Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields
Trip Start Jan 23, 2012
49Trip End Jun 09, 2012
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Phnom Penh is a pretty impressive place, with brand new skyscrapers springing up on the waterfront, hip bars, restaurants, hotels - a city definitely going places, and a massive change from the tourist bubble that is Siem Riep.
After checking in, we went for a wander around town with our guide, before grabbing a spot of dinner at a local restaurant (beef and chicken lok lak's all round, a fantastic Cambodian dish - google them!)
The next day was a sobering experience, in more ways than one. We booked a Tuk Tuk and a local guide, and headed off to the S-21 facility and Killing Fields, based in Phnom Penh and Choeung Ek respectively.
Only read on if you have a strong stomach.
Just to give you a little background, it's estimated that during the three year rule of the Khmer Rouge, they killed between 2-3 million native Cambodians - approximately one third of the entire population (more here). Anyone with average intelligence was simply murdered - even wearing glasses meant execution. And anyone suspected of trying to undermine the regime were taken from their homes for "re-education", which almost always meant certain death after weeks and months of torture. The remaining population were moved en masse from the cities to the countryside to work in conditions akin to slavery, with less than a bowl of porridge per day to sustain themselves. Those who fell out of line were tortured and brutally murdered, and many of those who didn't died of malaria, starvation and cholera.
During their rule, the Khmer Rouge set up facility S-21 in the centre of Phnom Penh. Formerly a school, they converted it into an interrogation centre and prison. Anyone suspected of undermining the regime was taken to this facility for brutal beatings, interrogation and torture, whilst being fed less than four spoonfuls of watery porridge per day
I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say the methods of torture were brutal. Many of the rooms here have been kept in their original condition, with torture implements, cells, photos, documentation...and even blood on the floor. Each inmate was photographed - meaning in every cell, there were hundreds of faces staring back at you. It's estimated that 15-20,000 people died in this facility.
The Khmer Rouge killed at such a rate that they finally ran out of space at S-21. The killing fields at Choeung Ek were selected by the regime as a place to transport inmates on mass, which we visited next. On the way, the local guide told us several stories about the Khmer Rouge. Our guide was 6 months old when the Khmer Rouge took over, and told us how they proceeded to murder his grandparents, uncles, aunts and his father. In fact, the Khmer Rouge wiped out one entire side of his family during their three years in charge - all because of the sheer paranoia of the Pol Pot regime.
Thousands of killing fields were found in Cambodia after it's liberation in 1979 - and
Choeung Ek was the largest. Again, it was an incredibly moving experience, with exhibits of bones, skulls, and stories of how inmates were brought here, brutally beaten and finally killed and piled into mass graves
Possibly the most moving part was that clothes, bones and teeth from the prisoners are still washed up through the soil to this day - evident across the site, as you'll see in the photos.
After an incredibly moving day, we headed back to town for a meal at a restaurant called Friends, run by former street children and their teachers. The children here are given free education in return for working a few nights a week in the restaurant, and are also trained in all aspects of running a restaurant, therefore giving them a great chance to go on to great careers.
It's fair to say that the people of Cambodia have been to hell and back. One third of the population were murdered less than 30 years ago - an entire generation of educated people. Everyone knows someone, or was related to someone killed by the regime. However this visit to the restaurant showed us that although Cambodia is still coming to terms with it's recent turmoil, it's heartwarming to see a new generation are being given a great start in life, thanks to charities such as Friends, and New Hope Cambodia (see previous blog).