When we left Vietnam in an over- crowded, small bus, I hadn’t anticipated the hours it would take to get to Phnom Penh over bombed out roads with huge craters in them.
It was a gruelling 10 hour drive in what was supposed to be 5 hours and 12 minutes.
There were no bathroom breaks and when we did stop it was at the side of the road. I was horrified at having to squat in front of a bunch of smiling school children. Something that did not shock or surprise any of them. They just smiled and waved and edged up closer and closer as I pee’d.
We finally pulled into the city at night and , as the haze and dust cleared, there were dozens of people waiting for us. They were all yelling and holding signs for various hotels. We were shell shocked and ended up finally just following a beckoning and earnest fellow who led us to a car.
He took us to a relatively expensive hotel ,by Cambodian standards, at a crazy $30.00 US per night. It was nice and modern and was the closest thing to a low budget hotel in America that we had seen so far in South East Asia.
We showered and went to bed and when the sun came out we headed out to see the city.
Phnom Penh was once referred to as the “pearl of the Orient” but the beautiful French Colonial architecture was now partially covered by tin advertising and the parts that were exposed were flaking, rotting and dirty. There was garbage in alley ways and sewage on the streets. The motorbikes sped along spewing black smoke as they weaved in and out and around pedestrians. Sometimes you would glimpse something grand from the past in an old hotel but for the most part the city was trying to build new and cheap buildings and forget its glamour from the 1960’s …before the reign, destruction and ruin of Pol Pot. I did not feel the same comfort and love that I felt in Vietnam. I was nervous and felt unsafe. I was always making sure I was aware of my surroundings as we walked along the streets and avoided any out of the way areas. I heard later that crime is rampant and the city is indeed not safe.
Nixon’s secret bombings of Cambodia over a four year period kept the government busy and gave the Khmer Rouge the opportunity to build in numbers and finally storm the city on April 17, 1975; taking over the government.
Pol Pot was a political leader whose Khmer Rouge government ruled from 1975 until 1979 and committed the most barbaric and horrendous genocide in recent history. They systematically tortured, starved, shot, butchered and overworked over 2 million Cambodians in an effort to wipe out intellectuals, educated specialists, ethnic Vietnamese and religious leaders. In the end 2 million people were dead and the middle class was wiped out. The notorious S-21 Detention Centre had only 7 survivors out of the 20,000 who were dragged in and tortured.
If it hadn’t been for some journalists ,like Syndey Schanberg who refused to leave during the fall of Phnom Penh and took refuge in the French Embassy, along with his Cambodian photographer Dith Pran, the world would not have eventually known and seen the chaos and blood shed that was happening. Dith Pran was left behind when Sydney was allowed to walk across the border into Thailand and his harrowing story of survival was eventually shown in the film “The Killing Fields”.
When the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and took over the government they cleared the city forcing everyone into the fields to work. No one was allowed to have any personal possessions and rules were made regarding clothing, sexual relations and what one was allowed to say or speak. The children were taken to re-education centers where they would learn that they would no longer answered to their parents but only to the system and then they were forced into the military. An area outside the city, later named the Killing Fields, was the final resting place for hundreds of people who were murdered and tossed into pits. There were thousands of mass graves all over Cambodia.
You cannot visit this country and not be aware of its history.
Day one we met a couple of guides with motorcycles who wanted to take us to The Killing Fields. We got on the bikes for the hour long trip out of the city. When we pulled into the area it looked calm and peaceful.
There were a couple of boys playing with slingshots and it seemed so tranquil. It was hard to believe what was inside this memorial.
As we walked up to the memorial we saw the hundreds of skulls piled in formation.
Every where you looked there were human bones on the ground and articles of bloody clothing spewing out of the earth.
There were men sitting by on benches whose families had been murdered here.
They talked quietly about their own survival and how they have never forgotten seeing their parents being murdered.
The killing fields now are home to cows who graze around the pits that once held hundreds of dead bodies.
It was a sobering journey to see this spot and I couldn’t stop thinking about the film “The Killing Fields” and what atrocities had taken place and how many people had died in this one spot. The only uplifting part of this trip was to see some smiling faces of surviving offspring and to sit with them and let them tell you their stories.
It was still early afternoon when we got back on the bikes with our guides and, since we had no plans, we were at their mercy to what we should do next.
Oddly enough, they took us away from the killing fields and onto a giant yard filled with old tires to go shoot weapons and throw hand grenades. I was completely shocked. It seemed like the worst idea after seeing such horrors that resulted from violence. I tried to tell them in English but they were adamant about us participating so… when in Rome. We went to an odd place in the middle of nowhere to find a bar where they handed you AK-47’s to fire. It was uncomfortable being around tourists who had a beer in one hand and a weapon in another.
Just when you think things can’t get anymore depressing and horrifying; onto day 3 where we visited Tuol Sleng School which is now called “The Genocide Museum”. This school was occupied by the Khmer Rouge and became the notorious S-21 Detention Centre. It was a harrowing experience to go through this place because it is still intact and left as it was. It is where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed anyone who was thought to be capable of fighting the new system. When we arrived and saw the building, the hair on my arms and neck stood up. I felt like there were many ghosts and spirits trapped there.
We entered the building and saw the remains of those who were murdered inside its walls. More skulls. Everywhere we went there seemed to be human remains.
Walking through the dilapidated halls it was silent and eerie.
There were small brick enclosures where people had been separated and shackled.
Rooms of torture were on display with pictures of how each room was used.
They were meticulous record keepers as well and there were photographs of foreigners who had the misfortune of just being in Cambodia at the wrong time. There was a photo of an Australian yachtsman, David Lloyd Scott and a British teacher, John Dewhirst, who were kidnapped, tortured and killed.
There were glimpses of this once being a school with its checkered floors and pastel walls but you could no longer imagine children running through this place. It was grim, blood stained and horrifying.
We left there feeling like we had seen the worst of mankind.
After three days of horrors in Phnom Penh I was ready to get out of Dodge. I hadn’t had a moment of not feeling sick or incredibly sad… or frightened. I needed a different experience. We managed to hear about a French couple who owned a restaurant off the beaten path. We somehow found it and it was really a bit of paradise. It sat on a large dock on the water and the thatched roof had diaphanous white fabric draped off the sides that fluttered in the night wind. The white candle-lit tables touched on an elegance we hadn’t seen since we arrived in South East Asia. We ate frogs legs that had been sauteed in teriyaki and butter and then grilled.
French food in Cambodia isn’t that hard to find but great french food is always hard to find. We had a salad and and some petite potatoes. I was thrilled. To celebrate I had my first cocktail and then another. The night was filled with laughter and it felt like a load was lifted off of my shoulders and my body finally unclenched itself and relaxed.
Later that night I was barfing, shitting and hallucinating. Yes… I had broken my number one rule of not drinking anything with ice in it just in case the water isn’t purified. Fortunately I had brought along a pill from my Dr., just in case this very thing happened, and 12 hours later I was feeling well enough to venture out. It was a good thing because we had decided to move on to our next stop which would be one of the most amazing man made wonders of the world… ANGKOR WAT.
STAY TUNED!! And thanks for reading.