Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

(Emily) When we awoke the next morning in Kratie, Juan was still feeling in need of rest after the Cambodian wilderness adventure so he decided to stay on another day or so whereas we resolved to get ourselves to Phnom Penh. It was another boring day of riding on straight roads in the heat and dust (with yet more slash and burn in evidence), and this time we had the added delight of some pretty erratic driving from our fellow road-users, dare I say, ‘Indian-style’ driving… (James: Funnily enough we had both already commented on how ‘Indian’ it felt as we rode along. The people looked less south east Asian and much more southern Indian, and wore what could only be described as traditional southern Indian clothes.) It was the first time in a while that we had to be on high alert for kamikaze bus drivers and errant mopeds, and it’s amazing how the mental energy required drains you so much more that the physical act of riding alone. All in all, not a fun day on the road. About 40km from the centre of Phnom Penh, the traffic jams started so we were a couple of sweaty betties by the time we made it into the centre, though on the plus side, riding in through the traffic was a lot less scary than the more open main road had been – equally crazy driving but much more manageable at slower speeds. We found a street chock full of guesthouses but almost all of them were quoting $18 and above for a simple double (I guess that’s the way it goes being the capital city). We really didn’t want to head out into the traffic again to find another place which would just as likely be the same price (or more as you got nearer the river) so in the end, went back to the only place asking $10; we’d originally dismissed it as it had no parking, not even on the street. However, it was run by a bunch of giggling young women who were very friendly and they moved a bit of furniture around so we could ride in through the bar (James: always fun seeing the surprised look on the faces of any customers enjoying a beer!) We inched our way in and parked up against the wall right next to the pool table; result!

Phnom Penh itself is a lot more developed and cosmopolitan than we’d expected. Just the road where we were staying hosted about fifteen very cool European style café/bars and there were plenty of trendy clothes shops (‘Just keep walking, Emily’…) The guidebooks were full of temples and markets to visit but, being all ‘templed out’, the main thing that interested us was learning more about the terrible atrocities committed in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot’s regime. James already knew quite a lot about the short but devastating rule of the Khmer Rouge (he is the fountain, after all) but I was fairly unaware of this period in history. Well, I was certainly to learn a lot over the next 24 hours. In 1975, following years of civil war, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (members of which were known as the Khmer Rouge), led by Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia and proceeded to subject the country to radical social reforms in an attempt to create a completely classless, self-sufficient, agrarian based society. The Khmer Rouge were extreme in their communist views and resorted to equally extreme measures in order to enforce their ideology. Within days of the start of the new regime, the entire population of all cities, including the capital, were forcibly evacuated (urban dwellers were seen as corrupted) and their inhabitants marched out to the countryside (regardless of age, sex etc) where they were made to labour on farms. Furthermore, money was abolished and books destroyed, whilst schools, banks and even hospitals were all closed down.

The Khmer Rouge was largely made up of uneducated rural peasants but increasingly, children were recruited into the regime as they were seen as ‘pure’, untainted by the greed, knowledge, and views of their ‘capitalist’ influenced parents and more likely to be utterly loyal to ‘Brother Number One’ as Pol Pot was known. These children were essentially brainwashed to reject the concept of family and were often ordered to kill relatives to demonstrate their devotion to the Khmer Rouge and its ideals. Stark evidence of further atrocities carried out by the regime are still to be found at Tuol Sleng prison, a fifteen minute walk from where we staying. Better known as Security Prison 21 (or S-21), this former high school building was commandeered and used by the Khmer Rouge to detain, interrogate and torture anyone seen as enemies of the regime. The crimes of those arrested?  ‘Capitalist activity’ (James: a sufficiently broad and generic term that effectively meant anything the Khmer Rouge wanted) or ‘free trade’, though the list of those deemed a threat quickly escalated to include anyone with any education or professional training; ‘signs’ of intellectualism included speaking a foreign language, having soft ‘unlaboured’ hands or even wearing glasses (the irony being that Pol Pot and other senior figures in the regime were educated at universities in Paris and spoke French). Other perceived ‘subversive elements’ included members of the former government, civil servants, teachers, policemen,  and those practising religion (Buddhists monks, Muslims, Catholics, and ethnic minorities from  Vietnam, China and Thailand were all arrested). In the four years of the regime, over 17,000 such people were held at S-21 alone (there were many other detention centres but S-21 being in the capital, is the most notorious). There they were subjected to torture and degradation before being summarily executed.

