In all fairness, you should be warned that today’s post is about some pretty terrible things, but to fully understand and appreciate modern Cambodia, as well as what we are experiencing on our trip, you should obviously continue reading:
We thought that our recent time in Phnom Penh, witnessing the monuments to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, was the full extent of the deep contemplation that Cambodia requires. Having left the capitol city this morning, cycling south-west en route to national parks and beaches, even a rainstorm could barely dampen our enthusiasm to be back on the road again. However, the presence of the second dead body that we’ve passed on the road was extraordinarily sobering. Traffic was stopped, a crowd had gathered, the road was filled with glass and motorcycle shards, and on the side lay an unmoving man, mostly covered by a white sheet. People’s shouts of “hello” made the scene even more surreal, as we feebly attempted to balance politeness with our own shock. It has been said that life is cheap here in Cambodia, but the price of death exacts quite a price on all those involved. While we undoubtedly feel verified in wearing our helmets, the reality is that the busy roads we ride on are just one mistake away from disaster, though that is obviously true no matter where you are in the world. What life gives must be appreciated always, since it can be cruelly taken away just as easily, as today’s scene verified all too personally.
Since this post isn’t attempting to be wholly depressing, let’s touch on some of the recent more positive events. We spent four nights in Phnom Penh, which is a busy and mostly modern city, mostly recovered from the complete devastation it suffered in the mid-1970s when the Khmer Rouge came to power.
As mentioned before, we stayed by the lake at the ironically named Green Lake Guesthouse. The water was dark brown, and full of trash, but the rooms were cheap and the ambiance otherwise decent, so long as we weren’t looking into the water!
Our primary objective was obtaining our Vietnamese visas, so our first real destination was the Vietnam consulate, located at the southern end of the city, far from our hotel. Blaise and Anderson dropped off their bikes at The Vicious Cycle for repairs (B) and a tune-up (A), which ended up costing $8 and $2 respectively. This meant we needed to traverse the city by tuk-tuk, a pleasant change from our usual methods of transit. Thirty-five dollars later we’d filed for our visas, which we picked up later in the week without too much hassle. Thankfully, as North Americans, obtaining visas is quite simple, involving payment and a simple one-page form that is primarily information copied from our passports. We did have to specify our date of arrival, so we will definitely be in Cambodia until September 18, when that visa expires and our Vietnamese one begins.
We also went to two of Phnom Penh’s sprawling markets. First, we explored the dark corridors of the Russian Market, where good deals on name-brand merchandise “leaks” are everywhere. The low prices on high-quality Western backpacks are well known, and we found a great supposed Lowe-Alpine 55-liter pack for $15. The stitching and padding look great, and with future travel plans always on the horizon, it seemed foolish not to invest in a new pack given that those we took to India are thoroughly thrashed. The market also has piles of Khmer trinkets and knickknacks, plenty of well-bootlegged DVDs, music CDs, and software, as well as restaurants and food sellers. Needless to say, while interesting to peruse, it certainly didn’t smell very good. We spent much less time at the enormous Central Market, where clothing “extras” are piled up everywhere on the perimeter, and then the interior market – beneath a massive golden dome – is home to endless jewelry shops.
That leaves one day remaining, which we spent traveling around Phnom Penh’s most famous and notorious sights. They were emotionally draining and often provocative, after all some of the worst human atrocities in recent history occurred there. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21) are certainly not light-hearted affairs, as the former contains mass graves of thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge, while the latter was Pol Pot’s regime’s main prison and torture center. In between was sandwiched the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, making the whole day somewhat of an introspective and emotional roller-coaster.
For the entire day we had a delightful character named Peter for our tuk-tuk driver, who explained some of the history of each place for us before we visited, and acted as our guide when we went to the palace. He certainly made the day more interesting, and definitely said some hilarious things as well – the complexities of our English language are definitely hard to master! Some of the prime comments included his warning that the “black market, I don’t do that,” and his offer of “if you like I can do, if you not like I not do.”
Our lunch was definitely made more enjoyable by his presence, and as we enjoyed some fine Ratanakiri (Cambodia’s far eastern province) coffee after our sobering Killing Fields visit, we could take some solace in the fact that we bought his lunch, too – Peter usually doesn’t eat all day long despite working at least ten hours, if he even is fortunate enough to have a customer. But the harsh realities of Cambodia’s tourist economy pale in comparison to the things we witnessed while doing our small part in contributing to it.
Both were dug up from the numerous mass graves all over the grounds, where around 20,000 Cambodians were killed, often with blunt objects or sharpened palm leaves, by their fellow countrymen. The Khmer Rouge brutally exterminated all enemies, including countless members of their own Communist Party, in its hell-bent determination to cleanse the Khmer people of all outside influences and “return” to a socialist agrarian culture. Money was abolished, the intelligentsia massacred, people forced from their homes and marched to forced labor (farming) camps, and rampant starvation, malnutrition, and violence were mainstays during the four years of Democratic Kampuchea governance.
Now, Cambodia has hundreds of Killing Fields, the one at Choeung Ek is merely the most famous, due to it’s connection to S-21, and the documentation of exactly how horrible the atrocities that were committed there.
