“You’re going to be walking on the dead bodies, so I’ll ask you to meditate with me before we continue.”
That was the first remark made by a tour guide in Phnom Penh at my first destination. WAIT- Let me rewind a bit first. I left Sihanoukville and boarded a bus headed toward Phnom Penh. The 5 hour ride left me exhausted and after a restful night (and a Skype with my family) at my hotel, I hired a tuk-tuk to drive me around the next day. Our first stop was The Killing Fields, also known as Choeung Ek Genocidal center.
In the short time I’d spent in Cambodia, I’d been absolutely blown away by the gentle, warm and kind nature of almost every Cambodian I had met. They were all so generous and thoughtful and it was rare to walk a few minutes without being greeted by a local’s smiling face and friendly wave.
As I have said before, so many of these kind, smiling people had almost nothing to their name – and yet they seemed so open and joyful in their day to day lives.
The perpetual joyfulness of the Cambodian people is made even more extraordinary when you learn a little more about the atrocities that they have suffered in the past. Gaining a greater knowledge and understanding of these devastating war crimes was the focus of my day spent in the capital city, Phnom Penh.
This might seem like a history lesson but bear with me- its actually quite interesting.
The darkest years in Cambodia’s history were those of 1975 – 1979, when a radical Communist regime lead by a man called Pol Pot and known as the ‘Khmer Rouge’ seized control of the country. Almost immediately after forcing their way into power, they set about on devastating and merciless mission to completely destroy Cambodian society in order to rebuild a revolutionary ‘pure’ society from scratch.
The educated, cultured, foreigners and anyone who was suspected of having anti Khmer Rouge ideals were subject to merciless cruelty at the hands of their soldiers. Merely wearing glasses was considered a sign of intellect and could result in being arrested. It is estimated that by the time Vietnamese forces entered the country in 1979 close to two million people had died from a combination of executions and forced famine and disease at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.
They call it ‘dark tourism’ – travellers and tourists alike exploring the harder parts of history around the world. We walk there, offering whatever apologies we can as we make our way along the worn dirt paths between the patches of sunken grass, green as ever, trying to avoid being overcome by the experience.
It starts as you peer through the glass at the eight thousand skulls piled up within the tall, white stupa; skulls arranged by gender and age, bones protruding from the eyebrows telling stories of these people who had fallen. This was the result of the exhuming efforts which began in 1980 after Communist Vietnam toppled the Khmer Rouge regime. War torn commoners dug through the muck and the mud to recover the remains of those lost – they were not archaeologists or anthropologists, but simple people with the single goal of honouring the dead, trying to help their souls along for the reincarnation Buddhists believe they will achieve. Then they had to stop and try to let the law take over in an attempt to save Cambodia.
Once you begin to understand the sheer volume of people lost to the Killing Fields, you then have to take on more information in learning about the process of their death. The Khmer Rouge did not want their ways known and went to every length to hide their actions within the grounds. Truckloads of bound prisoners would arrive at the compound each day, bracing themselves against the loss of their futures. In a “standard” grave, prisoners would be forced to kneel along the edge of the shallow pit, in their queue, with each victim systematically bludgeoned to death with all manner of weaponry until all of them had fallen forward. Only once all of the bodies lie writhing, bruised and battered would the soldiers enter the pit to slit the throats of anyone believed to be still alive, using palm fronds and knives – whatever was at hand, really. It was inconsequential to them. Frighteningly, the sounds of the screams throughout the whole process were drowned out by giant loudspeakers hung from trees playing the revolutionary song on loop, both to reassert their power and control, and to hide the atrocities within.
I shuffled on along the dried brown dirt where thousands had walked before. It was then that I realised, horrifically, that I had indeed been walking on top of those bodies we meditated on earlier. I could find no escape from the shreds of fabric peering up from the ground, floated up to the surface by the heavy monsoonal rains. I saw one half of a jaw, its crescent-moon shape screaming up at me from the earth. I could no longer look ahead to my tour group or guide, but instead had to focus on trying to make my way out without causing further pain to those who had already lost everything. The white cast of a bone here, a dark shred of fabric there. Boxes stood at the side of the path, collection points for people to pick up the debris and store it for the future. There was no way I could do that.
I left quickly, knowing there was nothing I could do to have any kind of impact and it didn’t involve staying there to edge my way around the bones of thousands of tortured victims.
