Phnom Penh & It’s Devastatingly Sad Dark Past – Days 313 to 314

Sun 9th – Mon 10th Dec

I land in Phnom Penh but the city is a fair way out from the airport. Tuk tuk drivers won’t budge on price either…it’s 10$! I’m exhausted after a full on day and I’m pleased to see my hostel is really nice and clean. I plan on eating and chilling but meet a cool Canadian Ananda who’s in my dorm. Being a solo traveller too she asks me if I fancy going for a beer. Remembering times when Ive been alone, although shattered, I don’t want to say no. We go for a few and have a right good craic.

The next morning I’m up and ready to start a tough and emotional day of sightseeing – if I can call it that. Cambodia has an extremely dark past and I’ve read both First They Killed my Father and Surviving the Killing Fields. It is because of these that I am here. It is only by keeping the memory of these atrocities alive that we can try to ensure they never happen again in the future.

A brief history for this that haven’t read the books or don’t know much about this awful period in time….

Communism was on the rise, emerging in Cambodia due to the struggle against the French colonisation in the 1940s…influenced by the Vietnamese and the wars that followed.

In 1970, Lon Nol, a previous prime minister, and his associates formed a coup and overthrew Prince Sihanouk. Before and up until now, the formed communist party – the CPK has gained momentum and members. This was led by Pol Pot (born with the name Solath Sar). It was while spending time in France, his communist beliefs and ideologies grew. He returned in 1953 joining a communist movement and quickly moved up the ranks…soon to become one of the world’s most notorious dictators.

During the defeat of Lon Nol’s regime, aided by the USA, dropped half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia killing in the hundreds of thousands. Resentment towards this led to people joining the CPK, or more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge had occupied 85% of Cambodia and on 17 April 1975, the capital Phnom Penh also fell into communist hands. Lon Nol had been defeated.

This was the start of some tough times ahead, and back then, nobody had any inclining or idea what was in store. After taking power, Pol Pot got to work and ordered the mass evacuation of approx 2 million people on a forced march out of the city and into the fields to take up agricultural work. They wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation.

Declaring that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”, Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and set about emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion, and setting up rural collectives. Thousands of people died during the evacuations. People were deprived of any basic human rights. Any breach of the rules resulted in punishment or death.

The Khmer Rouge asked all Cambodians to believe, obey and respect only Angkar (The Organisation).

The Khmer Rouge claimed that only pure people were qualified to build the revolution. They want to create an agrarian utopia an anyone and anyone thought to be an intellectual, of mix d race, of the former government, professionals of any kind, were killed.

They wanted to eliminate all those suspected of involvement in free market activities and purify Cambodia of capitalism.

Those seen as pure Khmer, real Cambodians were those that worked on the land, those that did something for the country and its people. These people became the chiefs and leaders of the work forces. Forcing them to work 16 plus hours a day….planting and harvesting rice, building dams, digging and ploughing on barely no food at all and little sleep. Any slacking resulted in punishment for not doing their bit for Angkar. Pol Pot wanted Cambodia to be totally self sufficient and not rely on any outside help or influence and killed many thousands in his plight.

Many were held in prisons, where they were detained, interrogated, tortured and executed. The most important prison in Cambodia, known as S-21, held approximately 14,000 prisoners while in operation. Only about 12 survived.

It is because of the reading I had done, that I am here. Sat on the bus on my way to S21 also known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Watching a video on the bus, it is harrowing just hearing about it never mind going in. It isa former secondary school in the centre of Phnom Penh and one of 150 torture centres created by the Khmer Rouge. I pay for the audio guide, get given a map and start at the first of 4 buildings that make up this place of horror. The school was adapted to fit the purpose of a prison…buildings enclosed in electrified barbed wire, classrooms converted into tiny prison cells and torture chambers, and all windows covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes and suicides.

I learn that upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. There are row after row of inmate photos here to see all with identity numbers around their necks, being sat on a special chair so that their posture looked normal rather than limp, beaten and tired. They were shackled to the walls or floors or collectively in large rooms, row after row to large iron bars, naked except for their underwear.

They received very little food and water and were hosed down only every 4 days. We are told that if you defacated, you were made to eat/lick the mess u made off the floor. There is torture apparatus outside Building A where prisoners were hoisted up on a wooden frame and if they didn’t confess to a crime they were said to have committed, their heads were dunked in giant pots of faeces….and the process continued until they got a confession. Paperwork here was tight. It is one of the reasons we have learned so much of the goings on here. Everything was recorded from name, number, times and methods of torture. Guards were under strict instruction to not let a person die until a confession had been made! Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of the water-boarding techniques, which involves putting a cloth over the head and pouring water on the face so it felt like drowning.

This place is horrific and it’s hard to believe it happened just over 40 years ago.

Life did not matter to the Khmer Rouge, it was better to kill 10 innocent people than let 1 traitor get away. They ruled under the motto ‘To have you is no benefit, to lose you is no loss’.

Out of an estimated 20,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only 12 known survivors: 7 adults and 5 children. One child died shortly after the liberation. As of mid-September 2011, only 3 prisoners are now alive and they sit outside here today…each with a translator and selling books of their experiences. As I approach the first, who was a young boy imprisoned here at the age of 9, I cannot contain myself and burst into tears. The awful unspeakable things this poor man must have seen. I’m so overcome that I willingly give 10$ for his book. I experience the same on meeting the other 2, tears rolling down my face as I greet them in the traditional way of pressing hands together like namaste. I can’t get my head around how these men, having been through what they have, can come back here day after day. What must go through their heads?!

