Published: August 26th 2008August 14th 2008
It only took forty minutes to fly from Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital. The landing was smooth and were soon out of the airport, driving through the hustle and bustle of downtown Phnom Penh. Outside was hot and dusty, the streets clogged with motorcycles and pedestrians. Compared to Siem Reap, this was indeed a third world city. Shoeless children and scrawny dogs wandered the pavements, trying to keep out of the sunlight.
After being dropped off at the hotel, Angela and I headed outside. The streets were crowded with people, the stench was horrendous, and the children hawking bottles of water for a dollar were relentless. “You want water? Where you from? Ah England, lubbly-jubbly! You buy water from me? Okay, maybe later? You please remember me!”
“This is the hottest day so far,” I said as we wandered around Wat Phnom, a pagoda just opposite our hotel. “I feel like I'm on a barbecue.” The small pagoda stood on top of a small hill populated by monkeys. As we headed up a narrow winding path we spotted one, and then another and another. They were everywhere, totally indifferent to all the people around them. One walked straight
towards us. When we stopped it stopped too, its tiny hands fishing around in the dirt. Eventually it came across a nut of some kind and it spent a minute or so nibbling away before wandering off.
Wat Phnom was quite unremarkable and so after a few minutes we headed back down the hill. “Hello sir! You want tuk tuk to Royal Palace? Russian Market?” said a man leaning against his colourful little vehicle. We politely said no and followed our map. Despite the heat, we wanted to find our own way to the Royal Palace.
Crossing a busy road, we headed for the Riverside Promenade, a long stretch of pavement lined with flags. Nearby some children were jumping of a small pier into the brown water below. They were all naked and were loving every minute of their fun.
As we neared the Royal Palace, we couldn't help but notice the cages filled with tiny chirping birds, which for a dollar, could be set free. One cage was empty except for a tiny dead bird at the bottom of the cage. “That's horrible,” said Angela, “Why do they do this to those poor creatures,”
it happened, we couldn't get into the Royal Palace. We'd stupidly forgotten about shoulders having to be covered. Cursing, we left and got in a tuk-tuk to the Russian Market. We'd be able to buy something there.
The market was so called because of its popularity with Russian ex-pats during the 1980s. It was a sweat box of humanity and hellish heat. Inside the narrow crowded isles, the heat was almost unbearable. “Hello sir, madam,” we heard as passed each and every stall. “Please see my store!” After twenty minutes we'd had enough, but at least Angela had bought some cheap clothing to cover her shoulders.
The Royal Palace was built by the French in the mid 19th century. It reminded us of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, only without the masses of tourists. Gold glittered from the temple roofs and monkeys scratched themselves on the walls. The complex also contained the Silver Pagoda. Angela and I followed the signs leading right to it.
I expected it to be, well...silver. But it wasn't. It looked like all the other pagodas in the Royal complex, regal-looking and eye-catchingly gold. We entered the Silver Pagoda and found out why
it had received its name. It was to do with the floor. 5000 silver blocks weighing almost six tonnes lined the base of the pagoda. But this wasn't as impressive as it sounded. Unfortunately the silver blocks were mainly covered by large carpets. Nevertheless we wandered through the building, eying the Emerald Buddha placed up high in the centre of the temple.
The next morning was hot and sunny. The rainy season seemed to be taking a break, at least in Phnom Penh. A more overcast day would have been more appropriate for what we were about to visit. We jumped in a tuk tuk and headed for the Tuol Sleng Museum.
Also known as S-21, Tuol Sleng was located in the heart of the city. A former high school, it became the headquarters of interrogation and torture during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. “This is horrible,” Angela whispered as we entered a room identical to the first. It was filled with stark black and white portrait photos of people brought to Security Prison 21. Men, women and even children lined the displays, their mugshots taken on arrival at the prison. Most looked terrified
but some were smiling, as if they had no clue what was in store for them. One large photo showed a woman holding a baby. Her expression was neutral. “Here she is again,” said Angela. I wandered over to a smaller display. The second photo was taken from the woman's side and this time the baby was nowhere to be seen. The woman had the same neutral expression as before except for one detail. Running down her face was a single tear. Angela looked away. “This is so sad.”