Today, S-21 is the ‘Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum’ – chillingly frozen in time to leave the visitor in no doubt of the horrors that occurred there. We walked through dozens of rooms containing just a iron bed frame, shackles and various crude weapons or implements for torture, while enlarged photographs on the walls depicted that very same bed with an emaciated, bloodied body slumped on it, not always clear whether alive or dead. The rooms have been left completely as found, including large ominous dark reddish-brown stains on the floors underneath and around the beds. Yes, it seems that the Khmer Rouge took real  pride in documenting their barbarity (they also took head shots of every single prisoner that entered the prison, now on display in the museum: row upon row of thousands of men, women, children (including babies) and even a few European faces all sitting in the same chair. Barbed wire is still in place along the front of the classrooms on the upper floors – installed to stop prisoners from taking the more favourable option of committing suicide by jumping – and many of the rooms contain hastily constructed make-shift partitions which formed tiny coffin shaped cells where prisoners would spend all day, everyday in complete silence, only being let out for interrogation or to be executed. It was a chilling and depressing experience to walk the halls where such atrocities had taken place just three decades ago.

Such was the volume of prisoners coming through the prison – let’s face it, pretty much anyone could be found guilty of some ‘crime’ or another, not to mention the fact that towards the end, increasing levels of mass paranoia even led to the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge itself being accused – the orchestrators of S-21 devised a convenient method for dispatching their victims. They were trucked out to sites outside of Phnom Penn at night, known collectively as the ‘killing fields’, executed and buried in mass graves. Some prisoners were even thrown in atop the bodies and buried alive, and babies were swung by their feet against trees, all to save bullets (James: and in the case of infants, to prevent them from growing up and avenging their parents). It was, and I’m aware of what an understatement  this is, horrendous. Following our sobering visit to Tuol Sleng, we went to one such site, Choeung Ek, located on the outskirts of the city, now a memorial dedicated to those who died so needlessly. Formally an orchard, it is thought that at least 17,000 people were executed at Choeung Ek, the vast majority of whom were prisoners at S-21. The site now is a peaceful oasis of green – at first glance a pleasant place to have a stroll in the shade of the trees – but closer inspection reveals placards marking dozens of sunken beds were thousands of bodies were discovered in unmarked mass graves, some containing the remains of several hundred bodies. Nearby there is also a commemorative stupa in the grounds where over 5000 skulls of victims are displayed. It was difficult to comprehend that this is all part of such recent history; perhaps deep down we want to believe that this kind of thing was done before our time, in less ‘enlightened’ ages, so are more shocked when faced with the harsh reality that it does (James: sadly we don’t learn and it continues, more recently in Rwanda, and currently in Darfur and DRCongo). Information at the small museum at the grounds was somewhat lost in translation and quite difficult to follow, and there seemed to be no information regarding the consequences for the perpetrators except to say that many of the regime leaders had died and that Comrade ‘Duch’, the chief of the S-21 prison, was put on trial for crimes against humanity in 2007. Overall, we didn’t really get the sense of an appetite to prosecute those involved. Perhaps the collective conscience of the country focuses on  honouring the memories of the victims rather than seeking persecution of the people responsible simply because so many Cambodians still alive today have culpability; anyone over the age of 40 or so is likely to have been involved to some extent on one side or the other.

