Edit Blog Post
Published: November 13th 2010
Block A cell
This cell was used for holding and interrogating high priority prisoners. A decomposing body was found still shackled when the Vietnamese went into Phnom Penh in 1979.
When I got of the bus in Phnom Penh there was a mass of tuk-tuk drivers trying to get our attention, but there was an Australian sounding thunder of a voice that caught my attention. It was Sam, a guy my age that spoke a mysteriously perfect English and he was to be my driver for the first two days in Phnom Penh. First of all he got me to a hotel that would be the perfect level of luxury after Southern Laos and then we agreed to meet the following morning. He proved to be an excellent guide!
The plan was not a pleasant one. It was in fact to spend a day trying to fathom the attrocoties that Khmer Rouge comitted in this country between 1975 and 1979. I have tried to figure out how to write about this. I thought about giving a long history lesson because it is vital to understand what happened and the complexeties of the geopolitics in Indochina from 1954 to 1989, but I will just refer to Wikipedia
instead. It would take forever to write it up and I wouldn't be able to do it satisfactorily in this format.
The fitness torture
Hanging almost upside down for hours here would make anybody "confess". This is in the courtyard so everybody could hear what was going on.
How do you manage to get details like King Sihanouks obsession with film-making in the late sixties and the importance of this for the rise of the Lon Nol regime into a blog without scaring people away. I have also considered describing how I felt during that day, but that would be pointless. Instead I am simply going to try to describe from memory what the Khmer Rouge regime did in the two places I visited and then a few thoughts afterwards. You can skip down to "Independence Day" if it gets too graphic.
When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on the 17th of April 1975 they more or less immediately began to empty the city. The ideal peasant state required all city-dwellers to go to the countryside and work as farmers. It became a ghost town within days. In a suburb not far from the city center a high school was transformed into the regimes primary prison and interrogation facility. It was to be called Security Prison 21 or S-21. It consists of four buildings named A, B, C and D. Building A was used for the most important prisoners. As the revolution was devouring
Row of tiny cells
Less than a meter wide and barely a couple of meters long.
itself towards the end this meant primarily high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials. The cells at the ground floor are fairly big former classrooms with some very basic metal beds with different kinds of shackles attached to them. It was mostly in these rooms that the 14 decomposing corpses were found by the Vietnamese as they were liberating the city in 1979 (and I use the word liberating intentionally). These 14 people are now burried immediately in front of the building. The upper floors were used to hold larger numbers of prisoners. In the corner between building A and B there are some wooden posts that were originally used for Phys. Ed. by the school children. In S-21 one of them was used to hoist the prisoners up by the hands while whipping them. Electrical wires was often used as whips making the torture more efficient. When the prisoners passed out while being suspended like this their heads were dipped into large jars containing what was essentially sewage to wake them up again.
Building B, C and D held the normal prisoners. That was just regular people that somehow had caught the regimes attention. The KR were very meticulous in keeping
records of all the prisoners and the ground floors now contain photos of the almost 20.000 prisoners who went through S-21 during those four years. Almost all the women have their hair cut in the same way. The children look shell-shocked. Some of the men are in fact smiling as you would when a picture is being taken of you. In many cases there are also pictures of the victims after they died during torture. Before and After. There is a picture of a young woman with her infant in the background. A few foreigners here and there.
There are different types of cells on the upper floors. In some of the buildings they are just former class rooms where the prisoners were shackled side by side by their feet to long metal poles. In others they built make-shift cells less than a meter wide in either bricks or wood. Along the walkways on the upper floors barbed wire netting was set up to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide by jumping from the building. Some of the torture instruments are displayed. The "bed" used for water-boarding (which even Christopher Hitchens have had to admit is torture
). A barrel where the prisoner could be locked with his or
Rationality in an irrational system. "We don't want the prisoners to commit suicide before we have tortured them beyond recognition, so we will set up barbed wire on the upper floors."
her head under water. Whips, tongs etc. The inventiveness of the human mind.