We found the interrogation cells. Each room had yellow plastered walls lit from a single window. The floor was made up of brown and white checked tiles, reminding us again that this terrible place used to be a school. In the centre of the room was a single metal-framed bed. The stains underneath suggested some of the horrors administered here. More obvious was the large black and white photo on the wall. It was chilling to even glance at, horrific to linger upon. It was beyond normal reckoning what these pitiful individuals must have endured.
In another room, artists' impressions of the atrocities committed inside the cells managed to
put colour to the horror. One showed a terrified man with his feet shackled, his forearms encased in some sort of wooden block. His torturer was in the foreground with a pair of pliers. Blood was pooled on the floor along with the man's fingernails. Angela gasped when she came to the gruesome painting. “What exactly where they supposed to admit to?”
“Nothing,” I answered. “They couldn't admit to anything because they hadn't committed any. They were just educated people, doctors, teachers, or people who'd worked for the previous government. But not just them; their families were brought here too. ”
On an upper level of the prison were the cells. Each individual cell was tiny, not even wide enough for me to stretch my arms out, but they still would have housed six or seven people. Rules had to be followed to the letter inside the cells, even some impossible ones. For instance, if a person moved in their sleep without first asking for permission they would be punished with lashes from an electrical chord.
In total more than 17,000 people were imprisoned in S-21 and only seven survived. One was a man called Vann Nath
who was a skilled artist. He survived because he was put to work painting Pol Pot. The horrific paintings we'd just looked at were Nath's work. Another inmate survived only because of his great skill at fixing machinery.
Another room seemed to be holding some sort of exhibition. There were about eight pairs of photos, all former guards at the prison. Each pair of photos showed the same person, then and now. “Look at this one,” I said to Angela. The black and white photo showed a boy of fourteen wearing a dark cap. The colour photo next to it showed a 42-year-old man chopping at a piece of wood. He looked like any other Cambodian man we'd seen, certainly not a monster. The next photo showed a man cradling his daughter while his wife stood behind him. “You know, these people are brave to have their pictures put up here,” I said to Angela as we wandered from display to display. “They have normal lives now and yet they're prepared to admit what they once were.”
Suitable saddened by what we had seen inside the prison, we caught another tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields. Located 15km from
the centre of Phnom Penh, it was where they finally killed the prisoners after their interrogations.
“Hello,” the young man said in remarkably good English. We'd just hired him as our guide for eight dollars. “Please sit here for a moment while I tell you a bit about this terrible place.” We were directed to some wooden benches offering a bit of shade. The landscape around was green and pleasant. Chicken pecked about in the dirt and in the distance was the honking of traffic. Our guide smiled and began to speak.
“Every prisoner from S-21 was brought here. It was a one way journey for every one of them because they would be all killed. They were all blindfolded and very thin. They had spent maybe two months in interrogation. Maybe three hundred prisoners were killed each day, usually as soon as they arrived. The guards would normally kill them with a spade or a hatchet because bullets were too expensive.” The guide paused for while. “You may have noticed that Cambodian people don't talk much about this atrocity. But I promise you that they never forget. Every May, Cambodian families bring their children here to see
what Pol Pot did. They teach them so that this can never happen again.”
Just beyond where Angela and I were sitting was a pagoda filled with skulls, over 8000 according to our guide. “This place was like a factory,” he told us. “The prisoners were laid out side by side, not allowed to speak, not allowed to move, and then one by one their skulls were bashed with tool. Music blasted out from loudspeakers to muffle the wails, and when they were dead they were thrown into mass graves. I will show you these now. Please come.”
We followed the guide to the first of the mass graves. “When Khmer Rouge bury people, they did not do it according to religion or creed. They were dumped on top of each other without thought and then covered with dirt. But as the bodies decomposed they filled with gas which made them rise to surface. That is how the graves were eventually found. This single grave here held maybe fifty bodies.” It was a tiny pit in the ground, no bigger than a garden pond. “And this tree trunk,” said the guide, leading us to a gnarled tree that
would've looked good in any British garden, “was where guards killed the babies. They smashed their tiny bodies against trunk like a piece of rubbish. And then they throw them in here.” The guide pointed to a mass grave in front of us. “This was full of women and children. The women were all naked, raped by guards before killing.”
To say the place was harrowing was an understatement. It was a place of nightmares. “Pol Pot was evil,” said our guide matter of factly. “He wanted to get rid of anyone with education so that he could start from year zero. In his mind, farmers would take over the land, providing everything the country needed. Intellectuals were a barrier to his plan, they had to be re-educated. This of course meant being killed. For Khmer Rouge, they were not killing innocent people, they were only re-educating them.”
I looked at Angela. Her facial expression was the same as mine. Uncomprehending horror. We followed the guide for a few metres further along the path before stopping. “Children were very easy to manipulate,” he told us. “Khmer Rouge used them as guards in S-21. The children knew no difference,
only what they wanted them to believe. You can't really blame them. But even the guards were not safe from his regime, look.”
Another mass grave surrounded by a wooden fence, had a sign which read: Mass Graves of Victims Without Heads. “These were Pol Pot's soldiers and guards,” our guide explained. “Their heads were cut off to make sure they were really dead. Pol Pot didn't want them to take revenge. But it wasn't just the soldiers who were killed. Their wives and children were slaughtered so that no memory could ever remain.”
At the entrance to the skull pagoda was a long length of shackles. The guide noticed me staring. “The guards told the prisoners to lie down with their eyes shut. Then the shackles could go around their ankles. An iron bar was pushed through these holes to hold the shackles in place.” I looked closer. Each ankle shackle consisted of a clasp large enough to fit a person’s ankle, but also had a small circular hole that a long iron bar could be fed along. The guide explained further. “As you would expect, some prisoners had bigger feet than others, but this did not
matter to guards. They would bang the metal rod, breaking ankle bones so it went through to the next shackle.”
We arrived back at tour hotel suitably humbled. And to think that Pol Pot had only died in 1998 (from malaria) without having to face charges of mass genocide against this own people. Unbelievable
* * *
“You want boat ride?” said the thin wiry man sitting on a plastic chair along Sisowath Quay, the main artery along the river. We stopped and faced him. A boat ride was exactly what we wanted. It had been a few hours since the Killing Fields and we desperately needed some breeze to lighten our sweat laden brows.
“How much?” I asked. The man was clearly not part of an official boat tour. In fact, we couldn't even see a boat His price must surely be cheap.
“Sixteen dollar!” he said without pause. “For one hour!”
I looked at Angela. Ten dollars was the maximum we'd budgeted for. a short trip along the The Tonle Sap River had no sights as such, but we both loved the feel of the wind from the deck of a
boat. ”Too much!” I said. “Ten dollars.”
The man smiled, shaking his head. He looked about forty but was probably much younger. “Okay,” he smiled. “Twelve dollar.” I grimaced and shook my head. I led Angela away from the man but he soon stopped us. “Okay, yes, ten dollars come.”
We followed the man towards a mooring point, and we saw that he did indeed have a boat. It looked old and it looked knackered. We were led across a wooden plank to the empty vessel. He ushered us on board then left us to it. Perhaps he'd gone to drum up more trade for the tour.
We decided to make ourselves at home and found some plastic seats at the rear of the boat. Cobwebs littered the masts and tables and the ropes tying us to the embankment looked like it had been in place for ages. “This boat hasn't been out in while,” I said to Angela. Just then the man returned, this time with his wife and young daughter n tow. While we waited for the tour to begin, the man and wife team rushed hither and thither getting the ship shipshape. A few
minutes later we heard the starter motor turn over but the engine failed to start.
