This morning’s tour was due to depart at 08:00, but the guest house doesn’t have a restaurant, so we’d agreed with Marc, Amelia, Pete and Ana to meet up at 07:00 to go in search of food. The Intrepid Foundation restaurant was shut, so we found a place that looked decent and ordered food. It came to a Cambodian timetable (i.e. leisurely and in no particular order) which meant that Pete and Ana went back to warn the group that the rest of us might be late. In the end we made the meeting point by 08:05 and weren’t the last people to show up.
This morning’s trip was to the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields. I had heard it was quite a powerful experience and the museum left us all fairly sombre. In the first building were individual cells were prisoners had been shackled to bed frames for interrogation. In most of the rooms there was a photograph taken by the Vietnamese who had liberated the prison at the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Each one showed, in thankfully fuzzy detail, the occupant they found in that room; all recently dead in squalid conditions.
The second building is mostly lined with photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of both prisoners and their own soldiers. Looking at just the faces themselves, it was hard to tell one set from the other; they were both ordinary faces, young men and women you saw on every street today. Unlike the movies, the evildoers are not necessarily marked out with an evil face. I wondered how many of them thought they were doing good, or at least necessary, things when they beat and killed people.
The Khmer Rouge knew one truth at least; if you want to change society, you need to start with the children. Education is important! Our society should take note; knowledge and reason is needed to overcome the well-intentioned, but completely wrong philosophies of people like Pol Pot and others. A thorough education is becoming a luxury in too many countries these days!
The final building showed the cells that prisoners were held in; classrooms (prison S21 was a hurriedly converted school) with sloppily built brick walls dividing them into two rows of cells around four feet wide. They reminded me of stock pens at a sheep-dip or abattoir. Each one had an empty ammunition box in which would have been the prisoner’s chamber pot – emptied only weekly. Further into the building there were paintings done by one of the survivors depicting the treatment of prisoners; women having their babies taken and children beaten, dead bodies being carried off as you might carry a slaughtered deer back from the hunt, people bound in the most uncomfortable ways being tortured and having their throats cut. The last room in this block contained cabinets of skulls and bones, some of them labelled to illustrate the different methods of killing people. In the centre of all this carnage there was a small stupa surrounded by flowers and burning incense; some kind of prayer for the dead to ease the burden of this knowledge on the living.
From Tuol Sleng we went on to the Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”, a previously secluded rural area, formerly an old Chinese cemetery, that the Khmer Rouge used as an execution ground for thousands of their citizens. The place catches you a little by surprise emotionally. Today you enter through a gate into a nicely kept garden leading you to the huge white memorial stupa. The stupa has glass walls behind which are displayed row upon row of the skulls of the dead but, while somewhat morbid, it is clean and designed and known.
When you walk beyond the stupa you leave the garden for a wilder landscape of grassy hillocks and depressions. The depressions are where the mass graves have been excavated and they are mostly fenced off, but in reality this whole place is a giant mass grave. Our guide stopped us and pointed down to the earth path we were walking to show us the end of a bone protruding, not far away there was the shiny metal cylinder of a bullet shell emerging as the foot traffic has worn away the earth covering it. Around the base of a tree there were dirty rags, some of them still half-buried; the clothing of the victims. As you walk around this site, you are constantly walking over the dead.
Dotted around the site are Perspex cases filled with the other bones that have been discovered since the excavations concluded. Already, on top of each case, there is a small pile of additional bones and rags which have come to the surface with time. No-one knows exactly how many people died here.
Brett was in tears as we finished walking around the grounds. All of us were subdued.
At the end of the paths through the grounds is a small building exhibiting some of the executioners’ tools (all simple implements) and some information about the tribunals set up to bring the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice. The final room shows a film which is so badly made and in such an inappropriate style that it rather jolted us out of our emotional morasses; we stopped dwelling on the actual killing and began to wonder how anyone could think the movie was an appropriate way to memorialise the events here. It moved us on.
Eventually we all congregated back at the coach and drove back into the centre of town for lunch and to pick up our bags from the guest house.
We were heading out of town towards our “rural homestay”. As we drove through the suburbs of Phnom Penh I was struck again by some of the incongruities in this country. There is dirt and rubbish and poor hygiene everywhere, there is incredible poverty and yet in between the ramshackle stalls that line the roadside, piled high with vegetables or bottled water, you can come across one selling the finest looking cakes you have ever seen; a display that would not be out of place on the streets of Paris. Further down the road there is a gleaming new Honda showroom, with fifty or so brand new motorbikes lined-up for sale. Everywhere we have been so far, there have been shiny SUVs on the road. It looks like the Range Rover is the vehicle everyone aspires to own and yet most of the people we have met have been earning at most $50-60 dollars a month – and many much less than that. I wonder at the distribution of wealth here. One party has been in power for decades and there seems to be no prospect of change.
Our accommodation for the night was a small farming community, west of Phnom Penh. It seems that there is a kind of eco-tourism deal going on whereby some NGO has struck a deal with the community to stop (reduce?) illegal logging in return for bringing tourist dollars into the area and investing in the community. We had dinner in an open-air community centre, cooked by the local women, and afterwards were given a talk on how the community works, followed by a display of Cambodian Dance by the sons and daughters.
Before bed we had a chance to talk to our Cambodian host family through Panha. It seems the family have never lived or been far from where they are now; their parents had lived locally and, after some time displaced by the Khmer Rouge, everyone came back to rebuild the village. The husband said he had a little reading/writing ability but his wife did not. Their children had gone to school though – but only until they married. The married ones all lived locally too.
The questions they asked us were in a similar vein; were we married, how many children did we have. Children are important here with no welfare state and a whole generation dead under the Khmer Rouge, about 50% of the population are under twenty-two years old.
There was some confusion when it came time for bed. Our group was divided between two houses with six in one and ten in the other. I don’t think our host family were expecting to need to sleep ten as they only had mattresses laid out for six. In the end more mattresses and mosquito nets were borrowed from next door. All the ladies shared the big room, Brett and I had a small room to ourselves and Tim slept on the balcony under the stars.
I rather envied him that location; the night sky was beautiful with stars and the noise of the countryside was soothing whereas, even with all the windows and the door open and a good breeze blowing, our room was still stuffy and humid. There was no way to hold the window shutters open, so they blew about and creaked loudly in the breeze and kept waking me up. In the morning though Tim did comment that the breeze on the balcony was so strong that it kept blowing the mosquito net off him. He ended up sleeping wrapped tightly in a blanket to avoid being eaten. Perhaps we had the better location after all.