Typically a prisoner would spend between two and six months in S-21. If they didn't die in the prison itself they would be taken to Choeung Ek. Only seven (7!) survived imprisonment in S-21.
When interrogation of a prisoner in S-21 ended they were taken to Choeung Ek. It is some ten or fifteen kilometers outside of town and seems quite peaceful. The prisoners would be blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs and then they would typically be bludgeoned to death to save bullets, but different types of hacks, axes etc. would also be used. Often small children and infants would be taken by their feet and simply swung head-first into one of the trees there. As the Vietnamese soldiers entered the place that particular tree was still dis-colored by the blood. Not all of the graves have been un-covered. Some 8000 corpses have been exhumed and the remains are displayed in a stupa in the center of the killing fields. One grave contained 166 headless corpses. Another held countless naked women.
Even after the KM had been ousted
heavy rains would continue to bring body parts, bones or fragments of clothing to the surface for years. There are more than 300 places like this in Cambodia and countless buddhist temples and schools were also used as prisons or interrogation centers. There are different estimates about the total number of people killed by famine, malnutrition or murder during the four years, but most range between 2 and 3 million. Cambodia had a population of about 8 million people in early 1975.
I don't know what to write. My friend Katka wrote afterwards on facebook that I shouldn't have gone there when it makes me feel like this, but I disagree. It has certainly been necessary for me in order to understand anything about this country. Everybody I have spoken with has a story from that period. One lost his father and one brother and sister. Another lost one complete side of the family. And because most victims met an even worse and more anonymous fate than the ones described above then almost no-one knows the actual ending to the stories. The descriptions of families keeping their hopes up for years, decades after the fall of the
Tree of death
It is almost impossible to believe but this was indeed this tree that they used to kill the smaller children.
Khmer Rouge have probably been the toughest part of it all for me.
Oh, and little stupid Denmark played along with the rest of the "free" world a wonderful part in the aftermath of all of this. Since it was the Vietnamese that invaded Cambodia in 1979 and got rid of the Khmer Rouge (it wasn't all altruistic but almost. There were some border issues in the mix as well) and the Vietnamese were not popular with a certain big brother of ours at the time, then devastating sanctions were imposed on both Vietnam and Cambodia throughout the 1980's. The KR "government" in exile were hosted by Thailand until 1998, supported by the CIA and it was the only official representation in the U.N. until 1990. The most insane example of "My enemy's enemy is my friend" that I can think of. The history of this region is so overwhelmingly sad and the damage caused by the French, Americans, Chinese and Thais is so infuriatingly monumental.
So I stayed another day in Phnom Penh in order take in the celebrations of the Independence Day. I should have planned that a little better. When I stumbled
From the Royal Palace grounds.
out of the hotel at around 9 in the morning the show was more or less over. I still haven't gotten used to getting up with the sun so as the entire event sort of peaked at 7.30 everything was more or less back to normal when I finally ventured outside. Stupid. I think it could have been fun with both the king and the prime-minister in a parade and flags all over the place. I only saw the countless flags lying abandoned at the side of the streets. People already cleaning up the place. And it was 9 in the morning!!! WRONG.
Anyway I did get to see the quite impressive fireworks in front of the Royal Palace in the evening and had a very pleasant day of museums and temple/palace hunting. I had my lunch at "Friends" which just like "KOTO" in Hanoi is staffed with former street kids and it is really nice to see how they shine with pride over their new profession. The food and service is stellar at "KOTO" as far as I remember. At "Friends" it is "only" great 😊
But it did mean that my ideas of going to either
Sihanoukville or Battambang went out the window and instead I went straight to Siem Reap.
Yes or Yes?
