Heartbreaking Cambodia

Trip Start Oct 03, 2011
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Trip End Dec 25, 2011

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Wednesday, November 23, 2011

After a remarkably straightforward journey from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, marred only by a bit of ankle biting by some resident bugs on the bus, we are all ready to experience a brand new country, which we are expecting to combine the laid back Laos attitude with the Vietnamese hustle and bustle. We are pretty much right - smiling, shouting tuk tuk drivers await us as we descend from our bus, and we are relieved to see a sign held up for us by Sam, a tuk tuk driver that the hotel has sent for us. In case you're unsure what a tuk tuk is, it's like a little carriage, with two small wheels and a roof over the top, attached to the back of a motorbike and able to hold between one and what looks like about 15 local people, although it's designed for a maximum of 4!

Having safely arrived at our hotel, we take a short stroll to a cash point, which doesn't give us the local currency (Riel) but rather spits out American dollars, which are apparently a more stable and acceptable currency. Amy is unimpressed and urges the staff at the hostel to champion Riel in future!

We head straight off to the nearest temple, Wat Phnom, meaning Hill Temple and built on the mound (it's not really a hill) that the city is named after. We are quickly captivated by the beautifully coloured paintings decorating every surface. The temple has 'Naga' decorating it's steps - huge seven headed snakes and the gorgeous sculptures everywhere are just a small indication of what Cambodia has in store for us.

A quick stop at the National Centre for Disabled Persons craft shop leaves us many dollars lighter but, hey, it's ethical shopping! And who wouldn't want a bright pink silk elephant with a hat on to hang on the Christmas Tree (for info - that one's Michael's; Amy's is purple).

The next morning sees us head out to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The King still lives in part of the Palace complex (we aren't allowed in that bit for some reason), and the collection of buildings are decked out in masses of gold, with Naga snakes adorning every roof corner, and 'Apsara' or dancing girls interspersed with 'Garuda' - mythical bird like creatures that are found in both Hinduism & Buddhism - gracefully support every bit of roof in sight.

The Silver Pagoda, contained in a different part of the palace grounds, STILL isn't silver... but it's floor is covered in 5000 silver tiles, which weigh 1kg each. Too bad about 95% of them are also covered with a tatty bit of carpet, to protect from the tourist hordes! All the buildings are beautifully decorated, either adorned with sculptures, with beautiful metalwork on the gates, weird animal topiary or extensive murals depicting scenes from Cambodian history. It's one of the most impressive and beautiful sets of buildings we've seen. The King is obviously much revered in the country, with photos of him found in many shops and homes, and huge photos of him surrounded by gold-looking designs at prominent spots like roundabouts!

Next stop is the National Museum... Amy's not so keen having read the description in the book of many sculptures and not much information, so reads a bit of her beloved Jane Austen instead (can never go wrong with that), while Michael visits the building crammed with stone Buddhas, Shivas and Vishnus (more of this in Siem Reap later on). We then bump into Nico & Rose who we stayed with on The Gibbon Experience in Laos - they've been in Laos ever since, so we are delighted to catch up with them and hear that they're still as much in love with the country as we were.

They have just been to visit our next destination, Tuol Sleng Museum, and warn us that we're in for a difficult few hours. Tuol Sleng used to be a high school, but during the period of the Khmer Rouge was turned into a prison. For those who, like us, probably have little knowledge of what went on in Cambodia during the 1970's, here is a brief summary from what knowledge we have gleaned.

