Sunday, 27 July 2014

Cambodia - Phnom Penh

Due to the bus taking a lot longer than anticipated, we arrived in Phnom Penh (hereafter PP) late, hungry and tired.

PP is a bit crazy.  It is a hive of activity and a mish mash of crumbling buildings, wide roads filled with pot holes, perfect flyovers, street stalls and a few out of place sky scrapers.  It looks like and is a city being rebuilt, it's in metamorphosis.  Every time you cross the road its a bit of an ordeal.  There are no real rules of the road, drivers just go whatever direction they choose with a lot of hooting and braking.  There is an attempt at driving on the left but it's rarely stuck to by scooters and bicycles.  Everyone appears to have right of way, it's a game of chicken as to who stops last/who's larger.
We did a laundry run then went out into the city to find a tourist place to do our visas.

This sorted, we ended up at a restaurant called Beirut, a Lebanese restaurant recommended by Amy's sister.  I had a beef "keppe" which was quite possibly the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.  We met up with Jeff and Sandra the following night and went back to the same place.   This time a staff member entertained us with some magic tricks.  He started with a card trick, followed by changing a dollar into ten, and finishing with a ridiculously elaborate trick involving his blood (?!) where he took my coin, put it inside a piece of paper but it miraculously ended up in his wallet.  He also managed to balance 2 forks on a tooth pick.  Useful skills I'm sure you'll agree!

The main road (dirt track) to PP

8 hours later and we arrive in traffic mayhem

Tuk tuk navigating traffic


The following day was going to be a sombre one.  We hired a tuktuk for $15 to take us to Choeung Ek Memorial Centre ($6 entry), where the most well known of the killing fields is, and then onto Tuol Sleng genocide museum ($2 entry), where a high school turned torture prison is located.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge (led by Pol Pot) came to power after political instability following a military coup.  Khmer meaning the indigenous Cambodian population and Rouge meaning red, he wanted to return Cambodia to its agricultural roots and create a communist society.  He had a radical way of doing this and embarked on a quite frankly mad social experiment to re-wire the country.

He "evacuated" everyone from the cities, PP was evacuated within 3 days under the illusion that American bombs were going to hit.  People left their city homes with minimal possessions, under the belief they would be returning when safe to do so.  The people were marched far out into the countryside, with many dying on the way - everyone was forced to evacuate, no matter their health or age.

Once in rural areas, the city dwellers were put to work on farms.  They had no experience but were forced to work 12 hour days with no rest and minimal food.  The farmers already working the land were either unsympathetic (Pol Pot championed the rural dwellers) or too scared to help.  Anyone not pulling their weight was killed.

Religion was abolished.  Money was banned, all bank and insurance records burned (so no one could claim ownership of anything) banks, schools, shops were all shut.  Cities were effectively shut down.  No one was allowed personal possessions - everyone was to be equal.  Families were split up, men lived together, women and young children lived together.  Older children were removed from their families as it was believed they could be tainted by their parents beliefs.

Any intellectuals, people who could speak foreign languages, people suspected with having links to other political organisations or even people who wore glasses were rounded up and detained.  (Completely hypocritical as Pol Pot and his cronies all had degrees earned from foreign universities, and most could speak French).  As Pol Pot's paranoia grew and his plan failed, he began to detain and execute his own party members.

Many of those detained ended up at Tuol Sleng.  Originally a high school, it was turned into 'security prison 21'.  The 4 three storey buildings were turned into cells and interrogation rooms.  The school has been left almost exactly the same as it was found.  It was in this school that prisoners were kept in tiny 2x1mtr cells or chained to a long bar in the larger rooms.  Prisoners were not allowed to make any noise.  They received a hose spray down once a month if lucky. Food was meagre portions of rice and porridge.