When I got to Siem Reap my plan was really just to go out and see Angkor Wat first and then take it from there, but I had met Peter and Morten on the last night in Si Phan Don in Laos and they had told me about their trip to a temple at the Thai border and in particular the guide that they had been travelling with for 11 days in Cambodia. It all sounded very interesting so I went down to the nightmarket and found her stall. We started to negotiate the price and it was quite expensive since I would be the only one to go, but I could sense that this could be an experience I would never forget. So I booked a two-day trip to Preah Vihear temple with Soluy.
How do I describe Soluy? An almost violent burst of energy that just sucks you in and takes over. Her motto is "Do you have an adventurous spirit? Yes or Yes?". And that is the concept behind her tours. "I want to take you
I love the irony here. The cement bags are obviously from Thailand and now they are used for the Cambodian defenses on the Preah Vihear mountain.
out of your comfort zone" she said repeatedly and she sure lives up to that. Only 21 years old she has already worked as a teacher when she was 13 years old. Apart from her tour company she also has a restaurant in Battambang, some stalls in Siem Reap that sells blueprints and cement replicas of Angkor and she does occasional work as a professional photographer. Not much time left for her university studies in IT. Burn like a good Bonfire.
She picked me up the following morning and we drove up to Preah Vihear. Along the way she talked a lot. About everything. I have rarely met anyone who just opened the floodgates like that. Much of it what we talked about was far too personal to share here, but it quickly built up a trust that she would later exploit ruthlessly 😊 Preah Vihear
sits on a mountain that literally makes up a part of the Cambodian-Thai border, but it was also at the foot of this mountain that Khmer Rouge had their last stronghold all the way up to 1998. It is such a significant temple that it has been the center of several clashes between
the two countries - the last one in 2008-09 - so there are soldiers and mines everywhere. As we hiked up the mountain we saw more and more signs of both but as we reached the plateau just beneath the temple itself it turned into a first world war flashback. Trenches lined the border itself and there were weapons and soldiers everywhere. For a Dane it is surreal to see an entrenched machine gun nest pointing at the opposition just a stone-throw away. AK-47's and RPG's everywhere. And some really friendly soldiers. It was however not just an army camp. Many of the families live on the mountain as well, there is a small market and a few reastaurants with blaring televisions. Animals and naked kids running around in this warlike landscape. It got even crazier when we reached a place in no-mans land where a couple of tables had been set up between the trenches only 25 meters apart. This is where the two sides meet whenever there is a problem that needs to be addressed. A really nice Thai soldier came out and there the two sides sat down with us and chatted for a while.
Idiot with an AK-47
"Don't point it at anyone and do NOT point it at Thailand. You don't want to start another war".
has a compulsory habit of kicking soldiers. She asks them first and if they say ok (which a soldier sort of has to when a tiny girl wants to pick up a fight) then she will do her best to try to kick them in the head. So there I was sitting in the shade in no-mans land while Soluy was trying to hurt a Thai soldier.
The defenses on the mountain are massive. Several rows of trenches and enforced positions everywhere. And the soldiers offered us moonshine and food as we strolled along the border. The weirdest afternoon walk ever.
As the sun was setting we got on the back of a couple of motorbikes and drove down the insane road that has been sort of thrown onto the side of the mountain. But we didn't go all the way down. Soluy had a plan so we drove over to the bottom of another peak where two really sketchy cable cars lead up to the summit. "Do you want to go up there? Yes or Yes?". So we got in one of them and I could hear an engine revving up on the top and up we
went. Fast. It was of course well worth it as we could sit in this mountaintop fortress and see the sunlight fade over the flat landscape below. The trip down was even faster which good old gravity setting the pace and Soluy laughed her ass off over my panicked facial expression.
