Like any good tour it's best to begin at 8.30 with a trip to a genocide museum. We were dropped off and opted for a tour guide at the museum, probably the best $6 we've spent so far. It was an incredible but horrific experience. The museum, which opened about 6 months after the fall of the khymer revolution in 1979 was the site of the S21 prison, the largest in Cambodia, and before that was a school
. It remains untouched from the time it was used to routinely torture the 24000 prisoners who, if they survived the 3-6 months, went on to be executed at the killing fields (apart from 7 survivors). We started our tour with the VIP cells, where the high ranking suspected traitors were kept. The rooms were small and totally basic, with a metal bed, and pot, and shackles. Each room was complete with a poster size photo of how it was found, with a dead body and pools of blood. These prisoners were the only ones remaining at the time of the vietnamese invasion and were found dead. They are buried just outside their former cell block. Also outside this block is a massive billboard with Pol Pot's interrogation rules. There's a photo below, they are totally ridiculous and show how paranoid Pot was. We then went to the next block, which was much harder to take in. After a series of rooms with hundreds of photo's of victims and child soldiers, clothes of victims and pictures of their torture we got to the main cells. It was also around this time that our guide explained how, at 8yrs old she fled to Vietnam with her mother and one sister on foot through the night. Her father, brother and other sister were never seen again, and she does not know how they died. She was still emotional talking about it, and parts of the regime, but said everyone is in the same boat, everyone in Cambodia has lost someone to it. The main cell blocks are made up of old school classrooms split into 11 1.5 m by 0.8m makeshift cells, that are about chin height so prisoners could see each other but speaking was not permitted, nor was any noise at all. There was still blood on the floor and we could see where they hung the keys. it was a horrible place. Outside was the old play area, which they also used for torture, by hanging people by their arms until they passed out and then reviving them with putrid water. There was also torture rooms with various tools, equipment and tables, all of which pretty horrific
. And there were large rooms where many prisoners lay shackled together as they were tortured in silence. The outside of the buildings were covered in barbed wire so prisoners could not jump to their deaths.
Out of 24'000 prisoners only 7 ever survived, and only because they were the last to be taken to the killing fields just as the Vietnamese soldiers saved Cambodia, so they were literally minutes from death. From these 7 only 2 live today and we were lucky enough to meet both of them as they occasionally visit the museum from time to time (we picked a good day to go). Meeting them was incredibly humbling and we couldn't believe they were back at the place that imprisoned and tortured them for committing no crime, even more humbling was the smiles on their faces when a visitor approached them or even walked by. We bought a biography from Bou Meng (the smaller one in the pictures) he kissed our hands and expressed his gratitude that we and many other foreigners visited this horrendous place so that the world will never forget the tragedies that took place here against the Cambodian people. It was genuinely life changing.
From here, we went to the killing fields. Which was a strange place. Thousands of victims were brutally murdered here by generator light and muted by speakers blaring out propaganda songs. No one knew what was happening there. But today, thanks to the caretakers, it is a monument, dedicated to preserving the spirits of those who died and ensuring they are disturbed as little as possible
. You are not really allowed to talk, so all you can hear is bird song and the gentle music that plays continuously. There are many sheltered mass graves, with new ones still appearing, teeth and clothes break through the surface of the ground and lie until they are collected. We had and audio guide that explained each mass grave, and the type of people found in them, such as the mother and infant grave next to the tree they used to smash the babies against to kill them. There is a large monument in the middle of the grounds, that houses 17 stories of skulls and large bones, all of which have been categorised by age sex and injury. For the atrocities that happened there and at hundreds of sights like it all over Cambodia only 35 years ago it is now an extremely peaceful place that is of great pride to the Cambodian people, another step they have taken to remind the world of what happened and to prevent it from ever happening again.
After lunch, with a tuk tuk driver who was known as Tiger wood's brother and wore a 70's disco shirt, we went to the Russian market, which was ok, and then the Kings palace which supposedly houses the famous silver pagoda. However we were unable to find any silver pagoda, everything was gold. By this point it was past Mr Kheng's bed time ( we found him asleep in the tuk tuk and a local had to come and wake him) and we were way too hot, so we went back to the King's guesthouse, had a couple of beers and a traditional Cambodian dinner (Amock curry and Beef LukLak), and waited for our bus. We arrived back at Siem Reap about 2am, to find a tent with snoring coming out in reception. After several attempts to wake the snorer, Nick managed to use the reception phone to ring his mobile, he woke up and told us to help ourselves to the keys to our room. We did, slept and got the bus back at about 8.30, arriving in Bangkok around 4ish. All in all Cambodia was awesome.
So we arrived after a slightly eventful bus ride involving a break down and the traditional Cambodian fixing technique of ramming a scaffolding pole in the engine until it is fixed. It works quite well. We were met off the bus at 6am by a boy with a welcome Nick Edwards sign, we felt like royalty, and were taken to the Kings guesthouse in the heart of the city. We were met by one man in a towel and the other employees asleep on camp beds in the reception, they invited us to shower in their staff bedroom and we waited for a tour to begin. Turns out the boy who met us, Mr Kheng, was our tuk tuk driver for the day.