Building A was used to house "special prisoners".  The ground floor of this building is made up of large classrooms.  Each one contains the original metal bed and shackles found inside, along with a photo of the way the room was found.  The photos always show a mutilated dead body shackled to the bed.  The photos are of the last 14 people who died at Tuol Sleng, murdered right before Vietnamese forces liberated the prison.  It is so horrible to think that they were so close to surviving if they had been found a little bit sooner.  Their graves are now in the courtyard of the prison, along with a memorial.  The other floors hold makeshift brick cells.  You can walk the length of the building and go into each individual cell. 

One of the buildings contains torture devices.  There's a wooden table that prisoners were strapped to and water poured over their heads.  The original watering can still exists on display.  There's a wooden tank that prisoners were strapped into face down and the water would rise, giving them a taste of what it would be like to drown.  Outside there's a wooden frame, originally used for exercise in the school.  The Khmer Rouge instead hung prisoners from it, and when they lost consciousness they were dunked into big pots of waste water.  These pots remain in place.

When prisoners entered the prison, many of them were lured there by lies, they were told they had a new job, or they could return home to PP.  Instead they were all shipped to the prison.  On arrival they would be photographed and their biographies taken.  There are two massive halls filled with photos of the victims, dead and alive.  There are walls and walls of head shots.  It's incredibly moving walking up and down the halls.  Each face tells a story.  Expressions range from fear, confusion, determination and resignation.  Some of the boys are smiling, I expect from nervousness.  Two photos I found particularly moving.  One is a woman.  She's holding her new born baby who's fast asleep in her arms.  She has a look of resignation in her eyes as if she knows what is to come, but also a look of disgust, a look that says "you're all going to hell".  The other photo is a young boy.  He can't be more than 10.  He looks utterly bewildered and petrified.  He shouldn't be there. 

One of the rooms contains the prisoners biographies and confessions.  Prisoners were tortured until they gave false confessions, being told if they confessed then they wouldn't be tortured anymore.  There's an article on the BBC here about Chum Met, one of the 7 survivors of the camp, it's an interesting read.  He sits at the museum every day answering questions from tourists and journalists as he doesn't want the world to forget the tragedy.  Out of the 20,000 or so who passed through the camp, only 7 survived. 2 were young boys who were recent arrivals. The others had been kept alive for their skills - one was a painter who had to paint portraits of Pol Pot, the very person who'd instigated his imprisonment.  He was lucky, other painters had been killed as they didn't like the artistic style chosen by the painter.

There was a section of "foreigners" confessions.  The Khmer Rouge didn't stop at persecuting their own people, they persecuted anyone who had the unfortunate luck to end up in or near Cambodia.   Several "foreigners" were picked up at sea as they had accidentally sailed into Cambodian waters.  One story that struck me was that of an American who'd ended up in jail for conscientiously objecting to the Vietnam war, he had been conscripted and refused to join.  After he was let out he decided to go sailing round the world. He ended up in Cambodian territory where he was captured and arrested on suspicion of being a spy.  He was tortured into confessing he was a CIA agent then executed.  One of Pol Pot's mantras was "it's better to kill an innocent by mistake than to let the enemy live by mistake".

Many of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng would have been sent to Choueng Ek.  Originally a Chinese grave, this was one of over 150 such fields across Cambodia, chosen to murder and bury prisoners.

On arrival at Choueng Ek you're given an audio guide.  This is a very good idea as it keeps everyone in their own little bubble and allows people to reflect in silence.  (I wish they would do the same in Tuol Sleng.  I witnessed some people posing in front of the photos of the dead for pictures, and other people laughing or complaining about the museum.  Incredibly disrespectful and they received dirty glares from me!!).  The whole tour takes around an hour and a half if you choose to listen to the entire audio guide.

The place is filled with a heavy silence.  The guide takes you through the murderous process of where the prisoners were dropped off, detained and eventually murdered.  Bullets were too expensive, and so the soldiers would lead the blindfolded prisoners to the edge of a pit. They'd then beat them with bamboo sticks, hoes and spades. They would slice their necks on the sharp leaves of the sugar palm tree nearby.  They'd push them into the pits when they thought they were dead.  Sometimes they weren't killed outright and would land semi conscious into the pits.  The pits would be filled with bodies then covered with chemicals to finish the job as well as to mask the smell of decay.  To hide the sounds of prisoners screams they'd rigged a speaker in a bodhi tree.  The tree would amplify the speaker's sounds.  They'd play music and that with the generators would mask any screams.