The plan was to sleep in a camp with some of Soluy's soldier friends, but we made a stop at a restaurant along the way. "You have to try a local egg. Yes or Yes?". So we sat down and a couple of eggs were served along with some veggies. Soluy picked up one and as she cracked the shell something black and snot-like slipped out. I immediately said that I would no eat it, but Soluy started poking the black goo around. "Here you can see the beak and here are the feet". It was a semi-decomposed duck-fetus. She easily parted it with the spoon and ate the lower half. "You have to eat it. Look at those two kids sharing one. For them it is a real treat to even get one". So she picked up the tiny black duck head with the spoon and trying
Some of the trenches had weirdly soft curves.
no to think too much about it I leaned forward and took it into my mouth and squashed it with my tongue. Far too salty but quite flavorfull. After a few seconds I was sufficiently proud of myself and swallowed the thing and I started wondering what it feels like when a beak comes out the other end.
We went to the camp where we would spend the night and sat down with the soldiers to eat. The had names like "Long Beach" and "Zero-Seven". But since we brought a case of beer and Soluy has known them for years they were quite friendly and although the food was made up of giant frogs and stuff like that it was a really nice evening. They really didn't enjoy the beers as much as punishing them. "Bottoms up" meant exactly that, but fortunately my beer-chugging skills from my youth are not completely forgotten and I sort of managed to build up a bit of respect with my speed. When we ran out of beer the moonshine took over. Much better than the stuff in China, Vietnam, Bhutan or Indonesia it was actually quite pleasant. Well at least until I started
Kicking in No-Mans-Land
Yup. That is a Thai soldier that Soluy is kicking. The sandbags are Thailand. Cambodia is right behind me.
looking at the contents in the plastic jar that was used for making it. Countless critters was floating around in there including a couple of really big tarantulas. Well, it dind't make me stop drinking it.
I am going to digress a bit, but it truly is amazing how inventive humankind has been when it comes to getting shit-faced. Who was the first guy in Mongolia who tried the fermented mare-milk for the first time and said "guys, this is brilliant". I can't remember the story in all its details but quite a while ago some archeologists (professional and academically accepted grave robbers are what they are) found some long, thin metal tubes in Maya graves. Particularly in the priests graves these giant straw-like things had been buried along with the other most important personal possessions. But they couldn't figure out what they had been used for. Many years later they figured it out. I think they found some paintings of the practice on pottery.
The Mayan priests had somehow figured out that if they made a concoction of everything they could find that could get them high and/or drunk and then poured it through the tubes up
their asses the effect was phenomenal. It enters the bloodstream a lot faster through the intestines and you can shove as much up there as you want without vomiting. No wonder that they got "visions". What I want to know is, how the hell they came up with that idea. Who was the first guy who said: "You know what. Hand me that straw over there and lets try shoving it up my ass. I think it is going to be a riot." Another aspect of human inventiveness.
Anyway, back on track. So we went to bed in the camp. It was only a few days old and made up of a half built shelter and some plastic covered table-like "beds". The ducks, geese, chickens and dogs that would make up the emergency supplies "if something should happen" made it feel as much like a farm as an army camp. A farmy camp if you will.
So the bastard rooster went nuts two meters away from me in the middle of the night. The ducks had a weird coughing sound that entertained me as the sun was rising. And the sub-machineguns and ammunition everywhere gave it an extra
My torturer :)
My Sweet Gold-digger. When I look at this picture I want to hug her and punch her in the face. At the same time if possible :)
touch. The nearest minefield just behind the trees. "I want to take you out of your comfort zone".
At 6.30 it was pointless to try to sleep anymore. Most of the soldiers were already out doing whatever it is that they do during the day. Soluy and I got back on the motorbikes and went back up the mountain. It was temple time and the sky was pristinely blue. Perfect. When we got to the top there was however something Soluy wanted me to see first. We went around the little monastery and up a cliff and found some really cool-looking soldiers in black uniforms and purple scarfs. It took a while before I noticed the Thai insignia, but these elite soldiers go un-armed across the border every day to occupy this tiny rock during the day and as far as I understood it is a sign of friendship and improved relations. Of course Soluy started kicking these guys as well, but they obviously knew her really well and called her daughter and sister and said that she gets even more beautiful every time she visits them. You know, the usual stuff you get from those charming Thai elite
Just a part of a wall at Preah Vihear that has been better.
