The Nature of Suffering

Trip Start Jun 02, 2008
Trip End Jun 09, 2009

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Where I stayed
Nine Sisters Guesthouse

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, February 9, 2009

Warning:  This entry, like the history of Cambodia, is not pleasant.

Life is tough here.  In Siem Reap at dawn every day we sped past the Pediatric Hospital on our way to the ruins of Angkor.  Camped out in front of the hospital was a line of hundreds of families waiting to have their children seen by someone.  Driving back again in the hot midday sun, the same lineup would be there, under parasols if they had brought them.  Here in Phnom Penh I saw the usual family of four on a 100-c.c. scooter with an addition: an I.V. bag hanging from a rod one of them held.  Sadder still were the many without access to such basic healthcare.  Landmine victims on the street sometimes begged, but more often than not they wanted to be seen as working.  Take, for example, the double amputee selling books from the back of his hand-pedalled cart, or the ensemble of blind musicians playing traditional songs.

With these visions on my mind, I headed to even grimmer sights at Tuol Sleng.  This former downtown school was converted to a prison and torture facility under the regime of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.  At the time it was infamously known as Security Prison 21, or S-21.  My tour was numbing and emptying.  Bare rooms, each containing only a bedframe and shackles, remained mute about the horrors that had taken place within them.  It was chilling.

In the afternoon, I finished off the brutal history lesson by taking a motorbike taxi to Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields.  The fields are fourteen kilometres southwest of the city.  It was here that political prisoners (including monks, intellectuals, and even those simply wearing eyeglasses) were forced to dig mass graves.  Once the graves were dug, the prisoners were bludgeoned to death one by one with sticks or farm hoes to be buried in the holes they had just dug.  Bullets were too expensive.  Those who did not die immediately were killed by DDT spread over the graves.  Approximately 17 000 people were buried here in 129 mass graves.  A large memorial stupa has been erected here displaying about 9000 of the victims' skulls.  I was only at Choeung Ek for about twenty minutes (there is not much to see) but I left feeling quite drained.  The laughter of children at an adjacent school redeemed the world a little.
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