Needless to say, we were shocked and saddened by everything we read and saw. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge were eventually ousted in 1979 after the Vietnamese army invaded. With the liberation of the city imminent, the guards at S-21 quickly abandoned their posts for fear of capture, though not before following out orders to liquidise all remaining prisoners; Vietnamese soldiers arrived at the prison to find fourteen bodies all bearing signs of torture and a hasty execution. The graves of these last victims are situated in the former school playground, yet another reminder of the horrors that occurred there. Only seven people are known to have survived the living hell that was Tuel Sleng. All possessing skills of some sort another, they were picked out by high ranking officials to perform their bidding, such as painting portraits of the leaders, documenting prisoners’ statements or taking photographs. Their testimonies make for harrowing reading. To date more than 20,000 mass grave sites have been identified throughout the country, containing the remains of an estimated 1.3 million victims of the regime. By the time the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, almost 2.5 million Cambodians had died, either killed by the regime or due to disease and starvation, the result of the disastrous failure of Pol Pot’s  master plan. This figure becomes even more incredible given that the total population of the country had only been an estimated 8 million!

We left Phnom Penh, shocked and, unsurprisingly, subdued but certainly glad that we’d learnt more about what had happened to the Cambodian people and buoyed by the fact that on the surface, at least, they seemed happy and eager to move on towards a more positive future. We were also excited as our next port of call would be far less sinister – we’re were heading to Siem Reap and the world famous Ankor Wat!…

For recent photos click here.

8 Responses to “Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields”

  1. Mary says:

    Sobering thoughts

    Love Mary

  2. The Littlewoods says:

    Good to talk yesterday, looking forward to seeing you both next Friday.
    D,S,M and D.

  3. julian says:

    What kind of madness in Cambodia?
    Looks like you are going to Australia. Have a great time there and best wishes to all of them.

  4. Clive says:

    Great blog guys ,just finshed reading the lot,very informative,as me an the mrs are planninga trip like this but in reverse,if coming to oz there a place to stay here if you want(so we can gleen more info off you)
    Keep safe clive n chris

  5. Mama/Kate says:

    I read this blog several days ago. what can one say? Not really any adequate comments come to mind. As Mary says, sobering thoughts. Haunting. Cambodia’s holocaust. Much as the capacity for sheer evil is utterly sickening, what is astounding is the resilience of the human character in the face of unspeakable atrocities.

  6. jackson says:

    Hi guys.
    What always puzzled me about cambodia’s appalling history is how little the average person knows of what went on there. I don’t know how much press it recieved in the West at the time, but as a holocaust, it certainly wasn’t on my high school history syllbus. Same could be said about Dafur and Congo I guess.
    We’re all more interested in hearing about Bin Laden assassination.
    btw – i wonder how close you guys rode to Abbottabad (where his compound was raided)??

    saw Massimo and Alex at Motovarese the other day, they send their best wishes and Alex was saying how he reads your blog…..but has to limit himself to avoid too much jealousy!


  7. Mama/Kate says:

    I totally understand where you’re coming from Jackson. We’ve all been made aware of The Holocaust but I doubt many are ‘au fait’ with the Killing Fields’ atrocities. And the sad fact is that this crap stuff is still going on somewhere in this ‘small world’ of ours.

  8. Motoventurers says:

    Jack, you’re absolutely right. It seems that because it’s not an issue that directly affected western countries it, like elsewhere, gets ignored. The Cambodians’ cause wasn’t helped by a few additional factors – namely that western powers and particularly the USA were a tad traumatized so had no wish to get involved in a conflict in SE Asia so soon after the Vietnam War. Worse than that, and something you’ll struggle to find much information about; the Khmer Rouge were actually supported with money and equipment for more than 10 years after they were ousted by the vietnamese by Thailand, China and the USA, all of whom were more concerned with curtailing communist Vietnam’s influence in the region.

    As for Bin Laden – we had a good look at the map after we heard the news – we actually rode right past the compound (we remember passing the military academy) and actually spent the night at a guesthouse in Abottabad about 500 metres from him!!! If only we’d known – we could have done with the $25 million reward!

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