And then we went to the temple to do some normal tourist stuff. Well, not really since we only saw one other whitie there and the biggest fuzz was caused by a high-ranking soldier visiting the place and tv-crews running around. Fortunately Lonely Planet describes the journey up there as very difficult but the roads are in fact excellent. So we only had to share this spectacular temple on the top of a mountain with the local tourists and that does make the experience better. Soluy and I went nuts with our cameras and although she can sound a bit condescending she did give me some useful tips to improve my photography. But I am old and I just don't respond very well to "Do as your teacher tells you" 😊
When we reached the fifth plateau of the temple and had stunning views of the lowlands impossibly far below us, Soluy decided that I was her Sugardaddy and she was my Golddigger. Nicknames we have been sticking with since, but it stings a bit since they play on the entire sex-tourism business that I detest so much. But it is just another little challenge.
Killing Pia Kjærsgaard
Bleeding slowly! to death. My nails are really nasty by the way.
As we headed back down talking about everything and her kicking soldiers, she all of a sudden said: "Next, you have to kill a chicken". It came out so matter-of-factly that it took a few seconds to sink in, and she was already trying to persuade me, when I really didn't need any further encouragement. "Sure, I will do it". So she bought me a durian ice cream (durian is a fruit that tastes and smells like really nasty feet, but in a peculiarly pleasant way) and we went down to the village to buy lunch.
I still remember how I in Yangshou in China first noticed how a live chicken can be carried just like we would carry a grocery bag in Denmark, so that was what I tried to do. I also named it Pia Kjærsgaard which helped a bit. So there I was sitting with a chicken in one hand, a growing number of bags with vegetables in the other and a case of beer in my lap as Soluy was getting the last ingredients. When we got back to the farmy camp Long Beach and the others had just eaten but we went ahead with
After the kill
Soluy forced me to try to look sad.
the plan anyway. I wanted to do it Bonderøven-style. Use the back-side of an axe to knock it unconscious and then chop the head off, but Soluy said that it would be disrespectful by Cambodian standards and I had to use a knife to slit its throat instead. First attempt only gave it a nasty rash but the second one was better and the blood was pouring out. After half a minute or so Pia Kjærsgaard was dead and the soldiers started plucking her and preparing the vegetables. I had a couple of quick beers, but I was actually perfectly fine with it. And very pleased with my lack of reaction. I have always wondered what it would feel like to actually have to kill my own meal. So far from the Føtex plastic wrapped experience. The reason to go to Lamalera (See "Project Sperm"). To get rid of all the hypocrisy and actually just do it yourself. And fortunately I didn't feel a thing. It became food the instant we bought it and cutting its throat was just a step in preparing the meal.
After another frantic drinking session and some tasty chicken we got in the car
Long Beach on the left. The Medic in the middle. Weird tranquility.
to go back to Siem Reap. I was pretty exhausted at this point and fell asleep quite quickly. It was only natural that I woke up with Soluy using my shoulder as a pillow. Sure she was my guide but you do get a feeling that you are being used a bit along the way. For her entertainment. My sweet golddigger 😊
Back in town I got a shower and we met up again to have dinner. Of course I couldn't have my food for myself. People who know me, will know that I simply hate sharing food and drink like that, but she of course kept nibbling at my burger and tasting my mojito regardless of how much I protested. "Get out of your comfort zone". She also dragged me into a horrible disco but this time I simply refused, so we could instead sit outside and talk about how much of a bitch life can be. What an experience and BFCE is still going to be a much bigger challenge. But when she comes back from Phnom Penh in two days we will go for another adventure and I can't wait to see what she comes up
with. Tomorrow it is Angkor Wat time.
Burn like a Good Bonfire
Tot: 0.217s; Tpl: 0.036s; cc: 20; qc: 92; dbt: 0.0344s; 1; m:saturn w:www (126.96.36.199); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.7mb