A glimpse of Cambodia's dark history

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June 10th 2010
Published: June 10th 2010
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Siem Reap - Phom Penh - Kratie

Arriving in Phnom Penh was a hectic experience. Scott hurried off the bus to protect our bags from being ‘collected’ by the tuk tuk drivers; I waited until the rest of the pushy passengers had left before getting off. We managed to find a safe little corner in a cafe behind a security guard to sort out our money and figure out a plan, all the while being hollered at by the pushy drivers. We finally just grabbed one and took off from the crowd, giving strict orders to take us to a specific guesthouse and nowhere else (learning from our experience in Siem Reap). Our first choice being full we checked into a nice looking guesthouse on a busy street called ‘Royal Guesthouse’ for $10 US a night and figured out our plans for the next few days in the busy city.

We decided that we would spend our first day in Phnom Penh running some errands and visiting some of the closer sights. We mailed a painting we bought in Siem Reap home and then headed for the national museum ($3 US). Finally, we had found some of the missing pieces from Angkor. The museum was filled with Angkor era sculptures and carvings, all very much intact, with some information on the bigger ones. We spent about an hour wandering around before heading to the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace was a great place to see as it is still used by the Cambodian Royalty, but was a bit more expensive to get in ($6.25 each). We wandered the grounds for awhile, checking out the different attractions, the main highlights being the Royal Throne Room and the Silver Pagoda, or hall of the Emerald Buddha. The Royal Throne Room was a magnificent long room seemingly made entirely of gold inside, and is still used by the King. The Silver Pagoda wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought it would be a massive Pagoda made of silver. It was actually a large room with many carvings and statues of Buddha the main one being the massive emerald Buddha, and the life size golden Buddha, weighing 90kg and decorated with over 9000 diamonds!

After this we made a last minute decision to pay a visit to Wat Phnom or ‘Hill temple’. The legend with this temple being that in 1373 a woman named Penh built the temple to house four Buddha statues that she found floating in the Mekong. There was also a handful of fat monkeys feeding off the fruit tossed at them by curiously amused tourists and locals, although we stayed clear as there was a rumour of bighting monkeys floating around and didn’t want to experience that first hand. We arranged with our driver to go see some of the more dark sights around Phnom Penh the next day, and wound up back at the guesthouse with a pleasant surprise of our friend Joe from Siem Reap showing up around dinner.

The three of us set out with our driver at 9:30 the next morning for the infamous shooting range in Phnom Penh, where you can shoot almost any gun imaginable (from a hand gun to a rocket launcher) for a price, (the darker rumour being that you can purchase animals to shoot at). Scott and Joe browsed through the ‘menu’ at the ‘cafe’ before deciding to share an AK47, and both having their turn at different handguns, Scott with a rev22 revolver, and Joe with a glock (I think), and me shooting nothing but pictures.

After the fun at the shooting range we headed out for the Killing fields 14km out of town. After sitting in heavy and dusty Cambodian traffic for an hour we arrived at the peaceful looking orchard, greeted by an enormous memorial stupa with the skulls of over 8000 victims and their ragged clothes. We wandered the grounds taking in the sights of the massive holes that were once mass graves to so many innocent people. There were still bones and dirty torn clothes in the dirt at our feet while walking around, signs telling us how many people were slaughtered into early graves, and showing us the different uses the Khmer Rouge held for some of the larger trees in the grounds. After a somber hour of wandering the grounds we headed out for Tuol Sleng Museum, better known as S-21 (Security Prison 21)

Tuol Sleng, a high school turned prison and torture chambers by Pol Pot in 1975, was used for four years to systematically torture and kill some 40,000 Cambodians for reasons such as being educated or speaking a second language. Most victims were tortured endlessly for 3-6 months before being taken to the mass grave at Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) to be slaughtered. We spent a haunting two hours wandering through the 4 buildings staring into the faces of the deceased and feeling their pain in our bones. The Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of each prisoner who passed through the prison, giving numbers to each and having a picture on record, all now displayed for the visitors to the museum. The faces of the people are haunting, some looking strongly into the camera, having accepted their fate, others with eyes screaming of the fear and pain that was to come.

There were rooms for torturing many of the victims, small school rooms empty except for a metal frame bed with chains, sometimes a shovel used for beating, and dark stains on the floor from the spilled blood of the dead. There were many prison cells, each about 6 feet by 3 feet, again with chains to hold the prisoners in, many still splattered with blood of the wounded. In the courtyard are 14 graves marking the last victims of the Khmer Rouge before the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979, and some old exercise bars from the previous high school, turned torture devices used for hanging victims with their hands behind their backs, upside until they feinted as a means of torture.

The events of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 left the country in ruins and the people of Cambodia with a horrible scare full of fear and un-trust. Evidence of the horrific actions of the Khmer Rouge are still visible today, with much of the country’s population having lived through this difficult period and left to deal with the aftermath of Pol Pot’s extreme ideas. The country is slowly climbing its way back to stability and most Cambodians are a proud and happy people despite their enormous baggage of the past. If you are interested in learning more there are many websites out there dedicated to the events that happened in the late seventies, as well as ways that you can help.

After a slightly depressing but informative day in Phnom Penh we headed north for Kratie to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong. We arrived at 2:30 and quickly booked a tuk tuk with three others to head to the river at 3:30. $10 each for the tuk tuk and boat, we found ourselves sitting in the middle of the river in silence waiting for the appearance of the shy dolphins. We sat there with anticipation while three other boats pulled up before finally seeing a glimpse of the pod of dolphins hiding beneath the surface of the Mekong. We all struggled for half an hour to get a picture of one as it broke the surface for a breath of fresh air, but gave up quite quickly (Scott carried on with our lovely camera) and continued to sit in silence for another half an hour before heading back. The ride back to the hotel was interesting as our driver took us down a side road lined with traditional Cambodian huts, all of the people outside waving wildly and smiling at us as we passed. He stopped at a wat on top of a hill as a ‘treat’ for us, and we struggled up the few hundred stairs to the top for a view of the cloud covered city before heading back and getting an early nights’ sleep.

The next day we spent much of the morning updating the blog, and around lunch time decided to go for a walk in search of an ATM. Two hours later and the only successful attempt was a bank with a closed ATM and no answer as to when it would reopen, we wandered back along the river for awhile before returning to our guesthouse and booking a trip down to Sihanoukville early the next morning.

Other than going on the hunt for the illusive dolphin and wandering around town there wasn’t a whole lot to do in Kratie, the price was right though, $4 for our room couldn’t have been better. We did enjoy our time in the city and were hoping to continue north to Ratanakuri, but the weather just wasn’t in our favour. We’re hoping the south will be a bit more pleasant towards us weather wise, and are looking forward to feeling the fresh ocean air on our faces and catching the start of the WORLD CUP!!

Additional photos below
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Old and NewOld and New
Old and New

Figure of Angkor wat in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
Royal Palace, Phnom PenhRoyal Palace, Phnom Penh
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

A massive display featuring the king's entrance party. No photo's allowed inside so this will due.

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