Saturday, March 19, 2011

Phnom Penh - Cambodia

Our arrival in Phnom Penh started with some monkey business, and not the good kind that actually involves monkeys.  Before our feet had touched the floor from the bus we were surrounded by tuk tuk drivers who wanted to take us to hotels so we picked one at random and asked him to take us to a guest house we had in mind and out of this jungle for three dollars. Things kind of began to go wrong once it was established that our choice guesthouse was full. "I take you to good guest house" the driver said.  Heard that one before... Anyway, once we hammered it home that we were indeed on a budget we were dropped off at a place that cost ten dollars a night, but they only had one room available which was up a shedload of stairs and wasn't very clean or nice.  
Riverside traffic in Phnom Penh
The driver had been pushing us to try to give him a job over the next few days but we explained that we just wanted to find our feet.  It would make no sense at all for us to take the first price from a driver and not shop around but this guy was persistent!  Anyway, we told him that we weren't going to take it and we wanted to search on foot for ourselves and he really didn't want to know.  He wouldn't accept the previously agreed three dollars at first and whilst I was in surveying the guest house he told Kate lies that we had agreed to meet up the next day to visit the killing fields.  This guy was a nightmare to say the least and he got quite aggressive when we virtually had to hammer home that we were to go our separate ways, "listen to me..." he kept interrupting... "NO YOU LISTEN TO ME!" I finally snapped when I realised politeness was getting us absolutely nowhere.  Great, first day in Phnom Penh and I had already lost my cool.

We eventually found a guesthouse by ourselves for twelve dollars a night, twice what we were paying in the last place but it was in a great location and the room itself was quiet, very clean and upmarket compared to what we had been used to.  We stayed in an area locally known as Riverside as it is in a busy location running parallel to the Tonle Sap which is the best place for the bars and restaurants albeit very intense.  Every ten minutes or so you have children trying to sell you postcards, bracelets and more commonly pirated versions of popular books.  There is no escaping it as they even come into the bars and restaurants!  This is only a small nuisance however as the beer is still cheap, the food isn't too pricey either and unlike Battambang and Pursat there is a lot more choice than the limited Cambodian dishes we had been eating for the past week (although they were delicious).  We strolled to a temple museum which had many artefacts similar to those we had been climbing all over in Siem Reap.  There were lots of things to see and read about but it was kind of dull.
The Temple Museum

Having fully explored Riverside, we decided that it was now time to do the sad but necessary visit to the Killing Fields.  This was one of the many places where many Cambodians lives were ended during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.  The regime targeted anybody who had any previous involvement in politics, was remotely intellectual (wearing glasses was enough to get you killed) and basically anybody who hadn't had a devoutly rural upbringing or worked in labour intensive professions.  The goal was to create a new agrarian society which valued only primary industry in order to make Cambodia (or the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea as it was then known) rid society of any dissenters or people who would remember or be fond of the old way of life.  There was no law, the soldiers were all powerful and anybody who's only crime had been that they previously lived in the city were treated as a lower being and were often worked and starved to death if they were not executed outright.  
Pol Pot talks at a meeting in 1975
The Killing Fields is the name that was given to the place just outside of Phnom Penh where prisoners were taken to be executed after torture and confession, having been told they were going to be relocated.  It is hard to comprehend the atrocities that took place until you look closer, as it is now a grassy open area with pleasant trees dotted about.  They have left the mass graves open, some with bones remaining and the most prominent feature is a strange tower feature which houses the skulls and some items of clothing from the hundreds upon hundreds of bodies they found buried here.  It seems in rather poor taste to be honest, like some macabre trophy cabinet and if you wanted to you could touch the skulls.  You can also see that the majority of skulls have puncture wounds, as the soldiers saved money by not using bullets on the prisoners but instead choosing various crushing or stabbing weapons.  There are more awful facts for you to read but I have no intention to recount them now.  It was all very sombre and hard to get your head around.  
The Killing Fields today
The Killing Fields memorial

A skull of one of the deceased in the Killing Fields memorial

The following day we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide museum or S-21 (Security Prison 21).  This used to be a school but during the Khmer Rouge regime it was converted into a prison where the captives were severely tortured and brutally mistreated until their imminent death.  They think that around 20,000 people including nearly 100 foreigners went through this prison and to give some kind of perspective, when Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese they found only seven survivors. 

Here is a recount I found on the web:

"Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were also forbidden to talk to each other.  Prisoners were tortured into confessing family members as associates who were in turn arrested and treated the same until their deaths." 
If the Killing Fields didn't hit the facts home then this place really did.  You could almost feel the torture and the denial of any human rights as you wandered in and out of the cells.  They kept a lot of records of the victims and in some of the rooms there are walls of photographs of the victims when they arrived at the prison, many looking extremely young.  It's ghostly to think of their fates as they stare back at you.  After spending a few long hours there we were ready to head back to the comfort of Riverside.

One of the prison blocks from the outside

One of the prisons in block A. Typically reserved for political prisoners

Photographs of the prisoners

Yet more photographs of the prisoners

The prisons

On a happier note, before we left we knew that we had to fulfil our promise to visit the young people we met on the coach to Siem Reap.  It took a while to find the organisation on the map as it was just outside the city, however we explained it to our driver who knew where it was and after a bit of a drive he found it without much trouble.  We originally planned for a quick tour, they told us they had a restaurant so we hoped we could just have a bit of a sit down and a share our experiences of Siem Reap whilst our driver waited.  In reality the organisation was much bigger and much more professional than we had expected.  Having shown a picture of the teacher to a member of staff, they lead us to him where he was overseeing one of his I.T. classes.  He was pleased to see us and asked us if we wanted to visit the young people we met on the bus and mentioned that they were in a class nearby.  Not wanting to disrupt lessons, we said we were happy to wait but he practically insisted that we go in so after a few words with their teacher who was happy to step out as they were doing independent project work and after all it was an English class. 

The students gave us an amazing welcome and crowded around us in that warm ignorance of personal space that I have grown to love about Cambodians.  We were chatting to so many of them that it was physically and mentally exhausting!  They all asked us if we remembered them and of course we said yes.  We talked about Siem Reap and where we had been in Phnom Penh.  Having run out of things to talk about (the teacher had left about half an hour ago) I decided to go through some English with them based on the posters on the wall in my best mock-teacher fashion.  Kate then went through a few numbers and finally a boy stood up, we took our seats and they taught us some more Khmer.  We then took a lot of pictures, showed them how to use the camera and let them get on with taking a few themselves.  It was a wonderful and heart-warming experience.  Afterwards, members of staff invited us to watch a football match that was taking place that evening which we gladly did.  We left feeling like royalty and we were both very impressed with the establishment.
The IT teacher we met on the coach

One of the students getting friendly with Kate

I love this picture

One of their photographs just playing around

After the bell rang they all sang the national anthem before departing

The football match after school
After the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, we decided that we definitely needed some beach time and headed South West to the coastline of Sihanoukville.

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