The graves are sectioned off but you can walk past them.  When it rains the buried skeletons work their way way up to the surface.  You can see teeth and bones sticking out of the ground.  Cloth scatters the site, remnants of the clothes they wore when they were buried.  The staff every 3 months collect the items that have risen to the surface.

The most atrocious bit of the tour is the tree now decorated in friendship bracelets.  It's situated right next to the grave of over 100 women and children.  This is where they killed babies and children.  They would pick them up by their legs and swing their heads against the tree.  When the tree was discovered it was red with blood and tissue and had hair and skull fragments attached to the bark.

Writing this out is hard as it's such a horrific thing to contemplate.  How anyone can do something so despicable is beyond me.  Execution by firing squad is one thing - it's a removed process, you fire a bullet from a distance which will kill someone cleanly and instantly.  The bullet causes the death. Beating a child, a baby, a human, to death with a blunt instrument or bashing them against a tree is a deliberate, involved act.  More personal and physical and connected to the other person's death.  I'm probably not explaining myself very well, but I just find it incomprehensible that someone can do that to someone else. 

The tour ends at the stupa.  This is the memorial for the dead.  It's filled with 8 levels of skulls and bones.  Each has been forensically examined to determine cause of death and to determine who the skull belonged to.

When the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Pol Pot and his party had managed to kill around 1/4 of the population of Cambodia.  He had ruined the country - schools, banks, insurance companies, they didn't exist.  He'd killed teachers, scientists, lawyers, policemen, politicians, farmers, soldiers, movie stars, pop stars.  He had psychologically scarred the remaining population. 

The worst bit is he never paid for his crimes.  He continued to lead the Khmer Rouge until he stepped down in 1997 and died under house arrest in 1998.   Out of the other political figureheads involved in those three years, only one has been imprisoned.  One of them has died, one has Alzheimer's and was deemed unfit for trial and two cases are ongoing.  The trials only began in 2009.  It is sickening to think that every person who beat someone to death or tortured someone or instructed someone else to do it have not been punished for their actions.  It's crazy to think that nearly every person in their 40s and above that I have met in Cambodia was a victim of the Khmer Rouge regime - whether they were a Khmer Rouge themselves and brainwashed into carrying out atrocities or were the ones on the receiving end. 

It is a ridiculously friendly country.  You smile and they smile back.  They ask you questions as they're curious about you.  Children will always wave and say hello when you go past.  They're very helpful and don't like to say no.  The country functions well.  Given that 1/4 of the population was wiped out and the country had to restart from scratch only 35 years ago it shows resilience and determination.  I am very fond of Cambodia and I pray that it never has to suffer again like it did in those 3 years.

Anyway that's the end of my essay on the Khmer Rouge.  I found it fascinating and there's loads of websites with more info.  Good old wikipedia has a lot of easy to digest info.  I am really interested in how Cambodia got back on it's feet - if money and possessions and records were destroyed then how did the economy restart and people earn their lives back. 

Not all of PP is dark - after visiting the killing fields I went exploring near our hotel with Jeff and San, and we discovered the King's Palace.  People were gathering as the King had a visitor (we weren't sure who) and everyone was trying to catch a glimpse of him.  There was excitement in the air so we hung around so soak in the atmosphere.  I am glad we discovered this side of PP - it made up for the crazy roads and greyness that we'd seen everywhere else!


Places stayed:
Pra-Tna guest house.  2 nights ($24 a night).  Twin room with fan. Bathroom a bit scummy but functional.  WiFi.  Good location near the quayside.  A bit dark and dingy.  Very friendly staff.

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