeth and cloth. There is a lake that you can walk to which apparently still contains remains as those who discovered the site believed it was best to let the dead rest. From the lake there is a beautiful view across more fields, which from what I understand from the map still contain many bodies, however the land is used by the people now. Small children ran up to the fence to talk to us and as soon as they saw our cameras it was clear that they had rehearsed many times '1...2...3..smile! Money please?'. It was almost hilariously practised at how in sync all of the children were.
As you continue to walk along the audio tour route there are a few sites of interest, such as containers full of collected cloth from victims clothes, upon which people had placed a thong (flip flop) they'd found, some rags, half a human jaw and several teeth. I hadn't realised what I was looking at for a few minutes, and it took a while for the horror to really sink in. There was a similar container full just of bone fragments and a large tupperware container of teeth which people had found. The fact that these belonged to real people whos lives were spared with such little care is truly disturbing. Right next to this was a small alter to the dead.
Next was perhaps the most awful part of the entire site, a grave which was dedicated primarily to women and children. I can't remember exactly, but the remains of something like 86 women and children were found in this one spot, right next to one large tree. This tree, named the 'Chinkari Tree' or 'Killing Tree' was used to kill children - soldiers would hold small infants and children by their feet and slam them against the tree until they were dead, then throw them into the pit next to it. Apparently when the site was found, blood, skin and hair remained on the tree. Pol Pot would say something along the lines of 'to kill grass you must also remove the roots', meaning that children should be killed so that they could not grow up and take revenge on the Khmer Rouge. 'To lose you is no loss, to keep you is no gain'.
After this was a magnificent tree; the 'Magic Tree'. This tree really was beautiful, however it was apparently used to hang loudspeakers off it, which the Khmer Rouge would loudly play patriotic music from to create the illusion of a Khmer Rouge meeting occurring. Combined with turning on a car engine, this sound was designed to muffle the moans and screams of the victims being killed. The audio tape played this, which created a very moving and surreal feeling of verisimilitude.
At the end of the tour (which was also the beginning) was a stupa, designed to commemorate the dead, and where visitors could pay their respects. This stupa was made from glass, which had 17 (or 19, I forget) levels filled with skulls, as well as a few of jaws, bones, and leftover clothing. It was a very sad site to be reminded that these were all once living, breathing, thinking, feeling and loving human beings who died for a ridiculous cause. Over 3 million people of the then-8 million Cambodian population were murdered at the hands of Pol Pot. And what's worse is that the international community failed to respond until 20-30 years later - the Khmer Rouge were included as part of the UN for many years after these horrendous events! The environment for these events to occur was fostered by the international community, which is truly frightening. As much as I wish it won't, I have little hope that this sort of thing won't happen again as history dictates so.
There was also a small museum at the Killing Fields which had some interesting information and images too.
Next Andy took us to the S-21 or the Tuol-Sleng Prison, which is back closer to the city of Phnom Penh. The prison was very interesting and had been set up well as a museum, however I did not find it as moving as the Killing Fields. The prison itself actually used to be a high school, but as Pol Pot was completely against educated people (despite the fact that he himself moved to Paris to attend university and the head honcho of S-21, Duch, was a teacher himself). The site contains four blocks which are each three stories high.
When S-21 was discovered, 7 bodies remained in the prison, one being a female. The first block was set up with furniture just as they had found it, with the photos of the sites as they had been found up on the wall, which emulated the horrendous ways in which these people had been murdered. Some of these rooms also had writing on the walls, some mathematical equations, some in Khmer, but it’s difficult to know which existed then and which are graffiti from visitors. In this building there was also information about a class that the museum has begun to set up on Wednesday's and Friday's, where you can attend to learn about and discuss the Khmer Rouge and the events that occurred during that period.
In the courtyard was a small graveyard which contained the bodies of these victims that had been found, as well as a large structure that had once been the schools exercise bars. However once the school became a prison, these bars were used for torture. Prisoners would be hung from the bars upside down until they fell unconcious, and when they did the guards would then dip their heads in sewerage and waste water to wake them up, and then continue questioning. Basically, the Khmer Rouge would used various methods of torture to force prisoners to admit to crimes that they were accused of, which would thus enable them to kill them. E.g, a painter who had initially worked for the Khmer Rouge as an artist was accused of being a member of the KGB and pushed to admit that he was spying on the Khmer Rouge. If he was pushed to admit this, his testimony would be taken and he would be killed.
The next building was virtually full of photographs of the 15,000 (estimated) people who were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. When walking into the first room it's amazing to see so many photos of these beautiful people, however then this continues to the next room, and the next, and the next.
