Khmer survivor, part 2

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January 31st 2013
Published: February 1st 2013
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Phnom Penh, 31 December–7 January

On New Year's Day we had a lie-in and then wandered down to town along the riverside for brunch. On the way we passed an extremely hungover man, who was laid precariously and somewhat inexplicably on the wall above the river. I'm thinking he had had a heavy New Year's celebration. It was tempting to wake him up to stop him falling off the wall into the river but it was even more tempting to stop and take photos. So that's what we did.

We headed to Friends for brunch. The philanthropy scene is big in Cambodia and the city is full of hippy, do-good types who are involved all sorts of humanitarian activities. Friends is a big name on the philanthropy scene; it's a restaurant with a fantastic concept behind it where all of the staff are former street kids who are being trained on the job in hospitality and food management. Once they are fully trained, they leave the restaurant to work out in the wider world. It's an incredible stepping stone, to give these children opportunities that they may well never have had and to take them off an often-destructive path. The food was absolutely gorgeous and the restaurant was completely packed with queues out the door. We managed to eat there twice more before we left Phnom Penh and the crowds were there both times, a real testament to the quality.

After brunch, we took a tuk tuk to S21, the infamous torture prison used by the Khmer Rouge in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. Clearly a normal activity for New Year's Day. As we drove, we saw just how accurate our first impressions of the city had been. It was bursting with personality and it felt like we were travelling through a hundred different places at the same time. Around one corner stood huge mansion houses with tall, imposing wrought iron gates then round the next were families sitting on the floor outside the wooden huts they call home, cooking food on the barbecue. It was refreshing (after coming from Thailand) to be in a place where no Western chains exist - there wasn't a McDonalds in sight, and to see a country that was so real and was not putting on any show for tourists. It was not nearly as poor as may be imagined, there were some very expensive cars on the roads and while swanky houses were not the rule, they weren't the exception either.

S21 was as much as could be expected - very, very harrowing. The glorious weather made this unimaginable cruelty even more difficult to stomach, with the bright blue sky and the sun shining through the windows of the prison where we stood reading the stories of people that had been tortured in the very rooms we were in. As we entered the compound, the original sign that showed the rules the Khmer Rouge had enforced stood high in the courtyard. Inside, there were photographs on the walls of people that had been tortured - both before and after their deaths. Glass cases housed torture implements the Khmer Rouge had used.

The prison was a museum within itself so it had barely been touched. This made what we were looking at very chilling and very real. We walked through the cells themselves - the chains used to tie the prisoners still hung on the walls and there were bloodstains on the floor. The final room of the museum housed glass cases with skulls inside of those that had died just metres from where we stood. The outdoor area, that was used as an exercise area when the building was still a school, had been used for torture in some truly horrifying ways. It was impossible to comprehend how any person could even think up these ideas let alone implement them. Signs on the walls throughout the museum instructed visitors not to smile or laugh (as if anybody would) but the entire place was just silent, as every single person filed through and attempted, in their own way, to process the horrors that they were reading about. The museum was very comprehensive in its detail too - one room had on its walls the first-hand accounts of young Khmer Rouge soldiers who had been forcibly recruited by the regime. It was hard to know by this point which emotions I should be feeling.

Of an estimated 20,000 prisoners who went through S21, just seven survived. And just as we were thinking this was too much to stomach, the curtain on the final act was lifted. As we walked out of the final building and across the courtyard, we met one of the survivors. Behind a table by a stand selling drinks sat an elderly man. He was calm and unassuming and if not for the very enthusiastic woman sat beside him who gestured us over with the not-at-all pushy words "This man is a survivor! Speak to him!" we may not have noticed him at all. He gestured for us to sit beside him and showed us the book that he had written. We were both pretty speechless (anyone who knows either of us will understand the significance of this). It was difficult to know exactly what to say to someone who has seen the things that he has. He had the kindest eyes, the softest speaking voice and such a gentle manner. It was impossible to comprehend how he could sit in this courtyard, just a few metres away from the walls within which he had been imprisoned and where the regime had ripped his life apart. His story tells of how he survived his time inside his cell by praying and that he only survived as the Khmer Rouge used him to type up (false) confessions that the prisoners had made under torture.