I raised my eyebrows towards Angela and down below we could hear a commotion. A minute later the woman wandered past us smiling sweetly. In her left hand she carried a machete. When she was out of earshot, I turned to Angela. “Maybe they're going to chop us up and eat us.” Once more we heard the engine crank below deck, followed by a belch of smoke then nothing.
“Maybe she's hacking the engine to death,” I said. But then we caught sight of some activity from the boat moored next door. A teenage boy was carrying a large battery, the sort of device that could maybe kickstart a boat's engine into life. Our man jumped across to help him and when he caught our gaze he bowed and apologized. “Five minutes,” he promised as the pair brought the battery across.
A few minutes later the engine was cranked a third time, and this time it spluttered into some sort of belated life. It didn't live for long though because after maybe five seconds the boat became silent once more. “That was
the death throes we just heard,” I quipped,
By now a small crowd had gathered. Four children from the boat next door were watching with interest and high up on embankment stood a security guard. He seemed to be laughing.
The wife wandered past again. She still had the machete but also had a fistful of electrical cables. As she passed us she smiled and apologized. And then we heard a splash. We turned around just in time to see her husband disappear into the water. Every now and again he'd pop up for air before diving back down again. “Maybe the propeller is covered in seaweed or something,” I suggested. “But god knows how he can see under there. It'll be like feeling about in the dark.”
“I hope he gets it going,” said Angela. “We're probably his first paying passengers for months. And this boat is their home. They're his neighbours. Look, even if it doesn't start we should still give them a few dollars. I feel so sorry for them.”
Another onlooker joined the security guard who by now had sat down. To pass the time we gave the small boys on the
next boat some Cambodian riels, about twenty five pence worth. And then the husband splashed up noisily and clambered back aboard. “We go now!” he announced proudly.
And he was right. The boat's ancient engine was coaxed back from the dead and we were off, heading at a fair clip across the river. For an hour we enjoyed the sights of Phnom Penh from the oldest sailing boat in town. When we were safely moored back up, we paid the man an extra couple of dollars and thanked him. We were genuinely pleased that he'd got his boat going. Him and his wife bowed and smiled, their daughter asleep on a chair behind them. We climbed back up the embankment happy and strangely content.
That night we went to a restaurant recommended by our guidebook. It described the food as being exquisite. Exquisite was not the word we would have chosen.
Pyong Yang Restaurant was a North Korean establishment, serving strange food with the promise of karaoke for entertainment. The place was half full of oriental men, and the waitresses all wore the same light blue uniform with their hair tied back severely. They all looked identical.
The menu was full of things which we didn't like the sound of, such as cows innards, crushed pig trotter, octopus and succulent squid. I eventually opted for something that said Fish with Vegetable Sauce. Angela went for the duck.
My food was hideous, the gray-fleshed fish still had all its skin on, with the head being particularly gruesome. Two eyes peered up at me, covered in some sort of batter, and I prodded at it, seeing some dark stuff seep out from beneath the skull. However, no matter how bad mine was, Angela's was worse.
Her duck was 95% fat and skin. The pimpled skin where the feathers had been plucked were clearly visible. It wouldn't have surprised me to find a bit of beak or even a webbed foot in there somewhere. Angela grimly picked up a piece of duck gristle and studied it for a moment before popping it into her mouth. I almost gagged. I picked at my fish while Angela sucked on the fat, trying to extract any meat that might be there.
“This is nice,” I quipped. “Fantastic food. Communist waitresses and the promise of Karaoke later on.” We left
about ten minutes later, back into the heavy rains that had begun as the night had fallen. Our last night in Phnom Penh was over.
-Friendly people everywhere
-Cheap for food and silks
-The terrible history kept as a grim reminder
-Dirty rubbish piled up everywhere
-The sights are quite far apart
-Not a scenic city by any stretch of the imagination.
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