Phnom Penh: Killing Fields and S-21

After spending a week in Vietnam it was time to move on to our next destination, Cambodia. Ho Chi Minh is only about 6 hours from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and after a little research we decided that taking a bus was our best option. Our tickets cost us about $11 each, and the bus was comfortable and air conditioned. At the border the bus driver takes everyone’s passport along with a $35 USD visa fee, and does all the legwork for you.

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We arrived in Phnom Penh at 10 o’clock at night, which wasn’t an ideal time. Cambodia is still considered a third world country, and it has been through hell and back in the last 40 years. Poverty is a huge reality for some residents, and bag snatchers and robberies are common. It is advised that you don’t take any valuables around with you, and if you do, make sure they are well secured. While we were in Vietnam we had overheard a man with a cast on his leg telling someone that him and his girlfriend were riding a scooter in Phnom Penh in the middle of the day down a busy road when someone on another scooter came up behind them and ripped the bag off his girlfriend’s back. During the commotion they fell of their bike and he broke his leg. Needless to say when we were dropped off in the dark with all of our belongings on our backs, we were a little wary. Luckily we met Don, a very nice tuk-tuk driver who brought us to our hostel with no issues.

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Our agenda for the next day was to dive into some history. We met up with Don again (it is common in Cambodia for tuk-tuk drivers to stick with you for your entire trip if you wish, and we were lucky to have such an awesome guide) who helped us move to another hostel. We had stayed at 88Backpackers, a hostel with a party vibe and a swimming pool, but it wasn’t really our scene. We’ve come to find out that family run guesthouses are our thing, as they are usually cheaper and have a more authentic and friendly feel. When that was said and done we set off in Don’s tuk-tuk for Choeung Ek, otherwise known as the Killing Fields.

In the 70’s a man named Pol Pot was the leader of a political group called the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot rose to power following the Cambodian Civil War. He gained popularity as a political leader with his plan to make Cambodia into a form of Agrarian Socialism. He praised the rural labourers and felt educated city types such as teachers and doctors were not necessary. He sent everyone to work in the rural areas, mostly farm labour, leaving Pnomh Penh and other urban areas virtually deserted. He eradicated education, health care, religion, currency and more. In addition to forced labour he used torture and orchestrated mass executions to move towards his new plan.

It is estimated nearly 2 million people were killed during Pol Pot’s reign from 1975-1979, a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Over 20,000 mass graves have been unearthed, known as killing fields. The most well know killing field is Choeung Ek, about 17 km from Phnom Penh.

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Almost 9000 bodies were found here after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. The self-guided audio tour explains what the victims went through and how they were killed. In the middle of the fields stands a monument called a stupa, that is filled with more than 5000 human skulls, bones, and clothing extracted from the site. Each skull has a colour coded dot that explains how that victim was killed. Not even children and infants were spared. Pol Pot believed if he let them live they might one day seek revenge. Most victims were beaten to death because bullets were to expensive. Throughout the site there are pits from where the bodies were extracted. Bone fragments are still found on the grounds today. It was an interesting but heartbreaking experience, and we still had one more stop.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21. It is a former high school that was turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge to house political prisoners before they were taken to be killed. Pol Pot arrested anyone who he thought opposed him, and in the early months of S-21’s existence most of the prisoners included soldiers, government officials, teachers, doctors, students, factory workers, monks, and engineers. The victims were tortured into admitting to crimes they hadn’t committed. Electric shock, waterboarding, and pulling off fingernails were common torture methods. Sick experiments took place, such as draining the victims blood just to see how long they would survive.

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Its hard to comprehend that the rest of the world was largely unaware this tragedy was happening, and when it was known the response was minimal. It wasn’t until 2003 that the UN formed the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). A court established to help the Cambodian government persecute the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge. It hardly feels like any justice has been served. Pol Pot died at home in 1998.

The whole day hit us pretty hard. To learn about this tragedy in the comfort of your own home would be difficult enough. But to hear it from the Cambodian people, stand on the soil where it happened and see the remains of the victims was all to real.

Don brought us back to the guest house late afternoon. We met an American family who were living and working in Phnom Penh. They suggested a retaurant around the corner. A Mexican place believe it or not. The nachos and margaritas hit the spot, we called it a night shortly after. Tomorrow we head to Siem Reap.

 

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