Enroute to Phnom Penh we stopped off at Wat Kiri Sela – a Buddist temple built within a mountain which contains over 100 caverns and passageways.
In the middle of the hill there is a deep valley, with vines and trees growing around the opening. It is pretty spectacular, and we thoroughly enjoyed investigating this beautiful place.
Local children took us around the place, and gave us all torches to use. They were good fun and very informative (brilliant spoken English too), and earned a good deal of pocket money from us that day.
After a couple of hours exploring the caves we all loaded onto the minibus to continue our journey to Cambodia’s capitol – Phnom Penh.
The drive there was as expected – a little hairy at times! There doesn’t seem to be many rules on the road here, taking over vehicles happens at anytime, who cares if you are on a blind bend, or if you have a group of cows next to you?! Not much can be said for the speed limits either, but we arrived in Phnom Penh in one piece!
This city differs from some of the others we have visited in the past (notibly Hanoi, Bejing and HCMC) as you can cross a road here in relative safety! There seems to be less traffic than in those three cities, so when crossing the road you have less to contend with.
It was also cleaner than we expected – we had been told by a few people that they thought Phnom Penh to be a dirty city, but we disagree.
There are lots of restaurants and bars, and a very lively night life – on our first night the group of us headed out for some drinks and clubbing ($6 for entrance to the club – pricey)!
Our first day consisted of exploring the city – we visited the cities’ market, walked alongside the river where you can see the meeting of the Mekong river with Tonle Sup (you can see the difference in the colour of the water), and viewed the outside of the Royal Palace (their King is called King Sihamoni).
The public gardens of the Royal Palace are Phnom Penh’s very own Trafalgar Square – full of pigeons! As you can see, all ages can enjoy a bit of pigeon action….
If it is at all possible the temperature seems to have risen again – it was about 35c at the peak of the day. We are constantly sweating!
The following day held quite a serious note, we visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, and Tuol Sleng Museum (also known as S-21).
When visiting Cambodia these two locations are a must – we must all learn from the horrors which unfolded here but also pay our respects.
I feel i should explain a little about each location, and i have added some photos which some of you may find disturbing, but i feel we should share what we have learnt with everybody.
Both of us lacked alot of knowledge about the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, and the genocide of Cambodia. We were never taught it in school, so we received our education that day.
I’ll start with S-21, a former high school before it was made into the largest centre of detention and torture in the country in 1975.
The head of the prison was a former math teacher nicknamed ‘Dutch’. This man taught children before he started murdering them, and after the war he actually returned to teaching before he was convicted of war crimes. Absolute madness.
Anyway, this was a place where people were sent to after arrest, and were tortured into confessing crimes (primarily that they were ‘spies’ for the CIA or KGB) that they had not commit. Torture methods including electrocution, pulling out toes nails, eating faeces, whipping and water
In the prison, we could view the cells prisoners were kept in, and the thousands of pictures of every inmate which were taken at the time of incarcenation. These were males and females (some pregnant), and ages ranging from newborns to the elderly. Nobody was spared. The pictures are incredibly haunting.
In some of the questioning rooms there were still the iron beds victims had been tied to in the centre of the room, and on the wall a blown up photo of the victim who was found in that very room when the Vietnamese stormed the prison.
As you can imagine, the victim was dead and there was alot of blood. A cannot describe to you how we felt standing in that room, looking at the very bed where the person in the photo lay.
The prison was throughly disturbing, however the displays were thought provoking, and informative.
Amazingly there is a survivor, who is at the prison nearly everyday. He is there for any questions visitors may have, and he also sells his book, simply called ‘Survivor’ – procedes go to an organisation he has set up to assist and aid survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide – .
What a brave man – he visits his worst nightmare on a daily basis to inform and educate.
So, if the prisoners hadn’t died in prison, they were sent by truck to Choeung Ek, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. They were all told they were moving to another prison, however most knew they were being transported to their death.
The Killing Fields were basically an extermination camp, where most of the 17,000 prisoners from S-21 were exocuted, as well as many thousands of people.
Today the Killing Fields seems a peaceful place, you can hear bird song, chickens wonder the paths, and the lake is peaceful and full of life.
Unfortunately the evidence of what happened in this terrible place is littered everywhere.
Clothing, bones and teeth continuously make their way up through the soil, especially after rainfall, mass graves are cornered off for protection, a tree which from afar seems colourful with many bracelets attached to it’s bark – this has a truely horrifying history, and in the centre, a huge memorial which contains 8,000 skulls of victims.
As the Khmer Rouge didn’t have bullets to waste for exocutions, they simply bludgeoned people to death. In the case of the tree i just mentioned, babies were smashed against it.
The skulls within the memorial clearly showed the fractures and holes from the killing blows.
The violence is just mind blowing, and walking around that place, just incrediably surreal – a similar feeling to when i visited Aushwitz. Being at a place of mass murder is a profoundly disturbing but necessary expereince, and one of which we will never forget. Now we feel suitably educated about a war we really had no idea about, and paid our respects to Cambodia and the Khmer people by learning and appreciating what they have been through.