Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2014

So we basically came here for one reason .. to continue our education into the genocide that occurred here in the 70’s.  I just find it so hard to believe that events like this went on while I was alive… but I suppose that things like this are going on right now at different levels ..

Siem Reap was a good place for us to pause and think about our situation and think about how best to proceed.. we had a very safe air conditioned room that we spent hours and hours in.. we had a favorite restaurant that we could get hassle free food .. we had an amazing hotel owner who had answers to every and any question we might have.  I am grateful for this and leaving this place was not easy.. literally!

We took one of the worst buses ever to get to the capital city of Phnom Penh .. I know, it’s bad bus after bad bus it seems ..  a trip that should have taken 2-3 hours back home was an all day extravaganza.. crawling at 40 km/h using the entire road to avoid the holes, wash outs and the myriad of other travelers on bikes, motos, tuk tuks, buses, cars, donkey and foot.. the road was red clay for most of the way and was as wide as 6 lanes..  the bus was ready to fall apart and the air conditioning could not possibly keep up to the number of people they crammed on this 1970’s Mercedes Benz.. little plastic children’s stools were brought out for people to populate the center aisle.. and it got hotter and smellier.  All day..

Arriving in Phnom Penh  was supposed to be a huge relief but instead the difficulties continued.. dropped off in the center of this 3rd world city left to our own devices to negotiate a cab or tuk tuk to our “desired” area.. only to find it was not that desirable.  Not many foreigners around.. only a few restaurants and hotels and way more tuk tuks than needed.  We were on a strip called the Golden Mile which had a few hotels ran by the Chinese.

Our first hotel room was ok but the power kept kicking off.. the last straw was when it kicked off while Sylvie was taking a shower.. pitch dark, deep in a cavernous hotel.. and the big roaches come out to play.  I was downstairs rocking the Mandarin Chinese with the owner .. successfully explaining we were not content with the room and needed a new one. I got upstairs to find Sylvie patiently waiting, naked and cold in the pitch dark of this place… I was pretty impressed.. not sure I wouldn’t have panicked a bit.  We packed our gear by the light of the android app flashlight and headed out hoping to get our money back.. My Mandarin conversation with the boss had put us at the top of her priorities and we were swiftly escorted to a new hotel and room down the road..Hao!

The next day we took a walk to S21.. the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  First thing we noticed on our walk was the flow of traffic.  A colleague had explained a similar flow in Vietnam and I had a hard time imagining it.. but here we were in the middle of it! Very similar to China as well in that you simply go in the direction you want to go.. walking or biking or driving.. all the same.  Want to turn right ? then turn right .. want to cross the intersection? go right ahead… no need to wait for an opening because you will wait all day.. just calmly push your way through the chaos of vehicles and walkers.  It can get a bit stressful when you see cars and motorbikes speeding towards you, but hold your ground and charge forward at the same rate and it will all work out.. it’s all in the trajectory .. people seem to read this and adjust to avoid each other.  I have a great GoPro video of this in action.. coming soon to YouTube.

So to S21.. this was a prison used during Pol Pot’s reign.  It was actually a school but it was converted.. playground equipment used as torture equipment.. classrooms as cells.. very creepy place.  We were able to roam the whole place freely .. room to room.. cell to cell.. In the one building they built very small cells out of bricks.. and in another they were wooden.. no doors on the brick cells because the prisoners were chained at the ankle by a crude device I can’t describe.  Oh by the way, these “prisoners” were basically people who were in the former government, or educated folks.  They were made to confess to crimes they hadn’t committed so that they could be killed.  There are countless pictures of torture victims from the time.. in each room.. of each room.. with the creepy iron bed and shackles from the photo right there beside you.  There were also rooms and rooms of photos of the victims.. they were all weighed, measured and photographed.  There were “no smiling” signs everywhere..

After a solemn walk through this school, we hired a tuk tuk to drive us to a killing field on the outskirts of town… one of hundreds of killing fields throughout Cambodia.  Prisoners were brought out here during the night.. told they were being brought to new homes so that they would not cause any problems.  The moment the truck stopped, they were dragged out and killed immediately.. and thrown into mass graves.

This place was well equipped with an audio tour.. our first time experiencing this… They provided us with an ancient mp3 player you hung around your neck and walked around with.  You would play the appropriate tracks as you walked through the grounds and learn loads of information.  One of the best and worst parts was a sound bite of what the victims last heard before being killed.. it was the loud noise of a diesel generator and some odd Asian music playing on top of it over a loud speaker.  The generator was for the spot lights because all the killing was done at night.. and the music was to drown out the screams..  They killed them mostly by beating them with farm tools because bullets were expensive.. There was also a killing tree.. (READER’S DISCRETION ADVISED  .. may want to skip this part ) .. Here the guards would empty the truck of babies by dragging them out by their legs, then swinging them hard against the tree and then tossing them into the mass grave beside.. ( you were warned ).   It’s hard to believe all of this went on .. between ’75 and ’79..  and that it was Vietnam that came to the rescue! If I understood my audio tour correctly, the government in place before Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was an American puppet government.. so I am guessing that the U.S. was not happy about it being overthrown, and would go on to ignore the chaos that would ensue for the next 4 years.  And then when the terror was finally ended by the Vietnamese, once again the world was not satisfied.. The U.S. had just been at war with Vietnam.. so they didn’t recognize the new government that Vietnam set up for Cambodia after it’s liberation.  The United Nations actually gave Pol Pot a seat to represent Cambodia after he was chased out of the country.. messed up!

Sylvie and I purchased the book “First they Killed my Father” which is the recount of events through this woman’s eyes.. as if seeing the mass graves and torture camps wasn’t enough.  These 2 places were the sole reasons for traveling to Phnom Penh.. to endure such hardships on Cambodia’s horrible infrastructure.. but it was completely worth it.

The 15 hour ride home .. errr Bangkok .. was awful and not worth explaining.. very very slow and bad.. But there was a funny moment when they stopped us for lunch at this side road cafeteria.. free food was part of our “luxury” ticket we had purchased.. We ordered the red looking soup and rice.. omg.. it was chicken curry soup.. red curry to be exact.. red curry is usually yellow around here but today at this cafeteria, it was red like the name.  The chicken..  I know dad likes to complain about those bits of chicken from the Mandarin but they got nothing on this soup.. the butt hole muscle was the least of our worries.. Sylvia had a gnarled black claw in her soup along with a chunk of liver and some grisly neck pieces.. we almost lost our composure .. we almost started to laugh uncontrollably.. but we knew just how insulting that would be to these kind folks who had prepared this meal for us.  We took a deep breath and enjoyed the broth, potatoes and rice..

One thought on “Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2014

  1. Weirdly, this was one of my favourite experiences of my travel when I went. Fascinating and horrendous. Well written up – literally as I remember it. The voiceover man at the Killing fields nearly broke my heart at the end when he was talking about never seeing some of his friends or family again and imploring us not to let something like this ever happen again. Very moving.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s