The third building contains cells in which the victims were imprisoned, with the bottom level being brick cells, the middle being wooden cells, and the top being mass communal cells. Each level was accessed by a wide balcony, however after many prisoners had attempted to commit suicide from the top levels, they were covered with barbed wire. On the bottom level there was also an empty room where many visitors had inscribed messages – some were dumb like ‘Bazza woz here 2011’ but others were quite sweet…although regardless I really don’t think it’s appropriate to deface an historic site.
The last building contained more photos and artistic visual representations, as well as a room with an altar where you could light some incense and pay your respects. The upper levels had more information about the time period, particularly information about and testimonies from guards of the S-21. Some were sad, as they themselves would be killed if they did not support the regime, but regardless it was still terrible. There was also a room that focused on the outcome now and the guards that have been punished internationally, such as Duch, who was the main leader of S-21. After these killings stopped, Duch actually went back to teaching (despite the fact that many people he killed were murdered for being educators or even wearing glasses, which indicate knowledge). By chance, a journalist discovered who he was and he was sentenced in international court.
After we left Tuol Sleng, Andy was waiting outside and Matt and I decided to get some food. There are a few restaurants and shops in Phnom Penh that are run by an organisation which supports street kids and gives them skills and jobs. Matt had been to one of them, Romdeng, the night before, and we decided to say goodbye to Andy and get some lunch there. They had a set lunch of beef and cherry tomato stir-fry, eggplant salad, rice and these amazing fried banana dumpling desserts for $6.50. It was a bit pricier than other places because it’s very touristy, but it was delish.
That afternoon I just walked back to the hostel and did not much I think. There were a few new girls in my room who were nice but I wasn’t in a hugely social mood, and was more just worried about booking a bus to Siem Reap for today, as I’ve heard many many horror stories about buses in Cambodia, with bags typically being stolen or gone through. I had heard that Mekong Express was a reputable company, but my hostel did not book them, so I walked to their agency on Sisowath Quay (the main road by the river) and booked a ticket for $11. I then got some dinner at a restaurant which served Chicken Amok – a meal I’d been recommended, and I got a pineapple coconut shake – possibly the single most delicious drink I’ve ever consumed. I walked back to my hostel and spoke a bit more with the bar boys, particularly Visal, as they want to practice their English more. Unfortunately I didn’t get to say goodbye to him as I was falling asleep, but maybe I’ll see him again one day!
Today I had a very lazy morning, just getting some lemongrass chicken for breakfast which is apparently a Khmer dish (I never knew that) and packing up all my stuff, triple-checking that I hadn’t left anything and I’d locked everything up. At around 12 I headed to the Mekong Express bus stop, bought some bus snacks, and boarded the bus effortlessly.
The company lived up to its reputation, and although nothing overly exceptional I would definitely recommend it for $11 as it was air conditioned, reasonably comfortable and you were given a free snack. I took a few photos out the window – particularly as we just left the city I saw many Islamic people. I’d been told Islam was the main religion of Cambodia, but hadn’t really seen any Muslim women, so that was kind of interesting.
After about three hours we stopped in Khong Chomp (I will have to check that name – definitely wrong) for a food break, and I had a brief chat to a monk I had seen on my bus. There were children sitting outside our bus begging for food or money. I had an almost full packet of biscuits that I was about to throw out to prevent myself from eating them all, but quickly grabbed them and gave them to the boys. It’s kind of overwhelming to think how much I take all these things for granted – that entire packet cost me $1.40, yet they were so excited about it.
The journey went on fairly uneventfully and I watched Vicki Cristina Barcelona until finally arriving in Siem Reap at around 6.30, where a smiling tuk-tuk driver was waiting with a Bun Kao Guesthouse sign that said ‘Georgia Ellen’. His name is Sun Lee and he seemed very excited about speaking to me; I think he was trying to practise his English. When I arrived at the hostel I sorted some stuff out and then went for a short walk up the street in search of food.
On the corner I found a street vendor cooking something delicious and asked him to make me one for $1 – it was like mi goreng on steroids with beef. Delish. But more interestingly was a tuk-tuk driver named Sivarn (pronounced Siobhan) who came to talk to me while I was ordering, who said ‘I want to take you to pub street and buy you a flower’ haha. He was really just trying to sell me a tuk-tuk ride but instead he came and sat with me while I ate and we had a really interesting conversation about Cambodian politics – a conversation that many other Cambodians haven’t spoken to me about. I found the conversation quite enlightening, though at times a little hard to understand, though all in all I got the general gist, and he hopes that one day Cambodia can be a proper functioning democracy like Australia. Sivarn doesn’t want to be a tuk-tuk driver but wants to work in agriculture, but doesn’t currently have the money to invest, so I wish him the best with that. I’m lucky to have grown up in a situation where not only nothing is impossible, but everything is actually quite easy to achieve as I have squillions of resources available to me.
And here we are! Tomorrow Matt and I are waking bright and early to go see the Angkor temples, so I guess I’ll fill you in on that a bit later.