One of the other infamous sites of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities is the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh. The prison was located in a former primary school and was used as a site to hold and torture those who the Khmer Rouge had deemed a threat to their regime. The prison building has now been transformed into the Toul Sleng museum with an aim to educate locals and visitors of the atrocities of the prison as well as remembering those who suffered there in the years of the Khmer Rouge rule. Here is a sign from the regime- excuse the poor English, it has been translated from Khmer, to French and finally English.
This was also an incredibly sobering and shocking experience. Wandering from room to room, I was able to see some of the restraining devices and tools that had been used for the torturing of prisoners. Cruelly, prisoners were restrained and tortured for days at a time until they relented and agreed to sign fabricated confessions relaying their alleged betrayals to Pol Pots regime.
Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Regime meticulously and systematically recorded all of those who passed through the gates of S-21 prison to be subjected to the horrors inside. Every new prisoner admitted was photographed and recorded and many photographs were taken of those who died due to torture or sickness within the prison walls.
The frightened, haunted faces of the former prisoners stared out at me from the hundreds of photos that lined the inner walls of many of the chambers. Whilst viewing the shackles, knifes, clubs and other instruments of torture that were used during the interrogation of prisoners I couldn’t even begin to fathom the horrors they must have been subjected to.
Even for those who somehow manage to survive the horrors of S-21 there was little hope. Every few weeks, pickup trucks would be loaded with dozens of prisoners who had been told that they were be transferred to a new holding facility. With this glimmer of hope of a slightly better existence ahead few struggled or resisted as the trucks speed through the darkness on dusty dirt roads. These truckloads of prisoners were not on their way to the new holding facility however, they were racing their way towards one of the most horrific sites in all of Cambodia – the killing fields of Choeung Ek…
Ok I promise the horror is over.
My next stop was somewhere pleasant if a bit bland- Central Market. I had a little wander round the Central Market (Psar Thmei) in Phnom Penh. It is a very impressive covered market and makes a nice change from visiting prisons and graves. The quality of goods on offer wasn’t amazing so I opted to just buy some souvenirs and incense for my friends.
On my way out, I passed by a nail salon and who could resist a manicure and pedicure for $8?
I was quite tired and emotionally drained after the morning’s shocks but I continued onto the last place on my list- The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.
This is a beautiful complex built in the Khmer style with sloping wooden roofs and loads of gold work. This huge royal complex houses the Royal Palace, the Throne Hall, the Silver Pagoda, the dance pavilions and the massive gardens. Since the palace is still the residence of the reigning prince, the palace and the dance pavilions are closed for the general public. So I only saw the beautiful throne hall (which is used for royal coronations and other ceremonies) with beautiful paintings from the Ramayana all over it and a small museum. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Throne Hall and hence there are no pics.
I then went and the saw the highlight of this Palace complex – the Silver Pagoda, the most sacred pagoda for the country and a proud survivor of the Khmer Rouge destruction of all pagodas. It has a small garden, a miniature Angor Wat temple model, small shrines around it and the entire walls at the perimeter have beautiful paintings from the Ramayana.
The Silver Pagoda is aptly named after the silver flooring of the entire pagoda. Though the flooring is covered you can pick the carpet at the corners and look at it. You can see block and blocks of solid silver in the full temple. Then there are Buddhas all around you (literally), and there must be at least 1000 Buddha statues here. There are statues and relics here from other countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka etc too. However the main highlight here is a statue of Buddha which is studded with nearly 9,500 diamonds and the largest of these is of 25 carats. It is a beautiful and “sparkling” statue. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the temple too and hence there are no pics.
Overall Verdict:Phnom Penh (unlike Siem Reap) is much bigger; more crowded, and distinctly marked in terms of contrasts that exist together – opulence and poverty, modern and traditional, charming and chaotic. Its also super dirty and I felt grimy for the duration of my stay there.
Defining moment: While admiring the silver pagoda, I noticed two monks walking around. I desperately wanted to take a picture of them but knew that I could not be obvious for fear of offending them. I resigned myself to losing out on that picture and continued to look around the pagoda when suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder. I shrieked as I realized it was the two monks! And they asked me if I would take a picture with one of them! Here is the picture they took for me after I obliged:
Next- Cambodia: The End