(Day 302 to 306)
19.09.2010 - 23.09.2010 38 °C
Phnom Penh is a surprisingly vibrant town. We stayed by the riverside (well a few streets back) where there is always a lot happening. The river is lined by a large promenade and palm trees, with a busy street which separates you from the row of many restaurants. In the evenings, the promenade is jam-packed with locals called Phnom Penhnois (love this!) who walk around, play badminton, football and attend aerobics/Khmer dance classes dressed in jeans! Whilst all this unfolds, the sun sets gloriously in the background and the constant traffic carries on its steady stream. It is quite an unreal setting!
The days here are still stifling hot which is why we visited the town at what is turning out to be our usual slow pace.. Its high time we got used to the heat, but it doesn’t seem to be happening and our days are filled with cold showers, as our fan-rooms offer little relief from the high temperatures and it costs many more dollars to upgrade to aircon..
We visited a market, called the Russian Market. As the name suggests, this used to be popular amongst the Russians, and back in the days it is said that you could buy army gear, ammunition and marijuana in large bags here! None of this still features, and has now been replaced by clothes, shoes, scarves, motorbike spares and general hardware goods.
Nearby, the S21 genocide museum (Security Office 21) can be visited for a few dollars. This was a surprisingly moving experience. Set in an old school in a quiet neighbourhood, it was converted into a torture prison (one amongst many in the country). Cambodian people were detained there in inhumane conditions during the Pol Pot regime, and the cells can be visited as the first part of the tour. The cells are little more than 1 meter by 2 meter built into the old class rooms.
The second building holds the archives and snapshots of all the prisoners and this was the hardest point of the visit. Hundreds of mugshots line the walls, some prisoners looking back with sheer terror in their eyes and I don’t think I can even start to imagine their fear. From there, photos of the tortured prisoners are shown and this is where I (Steph) had to step outside so shocking they were that I was struggling to keep my composure. The world can be a rotten place sometimes.
Pol Pot, was the leader of the Communist Party (the followers were known as the Khmer Rouge) who came into power in the mid 1970s. People joined them, with promises of a better life but ended up killed for trivial reasons. The poor were sick of the corruption within the government and the huge divides between the few rich and the many poor in the country as well as those looking for peace during the American bombing of Eastern Cambodia. Seeking a better life, they followed Pol Pot.
Within 3 days of taking control of Phnom Pehn, the city was deserted as everyone was forced to rural Cambodia to become farmers in attempts at agricultural reform which led to widespread famine. Their insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the deaths of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria.
Pol Pot ordered the mass extermination of intellectuals, teachers, writers, educated people and their families. Even wearing glasses was a sign of intelligence, a “crime” punishable by death. Over 3 million died over the Khmer rouge time out of a population of 10 million.
After the S21 visit our tuk tuk took us to Choeung Ek –commonly known as The Killling Fields. This is where the detainees from S21 were taken in the dead of night to be executed and buried after their months of torture. It is said that the executioners would blast music really loud so that the nearby villagers wouldn’t hear the cries of the prisoners. I won’t even explain the methods of killing, they are too shocking. They were then buried in mass graves which were later dug out and identified. Although the majority of human remains have been unearthed and moved away, pieces of bones, clothes and teeth can be found on the pathways amongst the mass graves, as the ground slowly washes away by heavy rains.
It is still a poor country but it’s incredible what a happy nation the Cambodian people are, given their history.