Cambodia, ruled by King Sihanouk, attempted to stay fairly neutral during the Vietnam War, and resisted attempts by America to be base troops in the country. The Viet Cong (North Vietnamese) used areas of Cambodia to battle the South Vietnamese, prompting devastating bombing from the Americans as well as an invasion. King Sihanouk still attempted to remain neutral and keep his country out of the war, but was eventually overthrown by a Cambodian General Lon Nol (supported, surprise surprise, by the Americans). The King took up residence in exile in Beijing, with a fledgling movement called the Khmer Rouge. Many Khmer Rouge fighters say they only joined up in order to fight for their monarch, and knew nothing of the crazy ideology that was behind the movement. Indeed, clearly the King didn't know, or he'd never have formed an alliance. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge (run by Pol Pot and comprising mainly very young, poorly educated Cambodians drawn from the countryside) invaded Phnom Penh and all big cities, forcing everyone out into the countryside to work in the fields and to live as peasants. For the next 4 years, they forced everyone to work 12-15 hours a day on next to no food (most of the food grown was sold to China in exchange for weapons), and killed anyone they deemed an intellectual or who had any connections with the former government of Lon Nol. If you had glasses, or worked as a teacher, this was enough to include you. If your father had been in the government, your entire family would be wiped out. The Khmer Rouge succeeded because everyone was frightened of what would happen to them, they could trust no-one, speak to no-one, for fear they or their family would be next to be killed. 1 in every 4 people died, a frightening statistic. The Khmer Rouge were eventually driven out by the Vietnamese army and for the majority of people, the hell of the work villages ended in 1979, but the Khmer Rouge hung around (and were recognised by the UN) until at least 1995, based near the Thai border, and their legacy is stamped all over Cambodia.

As we visit the country, we have been keeping up with the trials of some of the most senior figures have just started - the leaders of the Khmer Rouge are now in their 80's, and all the people want to know WHY? The crazy ideology behind the work villages, the forced labour, random, violent killings - there is no-one in Cambodia who is untouched.

Tuol Sleng prison was known as S-21 under the Khmer Rouge, and over 21,000 people passed through the prison. Only 7 people survived. The rest were tortured, forced to write their biographies confessing to crimes - perhaps they had broken a machine and therefore reduced cloth production, or perhaps they had whispered something against the Khmer Rouge. Almost all of these 'crimes' were made up under torture, and people were forced to implicate their families, friends and neighbours as well. The prison is a shocking place, with stark photographs on the walls of how it was found in 1979, with the bodies of the final 14 victims in various states of torture throughout the building. The higher levels are still covered in the barbed wire that prevented people throwing themselves to their deaths rather than face another day living in the prison's hell, and thousands and thousands of photographs stare out at us of the normal people who passed through here - amongst other things, the Khmer Rouge kept very detailed documentation of its prisoners. Tours of the prison are run for people from all over Cambodia, as a process of helping people understand what happened. A couple of years ago, one man spotted his brother in one of the photographs here - he had never known what had happened to him before then.

We spend the evening with Nico & Rose, which is a welcome break from the overwhelming prison. Cambodians are such a welcoming, friendly people, but as we discuss between us, the scary thing is, our bus driver, someone working in the hotel, a tuk tuk driver - anyone could have been a prison guard at Tuol Sleng or in the Khmer Rouge. The chances are, at least one person we have seen probably were.

Despite still feeling beyond shocked at the prison, we decide to go to Choeung Ek the next day, otherwise known as 'The Killing Fields.' A short drive from the City Centre, this is where the 21,000 prisioners from Tuol Sleng were brutally murdered. It is a peaceful place, with a lake and lush vegetation, but nothing can hide the sunken mass graves where the bodies have been excavated. In fact, not all of them were excavated, but many have been left undisturbed. Those that have, are being used as evidence of the horror of the regime in the current trial. In order to save bullets, the victims were struck over the head with anything from hoes to hammers, and their throats were cut with the sharp prongs of the nearby palm trees. All this was carried out by their fellow Cambodians. Not just intellectuals are buried here, members of the Khmer Rouge have been found, presumably those guilty of answering back, or not conforming. One grave was full of only women and young children, and the brutality of how they were killed takes our breath away - the babies heads were struck against a nearby tree and then tossed into the mass grave; bone and brain fragments have been found embedded in its bark.

Across the area, although most of the bones have been removed to the national memorial that dominates the site, fragments of their clothes and smaller bones still rise to the surface, as the rainy season causes the ground to shift and reveal it's secrets. I don't think either of us has ever felt more stunned by a place and the ease with which such a horrifying regime came to power and so recently caused such devastation to a people. But, as The Killing Fields museum tells us, this was not the first, and will not be the last time that such horrifying events happen in our world.

As we head back to Phnom Penh, such a vibrant and glowing city, we view with renewed respect every Cambodian who has come through years of horrific treatment, near starvation, and been witness to horrendous scenes to become the smiling, welcoming people they are today.
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