Thursday, 8 September 2011

Diving into Cambodia's dark history in Phnom Penh

Well, after a rather relaxing bus ride from Saigon, we arrived in Phnom Penh!  The contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia is pretty striking: a lot of dirt roads, potholes, and garbage on the streets.  We were dropped off at a busy market in downtown Phnom Penh, and since the guest house was theoretically quite close we decided to forgo a tuk-tuk and walk.  Of course, the tuk-tuk drivers are quite aggressive in trying to get our business, and one driver followed us for blocks yelling at us that we shouldn't be walking.  While the streets are numbered and in a grid pattern, they were incredibly confusing and we thought we got lost a few times.  Thank goodness we had a compass so that we knew we were at least walking in the right direction!  We surprisingly ended up on the correct street, and found our guest house without too many more problems.  The owner was incredibly awesome, giving us lots of great advice and pointed us to an amazing vegetarian restaurant where we stuffed our guts for only $5!  Brilliant!

Since we only had a day and a half in town, we had to make the most of our time and so immediately set out to explore the city.  We spent a few hours walking around, watching the sights before we almost fainted of hunger and finally hunted down some dinner.  The past few weeks there has been a lot of talk of food between me and Greg... at this point of desperate hunger we were imagining Christmas dinner, and I am quite convinced I would have stolen the entire pot of mashed potatoes and made a get-away.  But what I would do for some good chocolate and a bottle of wine....

Ok, anyways, back to some of the sights we saw on that first afternoon and evening:

Sunset over the Royal Palace

This temple is not for sale, so don't even think about it.  (I have no idea what this sign was really for)

Wat Phnom, a temple on the only hill in Phnom Penh (only 27m high, so not even much of a hill!).  The locals come here to pray for good luck

Our second day, it was off to the Killing Fields and the old prison of the Khmer Rouge.  A bit of history first: after an invasion into Cambodia during the Vietnam war, where Cambodia was heavily bombed, a civil war occurred which the communists eventually won in 1975.  This group of communists was known as the Khmer Rouge, and within 3 days of taking Phnom Penh, the entire population was forced to leave the cities and head to the countryside for absolutely gruelling labour.  They worked for 12-15 hours a day, subsisting on watery gruel with a few grains of rice.  The communists tried to create an entire revolution in a few days, abolishing currency and property ownership.  Everyone was forced to work in the fields, and any intellectuals or disobedient people were immediately executed.  It's estimated that at least 1.7 million people were killed during this genocide.

The killing fields were where any dissidents (and I'm sure many innocently accused people) along with their families (men, women, children) were taken to be killed.  Their bodies were dumped in mass graves and then covered in horribly toxic chemicals like DDT to kill any survivors as well as try to mask the smell of the rotting corpses.  The pictures of the excavation of this site were astonishing; so many skeletons.  There is a memorial tower there today containing the skulls of over 8000 victims.  The fields today are so peaceful and beautiful, it is really hard to imagine what actually happened there.

Skulls in the memorial tower

Memorial tower.

When it rains, bones and teeth are often uncovered.  Here is a tooth lying in the dirt, recently washed out by the rain.  There were also bits of bone surfacing as well.

Our second stop was to the Tuol Sleng Museum, which was a prison used by the Khmer Rouge.  It was a former high school, with the four buildings converted into cells and torture chambers.  It was a very disturbing place.  It was turned into a museum in 1979, right after the Khmer Rouge regime fell, so it was quite unchanged from then.  

One of the cells where victims were tortured.  There were some very grim photos on the wall of the bodies that were found there.  The metal boxes on the bed were used as toilets.

One of the classrooms turned into a series of cells.  These cells were tiny, and very hastily erected with sloppy brick and mortar.

I will not show any more photos, since it was quite a disturbing place.  There were row upon row upon row of boards containing photos of all the people that were killed after passing through Tuol Slueng.  Only 7 people survived this prison.  

After this visit, we headed to a very peaceful, beautiful restaurant just across the street, which was absolute words away from the horror we'd seen.  I had the most amazing sandwich here, with melted brie and grilled vegetables. YUM!  Worth every cent of the $3.85 it cost!

I'm surprised I'm not drooling in this photo.

Next stop: Angkor Wat to see some of the most spectacular archeological ruins on earth!!  And a much happier visit than our upsetting sights in Phnom Penh.

1 comment:

  1. I am learning so much history from your blog! If only they could have taught me social studies this way...I would have certainly paid attention!

    Deakin and I walked by your old, old apartment on the weekend and he went bananas when we came up to it and pulled to your window. Then after a a few seconds of mad tail wagging he looked up at me with sad eyes. It was heart breaking! Who says that dogs only have scent memories?? There is no way there was any smell there. But I guess if his memory was really good he should remember that you moved out of there a long log time ago...