Published: July 3rd 2012July 3rd 2012
This is not a capital city like all others I have visted. Where else would you see an Ox drawn cart! The city for foreigners is set up around the river, with girlie bars and restaurants in abundance. Look a street or two back, and it very quickly becomes very local in look and feel.
The locals use the promenade by the river in the evening for such events as Tai Chi and Aerobics, excellent entertainment whilst having dinner and a few beers. The mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers converge here, and like the rest of the rivers in Cambodia this time of the year, the colour is a healthy shade of brown.
I visited the Royal Palace, and it was okay. Nothing more. I have seen buildings of similar size and build all around Asia, and the fact that these are usually free the $6.25 entrance fee stung. The fact that it is still a royal residence, and therefore has large areas blocked off didn't impress me much either. They even had guards sitting watching out for blighters like me trying to sneak past.
I then followed this up with a visit to S-21. The former
high school that was turned into a torture camp by the Kmher Rouge. The rooms are filled only with one of two steel frame beds, with the chains still attached. Maybe an old ammo box, and a picture on the wall. There are four blocks, one still covered in razor wire. Put in place to stop the inmates jumping off the balcony and commiting suicide. One of the others left as it was with makeshift cells still running the length of the ground floor. Cells barely large enough for someone to lay down, with only a hole in the wooden door for food to be passed through.
Several of the rooms were set out one after another, filled with photos of the victims of the camp. What I didn't know before I came over to Phnom Penh was that this camp was used a lot for the Khmer Rouge soldiers that had in some way supposedly fought the Angka revolution. They were bought here for torture, starvation and supposedly redemption. Confess these sins we have made up for you, and you will be forgiven and go free. Unfortunately after confessing, the only freedom they got was into a lorry
and off to the killing fields for eternal freedom.
I spent a good few hours, wandering around in silence with nothing to say, even if I had wanted too. It is sad to know just how easy it is for people to do these things to each other. The reasons given from the guards, was that if they didn't do it, they and their family would be killed. As S-21 showed, the ones who failed this ultimate test followed their victims to their graves. I can't say that I would do anything different if I was in their shoes, which is a scary thought really.
A few days later I took a trip to the killing fields that serviced S-21. I arrived at lunchtime in between the tours, so I had just a few people to keep me company. Again it was another place where silence is requested, and the sound of birdsong made it for a much more tranquil location than in the times when it was in use.
You get an audio tour with this, which helps you understand some of what went on in the camp. The killings were done at night, with revolutionary
music blaring out to cover the screams. At first a truck would appear a couple of times a month. The victims taken directly to the graves that had been dug for them and killed immediately. Later on in 1978 when upto 300 victims were arriving at the camp each night, some had to be kept locked up until they had time to kill them. Imagine sitting their in a dark room, diesel generators and loud music maybe not quite covering the sounds of the people being killed nearby.
The largest mass grave they discovered held 450 people. Most of the graves have been emptied, and all that remains of them now are sunken graves all around the site. The tree that they used to kill babies, by bashing them against the tree and tossing them in the mass grave next door was a sad reminder of the horror. This has now been turned into a makeshift memorial, with visitors attaching bracelets to the tree and it's surroundings.
Walking around the paths you can still see bones and scraps of clothing in the ground. They come up with the rains. The ground staff go round every few months and
collect them up. These then are put with the others that have already come to light. I never really took any pictures whilst I was here. For some reason, it never really entered my head that I should. Until I was told be Audio that I could take photos in the Stupa where the skulls and larger bones are stored. I for one will never need photos to remember the camp, the images will remain with me always.
On a lighter note, I would like to share with you my way of picking out my tuk-tuk driver for the trip to the killing fields. It wasn't that he was the cheapest, it wasn't that he spoke the best English or was the safest driver. It was for the simple fact that he was the only tuk-tuk driver with a big red welcome mat inside his tuk-tuk... It's the simplest of things sometimes. Saying that I noticed exactly the same mats outside the museum at the killing fields, so I think I know where he got his from.
Tomorrow I have a ticket booked for Kampot. The adventures continue.
Take care all.
There are more photos below