Published: March 3rd 2012March 3rd 2012
Well this will be quite a mixed-bag blog. I’ll start off discussing what we learned about the recent genocide in Cambodia and finish with our happy times in the south of Cambodia at Kampot and Kep/Rabbit Island.
To set the stage during 1975-79 Pol Pat and the Khmer Rouge communist party took over Cambodia, they renamed the government Democratic Kampuchea. During this time period approximately 2 million of 7 million Cambodians were killed through a combination of execution, forced labour, and starvation. What Matt and I both found astounding was that this happened just years before we born and well within our parents lifetime and yet no one knew it was happening at the time and even still it is not well appreciated worldwide.
We had been greatly affected at Phonesavan in Laos and at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, but visiting the 2 most famous locations relating to the Cambodian genocide, Tuol Sleng Prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, was much harder as these were unimaginable atrocities committed by Cambodians on Cambodians. The amazing thing is that Cambodian people today are very friendly and happy, every single
person in Cambodia knows someone who died during the Khmer Rouge period and yet they appear to have moved on and thrived. Consider for a second if 1 out of every 4 people you knew was killed by your own government, how easily would you get over it?
We started the day off at Tuol Sleng Prison, otherwise known as S-21, an estimated 17 000 people passed through the prison and only 7 people have come forward as having survived their time there. Men, women, children, babies, the elderly, it didn’t matter. When prisoners arrived they had their photograph taken. Part of the museum exhibits a hundreds of these pictures in collages. It was very overwhelming to stare the prisoners in the eye. Some tried to look fierce, some resigned or indifferent, and some absolutely terrified.
They have kept the prison the same as they found it. The rooms are either empty, have one metal bed frame with restraints, or are full of wooden or brick cells. One of the survivors of Tuol Sleng was a painter and his paintings of what he saw hang on the walls. It shows people being put through water torture in large
bath tubs, being whipped, being hung upside down in jars of water. As if that wasn’t hard enough the weapons of torture, including the submersion tube, are on display beside the paintings. Along the upper walkways of the 3 story buildings barbed wire is still strung up – a measure to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping.
The whole place was undeniably eerie, evil has been imprinted on the place and I doubt heaviness which settles on a person upon entering will ever go away. Our second stop was the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. We chose this order as this was the pathway the prisoners followed – if they didn’t die at Tuol Sleng they were shipped to the killing fields under the pretext that they were going to a new home. Once there they were herded into a building with no windows and loud speakers began to blare propaganda music. They were taken outside one at a time to be murdered – the music was to drown out the screams. Most were led to the edge of pre-dug pits, which would soon become mass graves, and murdered by farming tools, a club, or the bark/leaves of a
palm tree which are sharp enough to slit throats. The Khmer Rouge avoided shooting people wherever possible because bullets were costly.
The Killing Fields are full of depressions in the ground that mark former mass graves. Most of the bones have been removed but when it rains more bones and fragments of clothing turn up to this day – workers clean the site once every few months. A memorial at the site contains all the larger bones, including skulls, found at the site -- quite a powerful reminder of what happened there.
The most heinous crime committed at the killing fields was the murder of babies in front of their mothers. Again, in order to save bullets the babies were not shot. Instead they were picked up by the legs and smashed into a tree – it still stands and is called simply the Killing Tree. Turns your stomach.
These killing fields are but one of hundreds, if not thousands, scattered across Cambodia. The scale of killing during the 4 years of Khmer Rouge power is astounding.
Well enough depressing stuff, onto Kampot and Kep/Rabbit Island.
We first made our way to Kampot, just inland
from the southern Cambodia coast because I wanted to see the Kampot Pepper Plantations. Kampot Pepper is regarded as some of, if not the, worlds best and is sold in gourmet stores around the world. The art of farming it was almost lost during the Khmer Rouge time period. We rented a motorbike to go see them. For the first time ever we only had 1 bike so I rode behind Matt – we don’t fit on Asian style bikes. What a painful ride and our fat asses earned us a flat tire! Also turns out that the plantations are closer to Kep than Kampot but oh well. It was really neat to see what pepper plants look like and sample fresh pepper.Turns out black, red and whtie pepper is all from the same plant. Black pepper is dried young green pepper, red is allowed to mature, and white has the skin boiled off. They each have a distinct taste.
We had a Kampot/Kep speciality for supper that night – crab with pepper sauce. Pretty darn good and only $4 for a lot of crab! We moved onto Rabbit Island the next day, a small island off the coast
of Kep. This place was the very definition of paradise – well it would be if any of the accommodation had a/c. It consists of a long stretch of beautiful white sand that ends in warm, clear water. The accommodation consists of bungalows with no frills for $8/night. Numerous restaurants dot the beach and we had the most amazing shrimp and crab with pepper sauce! One of the best things I’ve eaten!
We stayed one night and didn’t sleep much because it was stupid hot! Matt even attempted sleeping outside in the hammock. We got sunburnt pretty bad the next morning – our first real burn of the trip. We spend the next night (Feb 29th
) in Kep, went back to Phnom Penh and flew out to Phuket on the 1st
. Goodbye Cambodia. We really loved Cambodia – possibly our favourite country. Lots of culture, fascinating ancient and modern history, friendly people, beautiful beaches, and yummy food – our only complaint was the heat!!
Oh, on a side note, in Phnom Penh we ate at a restaurant that trains street kids in cooking and serving. While there Matt order tarantulas for an appetizer. I tried one because when
are you going to get the chance again. They were deep fried and quite papery, I just ate a leg.
Right now we’re in Khao Lak Thailand diving. But that’s another blog!
See you soon!
There are more photos below