Sunday, 23 June 2013

Phnom Penh - Cambodia

Warning: this blog entry contains details of the mass killings in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge and is very depressing in parts.

Before I headed from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, I booked a hostel called The Mad Monkey for six nights, as my visit was going to coincide with the funeral of the former King and I had heard that everywhere was going to busy and it would be nearly impossible to leave the city until after the holiday.
I arrived at the hostel exhausted after the long bus journey and noticed how nice the place seemed to be. I was taken through the upstairs bar on my way to my dorm where a few people were relaxing, drinking and playing pool, and after a quick shower I joined Lisa, one of the girls in my dorm, at the bar.
After a few drinks, meeting some new friends and playing a few games of pool, we all decided we would head out for some food and continue the fun at the local bars.

Phnom Penh was a bit of a shock to me - I felt like I hadn't been in a proper city for a long time, especially as I didn't make an effort to see much of Bangkok. It was strange to see actual shops and tall buildings again!
Luckily for me, I had actually arrived in the city a couple of days before the funeral, meaning I got a chance to experience some nights out in the city and to make the essential visit to the Killing Fields and S-21. I would later find out that during the funeral everything was closed, loud music was banned and there would be very little to do anywhere.
On my first full day in Phnom Penh I visited the Killing Fields with Brian, one of the guys from my dorm. As we were both feeling a little hungover from the night before, we didn't leave the hostel as early as we probably should have, and we arrived at Choeung Ek in the afternoon.
I wasn't really sure what to expect as I didn't really know anything about Cambodian history at the time, and I had only heard a few comments about how horrific it had been. It seems nobody, including me, is able to effectively put into words the awful ordeal the Cambodian people have gone through so recently at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Choeung Ek is the site of one of the countless "killing fields" all over the country, which has been opened up as a tourist attraction to enlighten foreigners like me who had no idea of the horrors committed on Cambodians by other Cambodians in the 1970's.
When you arrive you are directed to a small office where you are handed a leaflet and an audio headset, and sent on your way through the gate. You are guided around by the voice of one of the survivors (translated into English) who was a small boy when the Khmer Rouge took power, and who lost most of his family.
The first thing you see is a large stupa in front of you as you walk up the path, but the audio guide tells you to turn to your right - the stupa is the end of the tour.

Brian and I walked around in silence, transfixed by the voice of the survivor, unable to believe that this enormous tragedy was able to happen all over the country without the outside world knowing. We were guided around mass graves and cases full of bones and clothing that are washed out of the soil every time it rains. You can see fragments of human bone emerging from the ground not just in the areas marked as mass graves, but also on the path we are walking on.
Over one million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, and 8895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the regime.


Finally, we were back to the Buddhist stupa, and were told it contained over 5000 human skulls. The door at the front was open and we were able to go inside and walk around the very edges. Many of the skulls had been smashed in.

As we quietly made our way back to the car park where our friendly tuk tuk driver was waiting, it dawned on us that this depressing experience wasn't over yet - we still had to visit S-21.
The tuk tuk driver called us over with a huge smile and a wave, which seemed so odd after what we had just experienced, and for the first time we realised that although this was just another day at work for him, this was also part of his history as well as every other local around us in the city. And yet the Cambodian people are the most happy, friendly people I have ever met.
As we arrived at S-21, it was getting quite late in the afternoon and we decided we would have to be relatively quick. As we made our way through the gates, we could see four large buildings, which looked almost identical except one of them was coated in barbed wire on the outside. This was to stop people jumping off the balconies.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a former high school, which was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and used as a prison and interrogation centre named S-21.

The four buildings were named A,B,C and D, indicating which order we should visit them. The former classrooms in Building A had been converted into large cells for prisoners, and the bodies of the last victims were discovered here. There was writing on the walls in some of the rooms, and in some cases there were still blood stains on the floor. The rooms that still contained an iron bed and instruments of torture were accompanied by a photograph on the wall of that room from when the Vietnamese had found it, with the mutilated body of a prisoner chained to the bed, killed only hours earlier by the Khmer Rouge who had then fled.

Building B is filled with photographs of the victims, taken when they were first brought to the prison, and it takes a long time to look around at each one. Every room on every floor has as many photographs as it is possible to display in this space. These were what affected me the most at S-21 -  you could look into the terrified eyes of every person who was tortured and killed there and it suddenly made it so real. The atmosphere of the place made it feel like these people had only just left.
The rooms of Building C had been divided up into small cells, some made of wood, others made of brick. I went inside one to try and imagine what it must have been like to be held in such a cramped place, but found I couldn't stay in there for long, the feeling that the place had only been abandoned a few hours earlier was too much for me and I had to get out. By this point it was beginning to get dark.

Building D held weapons of torture and other things found at the prison, including the iron chair which every prisoner would have sat on when having their photograph taken. There was an iron bar attached to hold their heads steady.
We rushed through these rooms as there was no lighting in the buildings and we were both starting to get extremely freaked out as the darkness descended. As we left the last building and headed back towards the gate, we realised it was shut! We told each other that there must be another way out, there was no way we could be locked in here overnight, all the time both trying to conceal our rising panic as we simultaneously picked up the pace and followed the wall around, praying for a second gate to appear. Eventually, we found a small side gate open and, not bothering to hide our relief, we rushed through it to find our tuk tuk driver waiting patiently outside it.
After our nervous laughter in the tuk tuk subsided, we decided that we definitely needed to go out for a drink to try and shake off the thoughts from the day. Fortunately, our friends back at the hostel were up for it so we hit the town once again.
Corey, who I'd first met in Krabi, had arrived at the hostel that night and the next day he introduced me to his friends Jack and Mark. Lisa and I were planning on going out that night and the guys decided to join us. We had done very little during the day as we were recovering from our hangovers but we knew that the funeral proceedings had begun in the city; however, we didn't realise that this was going to put a stop to our plans for the evening.
Lisa and I took the guys to a bar we had really enjoyed the night before, but arriving there we found there was no music playing and everyone was regularly being told to keep the noise down. After a couple of very subdued drinks, we decided to give up and return to the hostel, stopping at a store on the way to buy a few beers. We ended up watching television in the hostel, and were even told to turn that down a couple of times.
The next day everyone seemed to be leaving except me, as I was still booked into the hostel for a few more nights. Lisa headed to Siem Reap and Corey, Jack and Mark had bought tickets to Sihanoukville. The other guys from my dorm had left before the funeral as nobody wanted to be stuck in the city when everything was shut and there was nothing to do and we couldn't even listen to music. It didn't take much persuading from Corey, Jack and Mark for me to cancel my last days at the hostel and buy a last minute bus ticket to join them in Sihanoukville. I had about 20 minutes to pack and leave the hostel to get the bus, which was fairly easily done and soon the four of us were squeezed in a small tuk tuk along with our rucksacks, on our way to the bus station. The boys had booked a minibus but the tickets were all sold out by the time I had decided to leave so I got on a regular bus on my own, promising to meet them at the other end.

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