Day 13: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

by - May 10, 2011

Today is a difficult blog to write.  My other pieces from Cambodia have been full of interesting examples of the impressive Khmer culture - from the past at Angkor and from the present at Battambang.  Unfortunately Phnom Penh is home to the darker side of Cambodian history as it is the principle focus of memorials relating to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.  My history of the regime was patchy at best - I had heard of Pol Pot, but didn’t know who he was or what he had done.  I felt it was pretty shameful to spend a lot of time in Cambodia and not find out more.

My first stop of the day was a pretty good example of what Pol Pot had done.  His communist regime forcibly emptied the cities of Cambodia and made his people work on farms.  If they were lucky, they were slaves in their own country.  If they were unlucky then they were beaten to death - beaten to save bullets as the regime had declared war on both Thailand and Vietnam.  The unlucky consisted of anybody who was deemed an intellectual - anybody who knew a foreign language, or had qualification, or a high paid job for example.  The regime saw no place for knowledge amongst its people.  This first stop of mine were ‘the Killing Fields’ where around 17,000 people were beaten to death.  Between 1.75 and 2.5 million people died as a result of the regime - out of a population of only 8 million.  That means that as many as one in every four people died.

The Pagoda at the Killing Fields
The site at Choeung Ek, which are the principle Killing Fields, now looks like an ordinary orchard, but a pagoda has been set up to house the bones and clothes of the bodies that were found.  Buddhists believe that bodies should be buried in well kept, marked graves as a sign of respect to their elders - this means that the mass graves of headless bodies that were found could not be more offensive to the national faith.  The museum at the fields was full of horror story after horror story.  One tree was found stained with blood as Khmer Rouge officials would kill babies by holding their legs and smashing them into it.  Another tree had a loudspeaker and microphone attached to it, to amplify the sound of rustling leaves to drown out the screaming.  Most of the weapons found at the site were simple farming implements - hoes, spades, rakes and blunt machetes - nothing that would have been clinical.  It wasn’t enough to kill the innocent at the fields, they were also put through immense pain.  Once the bodies had been put in the mass graves, dug mostly by the victims themselves, the guards would through DDT onto them.  Partly to hide the smell but also to kill off any survivors.  It is a horrendous place and I left feeling angry that it had been allowed to happen just over 30 years ago - 40 years after the holocaust.

Tuol Sleng Prison
My next stop was Tuol Sleng Prison S-21.  This was where prisoners were tortured and detained before being sent to the Killing Fields.  As if it wasn’t horrible enough that it was a prison, it had originally been Phnom Penh High School and the classrooms were partitioned into cells.  I think that the awful use of a school in this way was best exemplified by the old school playing ground.  You know the bars that kids swing on in parks?  Not the monkey bars, the ones that they hang on my their arms and try to pull themselves head over heels on?  The original Phnom Penh High School bars are still there.  They were used as gallows where prisoners were hung upside down for hours upon end.  I heard a story where one prisoner managed to steal a gun from a guard, but instead of trying to escape with it, he turned it on himself.  When the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh (the same Vietnamese who the Americans had declared a moral war on - I couldn’t help thinking they should have been targetting Cambodia) they found 14 bloody corpses in the torture chamber.  Phnom Penh was a ghost town - its population killed or sent to work.

Converted classroom equipment
On reflection, perhaps the thing that makes these two awful places so vivid is how recent it was.  Those who died were the parents and grandparents of the people living in Cambodia at the moment, which couldn’t have looked much different then to how it does now.  All the people who have been so helpful to me - guides, drivers, hostel workers etc were only a generation away from annihilation.  It is a wonder that they allow foreigners in - especially us Americans and Europeans who sat by and did nothing.  The United Nations is just as to blame - the ousted Khmer Rouge were still recognized as the legitimate government of Cambodia after the Vietnamese invasion, which was seen as an act of aggression.

Silver Pagoda
Anyway, that was it for the dark side of Cambodian history, and I headed back into the city to see some lighter monuments.  A bit of a rain storm had kicked off, but luckily we were fairly close to the Russian Market so took shelter in there.  The market contained everything - food, clothes, power tools, DVDs and cameras just to name a few bits.  It also had a pungent aroma of food left out in warm weather - fruit, meat and fish were just sat about in the open and in many cases were covered in flies.  Needless to say, I didn’t particularly fancy anything.  After the rain had stopped, I asked my tuk-tuk driver to take me back to the city centre, to go to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda.  Both of these spectacular pieces of architecture are located within the same walled gardens - an area of calm amongst the craziness of Phnom Penh. The Royal Palace was similar to most other Buddhist buildings I had seen, just a lot grander.  I found the Silver Pagoda more interesting, however it took me a while to find it.  Its name comes from the fact that it is decorated with 9,000 tiles of pure silver - weighing a kilogram each.  I walked around the palace grounds looking for a building that was massively shiny.  Finally, after asking for directions, I was pointed towards a pagoda I had already been to.  It turned out that the legendary silver tiles were the floor tiles, and these were all covered with rugs anyway! You could see them around the edge of the temple, but I have to say that in a country where there is a lot of poverty it seems a bit decadent to tile a palace with what XE currency reckons is 7 million pounds worth of silver, and then hide it under the carpet!

Central Market, Phnom Penh
On my way back to the hostel I stopped by at the Central Market - a far grander and larger version of the Russian Market. I treated myself to two clean t-shirts for 3 pounds (with the standard gap year beer logo on the front) and also a traditional Cambodian scarf (to make up for my Egyptian one that Ellie left in the Czech Republic).  I stopped by at the post office to drop off another batch of postcards before leaving my friendly tuk-tuk guy at the hostel - he was the guy who had helped me out yesterday so I had hired him for the entire day.  In the evening I went out to dinner with an Australian social worker and an American teacher which was interesting.  Congratulations if you read the full blog today - I am sure you can appreciate that I didn’t want to do a half-arsed job of it.  Tomorrow I aim to catch the bus from here to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

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