Depressed? You will be!
Trip Start Sep 19, 2002
129Trip End Sep 22, 2003
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7th June - Started the day by moving hotels which was hard as wé've come to expect a certain standard after Vietnam which is rather expensive here in the capital. We ended up (after some skillfull haggling) getting a room with air con for US$9 but we would have to check into Raffles if we wanted hot water. Bizarrely everything is in dollars here but without the cents part which you have to convert into Khmer Riel. Luckily this has 4000 to the dollar so it's not so hard, except when you have to pay in both together to get the right price. The hotel convinced us that we could fit everything on the one motorike to move our stuff (it was too hot and too far to walk again) so we ended up with a driver, both of us, and both backpacks, and the camera bag, and the day pack, all on one small moped! I wish I could have taken a photo! After all that we went to the supermarket (which was full of expats) and then pretty much did nothing for the rest of the day other than check out the local eateries and of course the local brew. Happy hour gets you two big glasses of Angkor for US$1 but we ate in a place that gave you free beer anyway. Because of all the expats in the city, the cafes and restaurants are a bit more expensive than we are used to but it was nice to have western food with no Asian slant (if you'll pardon the pun). We both had dishes with mashed potatoes and it was fantastic! Khmer food sometimes has marijuana in it so you have to be careful what you order. Most backpackers go for a happy pizza - see your waiter for details......
8th June - Time to get aquainted with history. Rom (our moto driver) took us to S21 or Security 21 which is a prison otherwise known as Tuol Sleung. It was originally a school but was taken over by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in 1975 to be used as a torture and interrogation centre. Between 1975 and 1978, more than 17,000 people held there were taken to Choeng Ek killing fields to be 'liquidated' and only 7 people were found alive in the prison when the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979. The place looks still like a school with 3 blocks surrounding a grassy courtyard but the barbed wire around the fencing and across the fronts of one block (to stop people killing themselves) is a stark reminder of what went on there. There are hundreds of photos of the captives, some very young children, some old people, some tired, scared, resigned, shocked. Like the Nazis and more recently, Sadam Hussein's troops, meticulous records were kept of each prisoner and some of the photos have been taken after torture. The little cells which were made in each classroom contain shackles and rusty beds and further pictures of tortured and decomposing bodies leave the visitor in no doubt about what went on there. These chilled me more than the autopsy photos I've seen from various murders as these injuries were inflicted patiently over protracted periods of time, sometimes by women, and often by people known to each other, supposedly in pursuit of justice and supposedly by people of sound mind. There wasn't a great deal of information about what actually went on there (you work it out for yourselves) but there was a room of paintings by one of the survivors. The most harrowing was one of the soldiers throwing babies into the air and then shooting them like some grissly clay pigeon shoot. There are also recent photos of what some of the ex-KR soldiers are doing now (fishermen, farmers, weavers etc). So far only one upper echolon is in prison and this looks set to remain as the elderly leaders gradually die off while the arguments go on about who will oversee the trial and who will pay and who they will arrest. As time went on during Pol Pots reign, they started killing amongst themselves and replaced their troops with kids from the prison who in turn became even more evil and twisted. After denouncing war after our visit to the war remnants museum in Saigon, we are now all for going in hard against people like Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein as we know this kind of thing happens every day across the world no matter how much everyone cries "this must never happen again". The fact that some of the leaders occupy high seats in government now makes you blood boil even more.
We were completely washed out after our gruesome visit and had only enough energy to walk along the river a little way. We soon abandoned that idea as we were plagued by moto drivers offering rides and hash but also by beggars of various kinds. Some were grown able bodied people, some homeless kids, and some disabled including one guy who wheeled his friend around on an old hostess trolley as they have no wheelchair for him.
9th June - This morning we visited The Killing Fields of Choeng Ek just to push home the sadness that little bit more. We sort of expected to be shown a few fields with a memorial plaque or two but got a lot more than we bargained for. Of course we were beseiged by crippled beggars on our way in and out and I just wanted to scream at the sadness of it all. We opted for a guide and this chap had lived through the KR regime and his mother and father had been killed but he managed to escape and survive in an orphanage. There is a large clear glass memorial stupa (tower) to see first which is full of skulls (8985) and old clothing. The guide pulled out different skulls and showed us various damage like bullett, bamboo stick, hammer, and garden hoe. The KR didn't like to use bullets because it was too expensive and he showed us a tree with sharp spines that they used to cut people's throats instead. He also showed us a tree that they used to hang people from and another that they used to throw children against. When they located the site initially, this tree was covered in blood. They knew there were mass graves there due to the awful smell and the amount of flies. So far 43 of the 129 graves has been disinterred (in 1980) and they just look like bomb craters except they are marked by what they found there. One contained headless bodies / skeletons and another was just for children. Most chilling of all though was the area around the graves themselves. As we walked, the guide pointed out bone fragments and items of clothing scattered around the pits and we found ourselves walking on femurs, teeth and bits of vertebrae. You can see these items sticking out of the mud wherever you step or look and it makes you realise how recently this all took place. The guide kept asking why and sayig he didn't understand and it was obviously very fresh in his mind even though he guides there every day. He asked for an extra $10 at the end though which did not increase our sympathy towards him.
To cheer ourselves up we decided to go to the Royal palace (even though this king was briefly on the KR side before the regime too over). We never got there though bcause we went in the wrong door and ended up being led around a completely seperate temple by a young lad in a wheelchair. After another harrowing story, just as we were about to give him a tip, he asked us for $2 each for his birthday the next day. We now just want to shut the door on all this poverty and horror and make it go away but of course these people can't do that so they have to do whatever they can to make ends meet. All the people we have met so far in Cambodia have been really friendly and full of smiles, even the ones not after your money, and you wish you could erase the past so that the nasty bits don't exist for them. Time to move on before we start on the happy pizzas!