So that was a pretty sobering way to start the new year. Afterwards, we fancied a bit of light relief (surprisingly) so we got the tuk tuk back into town and just wandered through the streets for awhile, taking in everything we had just seen along with the everyday life of the city. That evening, we ate at a restaurant on the riverside, another one that was big on the philanthropy scene but a lot less on the tourist trail, and tried fish amok, a traditional Cambodian dish with lemongrass, kaffir lime, coconut milk and peanuts. Then we found a pool bar and watched Arsenal play Southampton, afterwards wandering back down the riverside to the hotel and eating candyfloss and popcorn (randomly being sold on the side of the road) for dessert along the way.

The next day we drove out to the Killing Fields. The roads got much bumpier and very dusty as we got further from the city. Soon enough, our driver pulled over and bought us facemasks to stop us breathing in the dust. It was crowded and hot as we drove down a very long road lined with stilted houses, endless food stalls and local markets all bustling and busy in the heat of the day. The Killing Fields, like S21, is one of those places that leaves you speechless. It was, without doubt, the most horrifying place I have ever been to. I think most people have a natural instinct and desire to want to be able to explain things and rationalise them, but when something is so incredibly alien to any notion of rationality it becomes impossible.

On the way in, we were handed headsets with the voiceover of a Cambodian man who lived through the Khmer Rouge years. His soft, calm voice took us around the fields, to the place where the prisoners arrived in the middle of the night, blindfolded and terrified, on to the mass graves that lay beneath our feet and around the lake that sat - so beautiful and so incongruous with the sunlight sparkling on the water - towards the back of the fields. Few things in life become understandable when you are (literally) treading carefully because beneath your feet, the bones of those who have been massacred may be crushed. Pieces of clothing stuck out of the ground and as we walked we heard stories of children and babies who had been killed. At this point, we also heard testimony from one of the chief murderers, who had killed hundreds of innocent people in the very same spot that we stood. In the centre of the entire compound stood a huge tower, within which hundreds and hundreds of skulls, clothes and bones of the victims were stored and piled high. As if to emphasise just how real this unreality was, in the fields surrounding us were farmers going about their everyday work and children playing. If it was that painful and heartwrenching for us to see, I can only begin to imagine how the Cambodian people must feel, dealing with this every single day of their lives and all within such close proximity too. I guess it shows just how strong people can be.

So back to the present. The next day, we both woke up feeling pretty ropey and not really up to leaving the room. This resulted in a day of DVD watching, chilling out and just attempting to feel better. We had decided to extend our stay in Phnom Penh as we were both loving the intoxicating feel of the city, so the day after we moved to our new hotel, which was right by the riverside and absolutely gorgeous, all whitewashed walls and high ceilings with big windows, along with a rooftop bar that offered fantastic panoramic views. Our hotel looked over the Royal Palace, which we went to visit the next day only to be greeted by the news that it was closed due to the king's death. The entire country was in mourning for three months after his death and everywhere that we went, there were huge photos of the king looking very sombre. It turned out that a construction site right outside our hotel was the site of his final resting place. It was hugely impressive even though it was only half-finished and it was exciting to see history in the making.

Over the next few days, we explored the city and just enjoyed being in a place that was at once both so totally unfamiliar and yet so welcoming and easy to be in. We visited the Russian Market, which had some really tacky souvenirs but a really gorgeous food court (swings and roundabouts) and we tried something unidentifiable that was fried in a huge pan, filled with vegetables and covered with chilli (the word spicy takes on a whole new meaning in Asia). We decided to give in to Lonely Planet and visit the National Museum which was beautifully designed and really impressive from the outside but housed some pretty dull relics (no, I'm not referring to C). As the afternoon drew on, we got a tuk tuk driver to take us to Wat Phnom, an absolutely beautiful temple that sat high up on a hill in the city, surrounded by a landscaped park where monks wander in a ridiculously serene setting. Up close to the temple, we witnessed the very strange tradition we have seen in many parts of Asia by which Buddhists cram small birds into cages around religious monuments and then ask people for money to free the birds and to do a good deed. I cannot help wondering why nobody has stopped them in this entirely hypocritical act as the birds were obviously free in the first place and it was more than tempting to just open every single cage and make a run for it. Wat Phnom itself was really, really pretty - very ornate with rich gold decoration, wreaths of red flowers and a hushed atmosphere. It was a nice place to end our time in Phnom Penh. That night, we had a relaxed dinner and then sat on the hotel rooftop looking out over the city, at the pagodas which dotted the landscape and jostled for space with the few large, Dubai-style high-rises and street after street of rundown houses with laundry hung out on the tiny balconies and doors hanging off the hinges.

Next stop: Angkor Wat.


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