A normal wake up for our first full day in Cambodia preceded a breakfast of continental cuisine on the hotel’s sixth floor before we headed downstairs to start our core itinerary tour. We were met in reception by our tour leader and our local guide for the day for one of the more poignant days in our programme: understanding the Khmer Rouge and the scourge they had on the Cambodian people.
We were escorted by bus to S-21, a former high school in Phnom Penh turned into an interrogation centre during the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge. The regime came to power on 17 April 1975 with the support of China’s government, overthrowing a military dictatorship that had dominated the country for a number of years.
The Khmer Rouge were led by Pol Pot (a name given to him since he had POLitical POTential) and changed Cambodia forever. Our guide explained that within three days of coming to power, all cities and towns within Cambodia were abandoned, with the country’s entire population sent out to work on collective farms in the country, putting everyone on an even footing. Alongside this, all hospitals, schools and pagodas (temples) were closed and money was discontinued. The regime then began its campaign of tyranny and merciless cruelty as they systematically sought to eliminate any person who they considered a threat to their twisted ideology (anyone who could think for themselves and/or had an education). Doctors, lawyers, soldiers, teachers, nurses and many others were rounded up and escorted to one of 167 interrogation centres where they were brutally tortured until they admitted their crimes.
Our guide showed us around the school-cum-prison, from the mass cells where metal tins served as toilets to the classrooms where people were shackled 50 at a time on the floor. We saw classrooms turned into torture chambers, where people were held for days and beaten, lashed with wire and electrocuted systematically until they “admitted” their treachery and involved their “associates” (friends and family) who were next to be rounded up. As a group, we filed quietly past the board after board of photographs of people brought into S-21, with records taken as they arrived to document what they did to them. Alongside the men and women who were suspected, the pictures included their spouses, parents and children (including babies) who were also rounded up by association: if one member of the family was “guilty”, all were guilty. Claire compared the experience to Auschwitz and, whilst I have never been there, can appreciate the comparisons between the horrors there and in this place.
As we proceeded around, we saw the gym equipment that was converted into a torture device, where prisoners would be hung inverted by their arms until they broke and then dunked into a trough of manure to break them down. Around the museum, paintings produced by one of the seven survivors (with more than 18,000 passing through the centre in four years) found when S-21 was liberated in 1979 graphically portray the techniques used and depict some idea of the horror that people faced here on a daily basis.
That man and one other survivor (a mechanic) are still alive today and actually work at the museum, promoting their respective books depicting their experiences. We had the honor of meeting both men, elderly and frail but clearly still scarred by their time spent as inmates there. I don’t know how they could spend day after day in a place that surely held such awful memories; clearly they are made of stronger stuff than I am.
Our tour of the museum over, we quietly returned to our coach and were driven to the outskirts of the city to a satellite of S-21 – Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields.
After the torture of interrogation, prisoners were taken away by truck blindfolded and bound with wire as part of a “reallocation” to prevent them threatening the regime again. Always at dusk, they were taken to Choeung Ek, where they would never leave again. On arrival, the skyline is dominated by a giant concrete structure, a stupa (in the Buddhist tradition) that contains of the exhumed remains of 86 of some 167 mass graves at this single location, one of 366 known mass grave sites in Cambodia that hold the remains of between 1.6 and 3 million (depending on the figures you look at) Cambodians that died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in just four years. We entered the structure, and saw the 17 levels built within, loaded with the skulls, jaws and other bone fragments of the victims executed here.
Our guide carefully walked us around the site, showing us where bones and teeth were being washed up to the surface on an almost daily basis as they escaped the mass graves that potholed the site. He explained that whilst Pol Pot had been provided with weapons for free by China, the ammunition had to be purchased by the country that had little or no money. To avoid wasting bullets, executions were carried out using more archaic methods: bayonets or cleaning rods to the skull, a bamboo branch to the neck, a palm branch used to cut the throat and, in the case of babies, being swung by their legs so that their heads smashed against a tree before being disposed of in an adjoining pit. That tree still remains to this day, a reminder of the philosophy of the Khmer Rouge that to kill a tree you must also kill its roots else it will come back again. Whole families were therefore executed, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, children, babies; none were spared.
The tree from which a loudspeaker was hung to blare out music and muffle the cries of the victims still remains and we were shown the location where chemicals were stored to be poured over the corpses to eliminate the smells of death and negate any prospect of suspicion being raised. A video clip shown in the adjoining museum summarised the lunacy and evil that this site and others like it across Cambodia endured under the brutal reign of Pol Pot.
Having spent the morning reflecting on some of the horrors that have cursed Cambodia’s recent past, the afternoon’s programme was focused instead on the splendor of its past and the efforts for the future. First stop was the Friends restaurant, a charity-run establishment to provide training and legitimate employment for street kids. The food offered was a tapas format, with a mixture of Cambodian dishes that were both delicious and very reasonable prices – it certainly warranted its top place on Trip Advisor for places to eat in Phnom Penh.
Our hunger sated, we were off again to the final destination on the day’s itinerary: the Grand Palace. The seat of the Cambodian Royal Family and home to some of their Emerald Buddha (except this one is so named due to the exquisite jewels adorning it), there were many aspects that reflected the style and splendor of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Within the temple complex, we also had chance to visit the Silver Pagoda, so named due to the solid silver tiles that adorn its floor.
The tour was interesting and informative with an opportunity to see far more than its Thai counterpart permitted. By the time we had finished, the temperature had topped off at a toasty 38 degrees – this and the unbroken sunshine sapped the energy from you and left you hot, sweaty and tired (not that we complained though as the alternative would be cold and wet in soggy Britain!).
To counteract the heat effects, we planned to return to the refuge of the pool as we had yesterday. Unfortunately, by the time we had made the 10 min journey to our hotel, the weather had begun to change and the clouds took on a darker appearance that dimmed the sky. The humidity about us gave a clue to what was in store: a thunderstorm. And what a thunderstorm it was! The rain fell quickly and saturated the entire city whilst lightning cackled and thunder roared – it was one of the most ferocious thunderstorms that I can remember which was equally brief (less than one hour).
The storm abated, we got ourselves ready for dinner and met up with Channa and some others group members to go to a local restaurant. Impressed by last night’s Cambodian dishes, we settled on another Amok dish and another local speciality: beef loc lak. Both were delicious and filled us well in advance of the last transfer of the holiday that would take us to the home of the temples: Angkor Wat.