I heard this place was heavy going and it most certainly was. Sat outside it is nice talking to another girl off the bus, Talía to move away from such sadness.

From here we travel the 15kms or so to the Killing Fields or Choeung Ek by it’s proper name. For the first year of S-21’s existence, corpses were buried near the prison. However, by the end of 1976, they ran out of burial space and so bodies were taken to this once open orchard and disposed of in mass graves.

I again opt to do the audio tour and everyone wanders round in a stunned silence. Prisoners from S21 were trucked out to here late in the evening where they faced execution. Two or three trucks travelled every month, each holding around 20 prisoners who making their final journey to the Killing Field. There used to be a truck here and a staff office, but those that weren’t killed by the time if liberation took the wood etc to build makeshift homes. There are signs there in place to mark these spots. Loud propaganda music singing the wonders of Angkar was played around the site so no one cd hear the cries and screams. As bullets were deemed too expensive, the victims were clubbed to death of had their throats cut and chemical substances were scattered over their bodies to ensure no one remained alive (and also to hide the smell of rotting decaying dead bodies).

The bodies were then dumped into the ground. We walk past one Grace where 450 body remains were found. Fenced off, this is now adorned with friendship bracelets and I leave the one I got with Veer and Juliana in Cusco.

I pass another that contained the body parts of 100 people but minus their heads. This place is just dreadful. Despite the horror that already lies here, there is one bit that’s even worse and that’s the Killing Tree. I won’t go into too much detail but it was here the Khmer Rouge tore tiny babies away from their mothers and bashed them against the tree. They apparently had multiple reasons for doing this but there is nothing on earth that can justify such brutal and barbaric behaviour. Lengths and lengths of friendship bracelets joined together dress this tree,

another small gesture from those of us that visit that want to give something, to remember in any little way we can. This shakes me more than anything and it takes a while to get over the shock and pure evilness of the people who did this.

The tour ends at a newly erected Buddhist Stupa, built in memory of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Thousands of skulls are arranged in a glass case in order of age and sex and labelled on how it was they died – by a blow to which part of the head and by what weapon. It’s the sheer number of skulls on show that again prove the numbers that lost their lives.

Outside there is a person selling flowers to lay outside the stupa as a mark of respect and I buy one of these too.

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by the invading Vietnamese troops. Slowly Cambodia started rebuilding itself and it was only during the 80s that survivors started telling their stories. 2 are the books that I’ve read and one the Hollywood blockbuster The Killing Fields that put the awfully sad history of Cambodia on the world stage.

The Khmer Rouge went underground and despite what they did, still operated for another 20 years…until Pol Pot in 1997 was denounced by his former comrades. He was sentenced to house arrest but unfortunately died a year later before ever being tried.

In 2009, the UN helped establish a tribunal to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders but only 3 Khmer Rouge leaders have ever been sentenced. This included one of the most notorious known as Duch who ran the S21 prison. In 2012, he was prisoner for life and in 2014, Brother #2 – Nuon Ches was also hailed for life. In Nov 2018, they were both found guilty of genocide and remains the first and only genocide conviction against the Khmer Rouge.

This was one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century. It is estimated that over 2 million lost their lives during this time but that figure is now being said to be more around the 3 mark. Many survived and whilst some fled to neighbouring countries and on to the USA, a lot have had to rebuild their lives here in their homeland. The memory of those dark days and the Khmer Rouge, still lingering strong. Many are still dealing with the trauma and psychological problems as a result.

It’s been a tough morning but like when I visited Aushwitz back in 1995, it is important to visit these places, to learn about and understand an important part of the country ur visiting and its history…it’s not always all rainbows and butterflies.

I didn’t feel the need or feel comfortable taking photos in such places, so there are just a few of the memorial places and the friendship bracelets instead. I feel the story speaks for itself.

Out of all my blog posts, this has probs my been the most difficult to write but I believe it’s important to capture the content and portray it correctly. I hope it hasn’t upset too many people but this is the truth of what these people suffered.

Not to end on such a sad note and with it still being early in the day, Talia and I go for some lunch in central market

and soy some local delicacies we most definitely didn’t try!

And see the magnificent flower stalls with huge blooms of bouquets

Then we walk to visit the famous Wat Phnom Temple set on top of the only hill in the city.

According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong and discovered by a woman name Penh. Having seen some exquisite temples throughout Thailand and Laos, this one definitely falls a bit short on the old wow factor. We did meet some lovely polite children preparing for a dance show tonight thou.

We stroll along the river

and stumble across Wat Ounalom Temple. This is much brighter and colourful than the previous

but I’m too busy with a gorgeous raspberry ice cream that’s melting quicker than I can eat it in the heat to be able to take many photos! This is apparently one of the top tourist attractions here….

It’s only 250m from the Royal Palace and on approach there are families dining in rugs in the park, eating wares from local street hawkers, kids are playing and again it’s so nice to see the family unit doing things like this rather than being wrapped up and absorbed in technology.

We walk past the Royal Palace but its10$ to get in and nearly closing time. It looks quite nice from the outside but the guards are far too strict to let us peer from the gate to have a peek!

Whilst Talia goes off to meditate (I’ve done my bit on that front) I go and go back to pack and decide where and what I’m going to do from here. With a cague plan formed, Amanda, Talia and I go for a lovely vegetarian dinner that is cheap as chips and topped off with a beer!

A long, emotional tiring day but informative and fun too. Been great hanging out with u girls too.

And go for dinner with Amanda at a cool vegetarian restaurant. After a full on day, it’s topped off with a beer!

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