This story contains graphic content that some may find disturbing.
134 days travelling and we came face to face with the harsh and shocking reality of the Cambodian genocide.
3rd – 5th February 2019 (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
Sheepishly standing on the side of a main road in Siem Reap, we started to worry that our minibus was never going to arrive. Every other minute we’d see one hurtling towards us, only to turn down a side street at the last second. Eventually ours showed up and we jumped on, clutching our bags on our laps as there wasn’t enough space to store them. After driving around town for half an hour or so, we pulled up on the other side of the river, where we were told we had to change minibus for some unidentifiable reason. Thoroughly confused, we all disembarked and boarded our new bus and were glad that we managed to sneakily grab some space for our bags this time.
The rest of the journey was rather uneventful, with the exception of our driver and his obsession with watching videos on his phone instead of paying attention to the road – all while driving at break neck speeds. Around the half way point, we stopped at a slightly suspect looking restaurant and were thankful we had remembered to bring snacks with us. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t quite convince my wife to sample any of the fried cockroaches, as lovely as they looked garnished with chillis and spring onion.
Just outside of the capital, we made one last stop that was clearly a money spinner for the driver. For some reason everyone seemed keen to buy things, so we left them to it whilst we sat on the bus (like the grumpy old couple that we are). When we finally jumped off at the other end we flagged down a tuk tuk and made our way to our hotel. Before we had even gone around the corner, our driver was shouting repeatedly in alarm and when I looked up a moped smashed into the side of us with an almighty crack. Luckily, because of the angle of our tuk tuk, he bounced off like a pinball. This must be a regular occurrence as neither party seemed that phased by it and drove off almost immediately after realising no one was hurt. The moped driver had been staring at his phone, like a lot of people seem to do, whilst driving straight over a crossroad.
The main reason we had come to Phnom Penh was to visit S-21 interrogation and detention center (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) and the killing fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Center). Unlike a lot of other tourists, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to take any photos whilst visiting either of these places, mostly out of respect to the victims and their families. I was vaguely aware of the infamous Cambodian genocide beforehand, but nothing can really prepare you for just how brutal and unforgiving it really was. Under the dictatorship of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime had forcibly taken power in the mid 1970s and wiped out almost a quarter of the population in an attempt to create their vision of a ‘utopian society’, with horrific consequences.
On our arrival to the killing fields, around an hours drive from the city centre, we were immediately confronted by a towering memorial. As we got closer, we could see hundreds of human skulls which were enclosed within its glass walls, all remains from the nearby graves. There are over 40 mass graves on this particular site, most of which have been left untouched. As a result, almost every time it rains or some soil is moved, fragments of bones and small rags of clothing break through to the surface. These are routinely collected by staff, as these objects appear so often – we saw several first hand as we walked around the graves. The place is eerily quiet and peaceful considering the atrocities that took place here, and there were several spots where we could sit and listen to the harrowing stories from survivors on the audio guide or just contemplate the events that had taken place here.
Bullets were considered a valuable resource – this meant that victims were often killed using everyday objects such as farming tools and even jagged palm leaves. Loud music was played through megaphones as a means of covering up the noises of these nighttime atrocities and by far the most chilling part of the site was an old tree that was used to beat babies to death. Sadly, either through sheer ignorance or lack of care, there were several people who kept trampling over graves just to get a photo of a tree stump (of all things).
As we left to go to our next destination, our driver offered, rather insensitively I must say, to take us to a nearby shooting range. My wife didn’t understand what he was asking and I quickly dismissed it in shock. Our next stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known at S-21. The centre actually used to be a school, all of which were closed down during the regime, and turned into a makeshift interrogation and detention centre. It was unnerving walking into the site that on its face still looked like a typical school. As you enter the different rooms, you quickly saw the horrors that were hidden within.
Various rooms held nothing but an iron bed with chains used for interrogations. On the walls of some of these rooms were graphic photographs of murdered prisoners as they had been found, some still chained to the beds. The rooms had been left largely in the state they had been found, with the original beds in place and blood stains on the floor. Moving on through the rooms, we found many were divided into hastily constructed cells often with barely any room to stand and barbed wire covered the front of the buildings to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping.
On the ground floors of the centre were hundreds of photographs of prisoners who were kept here, eerily similar to photos at places like Auschwitz. We were struck by just how many photos there were, including photos of very young children and even babies. The ground floor also housed examples of instruments used to torture prisoners, as well as testimonials from a handful of survivors. We even saw one of the few survivors who was sitting outside the centre talking to visitors. It was certainly an educational, yet extremely sobering trip. I’m grateful we took the time to visit and learn more about the tragedy that had such a profound impact on the country you see today.
As a belated birthday present we had treated ourselves to a rather upmarket hotel called the TeaHouse. Therefore we spent the rest of our time in the capital mainly lounging around the swimming pool. However, we would venture out every so often to either Backyard Cafe or Artillery Arts Cafe – two equally great eateries, both of which had good gluten free offerings. As it was Chinese New Year, we also tried to find some form of dragon dance but failed miserably, much to my wife’s dismay. On our final morning we decided to take a stroll down to the river and skirt around the outside of the Royal Palace, which was beautiful. It seemed like a rather fitting end to our time here in Cambodia.
Until next time.
P.S. For Chinese New Year our hotel left two envelopes on our bed, each containing money. I got a little excited until I realised it was worth 0.037p.