A Glimpse into Darkness Past in Phnom Penh
Although today Cambodia is a fabulous country to visit, filled with incredibly kind people and some of Southeast Asia’s top tourist attractions, it hasn’t always been this way. The latter half of the 20th century was particularly brutal in Cambodia with spill over violence from the Vietnam War followed by the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent years of forced labour and mass extermination of the Cambodian people. Cambodians have been through A LOT in the not too distance past.
While in the capital city, Phnom Penh we had a chance to visit some of the more brutal remnants of the most deadly period in recent Cambodian history, 1975-1979.
Genocide tourism is a big deal in Phnom Penh and the two top “attractions” are the Toul Sleng S-21 Security Prison in which Cambodians were arrested, detained, tortured and subsequently killed, as well as the Choeung Ek ‘killing fields’ where an estimated twenty thousand Cambodian men, women and children were slaughtered and buried in mass graves. Most of the dead had been prisoners of Toul Sleng.
Both sites have been turned into museums and are very emotionally trying as you can imagine. We spent the day visiting both by tuk-tuk starting off at Choeung Ek in the morning. The site is located roughly 45 minutes from Phnom Penh. The first thing we saw when we entered the site was a huge Buddhist stupa filled with the skulls and bones of the dead whose graves have been exhumed. When you walk around the stupa you see that the bones are separated into age groups with the bottom level being those of children and young people. Many of the skulls have cracks and holes in them from where they had been assaulted by the various instruments used by the Khmer Rouge executioners to kill. So as not to waste expensive bullets, they generally used instruments such as axes, poles, hoes and shovels to murder their blindfolded victims. Some of the skulls we saw photos of still had their blindfolds on.
Moving on from the stupa we walked past several exhumed grave sites where the bodies of women and children had been found as well as one site where a hundred bodies were found without any skulls meaning the victims had been decapitated. Most disturbing was a large tree beside the gravesite of the women and children which the Khmer Rouge had used to bash in the heads of small children to kill them before throwing them into the pits. Apparently the first people to discover the site after the Khmer Rouge left found bits of hair and brain matter on the bark this is how they know what the tree was used for. Sigh. It’s so impossible to understand how such a place could exist.
Feeling mightily depressed we headed next to the notorious Toul Sleng prison right in the center of Phnom Penh. Before 1975 the prison had been a school. There are four three story buildings on the site and each was used for its own horrific purposes from 1975 until 1979. The first building consists of mostly empty rooms with some bare iron bed frames and photographs of the dead found in the rooms after the fall of Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese. Obviously these photographs are horrific and left us feeling sick to our stomachs.
The next building contains thousands of photographs of the people who had been brought to the prison. These ‘mug shot’ type photos are so difficult to look at. The expressions on the faces of these people are truly heartbreaking. Most of the people who were brought to S-21 were undoubtedly innocent. Many were even small children and the very elderly. All but 7 of the roughly 20,000 were killed, but not before being brutally tortured during interrogations and being forced to confess to a variety of “crimes” and “security breaches”. There were even a few foreigners who were held and killed at the prison.
The other two buildings contained more photographs including some incredibly graphic and disturbing images of the recently tortured and the dead. They also contained some of the instruments of torture and prison cells. It was a very difficult place to be, it must be an incredibly difficult place for Cambodians to visit. Sometimes the pictures on display are the only way for them to know what happened to missing family members. Truly devastating.
Okay, now I’m feeling depressed all over again so let us switch to some lighter stuff. Phnom Penh today is about so much more than its past tragedies. It’s a bright, fast-paced, optimistic place. This is something I love about the city and about Cambodia and Cambodians. Terrible things have happened to them. Not too long ago over 2 million of them were killed. Schools, universities, museums, cities and all historical and religious monuments were destroyed and yet today there is a general sense of optimism about the place and its people and a real feeling of moving forward. There is a lot of new infrastructure and it looks like a lot more is currently underway. I have so much hope for Cambodia.
When we weren’t visiting the horrible things I mentioned above, we spent most of our time eating out and enjoying the riverfront area of the city. Our hotel was really nice and faced right out onto the Mekong and promenade. This is the main tourist part of the city so it is quite nice and features tons of nice and cheap little restaurants. We found one we really liked 30 seconds from our hotel so we kept going back. I have never had such a good blue cheese and parmesan spaghetti in my whole life! Those Cambodians sure know how to cook!
We also went to check out the big central market which was much like every other central market we have been to with slightly different goods available. We weren’t that into it so we didn’t stay long. You get tired looking at virtually the same things all the time. We also went to check out a few temples. We didn’t end up going to the National Museum or the Royal Palace which most people do. The only other notable thing we did was apply for our Vietnamese visas which were a very expensive 65$ each. We did this through our hotel so we didn’t have to bother going to the embassy. I will happily pay the extra fee every time so as to avoid going to an embassy. Let me tell you, they are no fun at all.
When we got our visas we booked our bus and off we went to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.