Babies were beaten to death against a tree – teeth still litter the ground around it – and although about a third of the 129 mass graves haven’t been dug up, the entire landscape is still littered with large pits where people were one unceremoniously dumped as music blasted from a loudspeaker to mask the noises of death. Signs describe where buildings once were, as well as stomach-churning details like these about the chemical room:
There was also a one-room museum, full of information, including details about Duch, the leader of S-21 who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity. After thirty years, a Cambodian-based international court of justice is finally convening, hoping to bring some closure to the shattered lives of almost every Khmer old enough to remember the 1970s.
After our break at the Royal Palace, which was overpriced at $6, especially given that photos were not allowed within the home of the very underwhelming Silver Pagoda (the floor, while made of silver, is 90% covered by carpet; the pagoda is merely in the center of the room, with plenty of nice carved Buddhas surrounding it), we then went to Tuol Sleng, to complete the Khmer Rouge’s cycle of death in reverse.
This former high school was where “suspected enemies” of Pol Pot’s regime were brought to have confessions tortured out of them. Every prisoner was photographed, and then for days or months systematically tortured until a “biography” had been extracted, naming names of associates and connections to foreign governments – without a doubt almost always false. Of the thousands of people held here, only seven survived. When the Vietnamese finally took Phnom Penh in 1979, ending the Khmer Rouge’s rule, fourteen final victims were left, chained to the bed or dumped on the floor where they were tortured to death. In the current museum, those rooms were left as found, with only steel bed frames and torture tools remaining, accompanied by a stark black and white photo of the room’s condition.
Throughout the remaining three buildings are a variety of displays; thousands of haunting photos of the victims fill one entire floor, putting a much-needed human perspective on the awful events that happened here, about three decades ago.
Men, women, and children all stare into the camera, some already beaten, and all showing despair as they entered a horrible place from which the only escape was death at Choeung Ek. Words cannot really describe the experience of so many faces staring out at you, it’s a very depressing yet necessary series of connected rooms that show the entire nation that was destroyed – the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2 million people, around 25% of the Cambodian population at the time. The 1% of those that that died who went through S-21 are the tangible representatives to the world of the atrocities that cannot be forgotten, in the hope that they will not be repeated.
Tuol Sleng is also home to several interesting photography exhibits. One that is very insightful, and regretful, shows photos taken by a Swedish Communist visitor to Democratic Kampuchea, paired with his comments from both now and during the visit. His former youthful optimism about communism and Cambodia’s successful revolution have been replaced by disgust at being used as a propaganda tool and of being tricked by the many certainly staged interactions with people that he documented. Other galleries include stories and photos of former guards and Khmer Rouge members, who were primarily young and ignorant as to what was happening all around them. Pol Pot and his government used fear and hatred to run their country, and even S-21’s own guards were frequently killed for inane infractions, or under accusations of being an enemy under Vietnamese control (or something comparable).
The Khmer Rouge gained power through years of guerrilla warfare fought, mostly in the jungle, against an inept and corrupt military government that itself had seized power (from the king) in a coup. However, upon gaining power, they had no ability (and perhaps little real ambition) to run the country, but rather continued to focus on fighting and killing their enemies, all the while seeing the peasants whom they were supposedly representing die from hunger and disease.
Truly it was the worst of humanity, and these words from semi-informed outsiders hardly do any justice to what happened.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of seeing all of these places, being Americans, is that despite our government’s bombing of Cambodia for a year, and then its sending in of troops as well, nothing was done to stop the slaughter. In fact, despite all of our country’s anti-Communist efforts (as heinously misguided as they were), it was the Communist Vietnamese who finally freed the Khmer people because they were weary of being attacked by Khmer Rouge guerillas and disgusted by what was happening to their socialist “brothers.” It’s easy to judge in hindsight, but certainly the international community directly contributed to the political climate that allowed the Khmer Rouge to thrive, and then chose to sit by and do nothing once they gained power, even though knowledge of what was being done within Cambodia, to Cambodians by Cambodians, was certainly known. In fact, the UN continued to recognize the exiled Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia up until 1997 – almost 20 years after they lost power. Quite frankly, that’s disgusting.
There are a multitude of excellent books available on the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodian history, and as most of them are available everywhere from children or crippled street-sellers, we have already read several. First They Killed My Father, by Loueng Ung, is particularly poignant, The Gate is written by the only Western survivor of the Khmer Rouge, and there are several accounts available of the goings on within S-21.
Currently we are in a town called Kompong Speu, about 50km away from Phnom Penh on NH 4. We spent our day riding first against the wind, and then later we got rained on! At least the warm water felt good, and all of our packs are waterproof, but even though we only cycled for about 3 hours, it was still a somewhat rough return to riding. After almost two weeks of not using our bikes as transportation, pulling all the extra weight was definitely a bit tougher than it was before. Nonetheless, it felt great to be back cruising on the dusty streets, completely in charge of our daily destiny. Well, as much as five sweaty pedaling whiteys, wearing bike helmets and strange clothes, can be. You never know what will happen, whether it be good or bad, but we are all excited for our upcoming visit to Kirirom National Park, where hopefully a day or two in nature will be good for our minds and bodies.
Here are some links if you’d like to educate yourself more about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge: