Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 10
Cambodia (Part 1)
Here are some sobering statistics: As a result of the Khmer Rouge's campaign of genocide during the 1970's, it is estimated that one to two million Cambodians were killed. That would be about one eighth of the 1975 population. In the year 2000, half the population was under the age of 15.
After two decades of civil war and unrest, elections were held in Cambodia in 1998, firmly establishing the Cambodian People's Party and for the most part stablilzing the political situation. The Khmer Rouge has since been dismantled, with "Brother Number One" Pol Pot dying in April of that year. Unfortunately, the demise of Pol Pot has enabled many of the other leaders of the Khmer Rouge to use him as a scapegoat for blame and avoid being brought to justice for their parts in the terror and mass killings.
Now that the violence has ended, Cambodia is facing many other serious problems. There are an estimated 6-10 million anti-personnel mines and 500,000 tons of unexploded ordnance still scattered throughout the country. One in 236 Cambodians has lost a limb due to a landmine injury. Many Cambodians are living just above the poverty level with 40% of the population categorized as poor. The average annual salary is less then $300 US. Cambodia's economic future remains uncertain as most of the government income arrives in the form of foreign aid but rampant corruption ensures a mitigated benefit to the people. The greatest natural resource, primary rainforest, is being mercilessly and illegally logged and sold by both foreign and domestic interests (allegedly including the Cambodian Armed Forces).
Despite all of this, we found the Cambodian people to be very friendly and receptive, not altogether downcast and jaded as one might expect according to their recent history.
At 8:00 this morning we were picked up from our hotel in Saigon by a mini-van to take us to the border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia at Moc Bai. There were only six of us in the van, so the ride was fairly comfortable. The immigration procedures were surprisingly efficient and the Cambodian border personnel were even friendly. A much different experience than our crossing from Laos into Vietnam! After a quick lunch we boarded a different and somewhat older van and headed on into Cambodia toward the capital of Phnom Penh.
To say that the seven hour ride along the dusty, potholed dirt road from the border was bone-jarring would be an understatement. We had heard that the ride would be rough, and we were not disappointed... At least we were not stuck in the back of a pick-up truck. The scenery along the road more than made up for the ride (at least for me anyway - Sue had to take some motion sickness pills and slept for most of the ride).
We passed through the midst of vast plains covered with rice paddies and the occasional town or village. Many Cambodians were also travelling along the dirt road, most either riding motorbikes or bicycles, with their heads wrapped in scarves for protection from the sun and dust. Many small huts on the side of the road were selling various grades of gasoline in old Pepsi, Fanta, and Johnny Walker bottles. In the rice paddies, farmers were churning the mud using teams of water buffaloyoked to wooden plows. Along the way we passed an occasional crew of construction workers, very slowly and gradually improving the road. Some were using heavy earth-moving machinery while others used small hand trowels and woven baskets to move the dirt. We also saw many children who would smile and wave when they recognized the foreigner bus passing by.
We arrived in Phnom Penh as the sun was setting. Along with another couple on the van, Garreth and Joanne from England, we found accomodation at the Royal Guesthouse #2. (Their primary guesthouse was full, so they made us a good offer of $7.50 US for an air-conditioned double with a brick wall view.) The guesthouse was on a side street which although sealed was badly in need of repair, with more potholes and gravel visible than actual road surface. This did not faze the locals, however, as the street bustled with activity and had a certain charm to it.
The four of us had dinner at the guesthouse cafe and were surprised both at the good quality of the food and the high price. Since the Cambodian currency (riel) has been devalued so much over the years (in fact being abolished at one point during the Khmer Rouge regime), the US dollar is the de facto currency. We had become so used to paying the equivalent of less than one dollar for a meal in the rest of Southeast Asia that it was a shock to us to see dishes on the menu listed for two or three dollars. We had to remind ourselves to see the bigger picture.
After sleeping late to allow our bodies some recovery time from the ride to Phnom Penh, we walked to the southern part of the city to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum, former site of the Khmer Rouge's Security Prison 21 (S-21). Located in a residential neighborhood, S-21 was originally a high school but from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge converted the classrooms and offices to cell blocks and torture chambers for more than 14,000 people who passed through on their way to the infamous Killing Fields. Many of the cells still have shackles made of iron re-bar lying on the floor. Photographs taken of the people detained there hang on the walls of some of the rooms. Most of the pictures displayed are those taken upon a prisoner's arrival, but some give graphic evidence of the Khmer Rouge's ruthless torture tactics. Some of the rooms contained the actual implements of torture that were used. The inhumanity revealed there was overwhelming.
Posted at various places were signs with the prison regulations (originally posted on small blackboards). They read as follows:
1. You must answer accordingly to my questions. Do no turn them away.
2. Do not try to hide the facts by making pretexts of this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Do not be a fool for you are a chap who dares to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Do not tell me either about your immoralities or the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Do not make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.
9. If you do not follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
After leaving Tuol Sleng, we hired a moto-taxi, dropped Sue off at the guesthouse, and I rode out of town to visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 70's, Choeung Ek was the final destination for thousands of victims perceived as opposition to Pol Pot's revolution. Many passed through the prison at S-21 before arriving at the one-time orchard in Choeung Ek to be murdered and buried in mass graves. The remains of more than 8000 people have been exhumed from the graves, while many more remain untouched. In the center of the site, a Memorial Stupa has been raised. It contains 17 levels of skulls from the exhumed remains which are visible through the clear glass.
I walked around Choeung Ek for about an hour, wandering along the narrow paths between the large empty craters marking the gravesites. Next to one of them was a very big tree bearing a sign which read "Chankiri Tree - Many children were beaten to death here". Around the edges of nearly all of the graves and along the pathways, fragments of ripped and torn clothing can still be seen coming up from the ground. I found the experience quite disturbing. As I sat on a bench trying to absorb all of this, I was amazed at how little I knew about the recent history of Cambodia and the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. I wonder if it was just that these things were happening at a time when I was too young to be cognizant of current events as well as being too recent to be included in any history class I have taken in school. I hope that these things are discussed in schools today as they are surely as horrific as the crimes against humanity commited by the Nazis during World War II.
For dinner, Sue and I walked a few streets over to a restaurant called 'Friends' which takes kids living on the streets in Phnom Penh and offers them counseling, training, and employment. The place had a great atmosphere and the food was excellent. We had the pork-stuffed squid and breaded cauliflower. Afterward we bought dessert from a man selling tasty homemade Ovaltine-flavored ice cream from a cart on our street.
The road to Phnom Penh (1)
The road to Phnom Penh (2)
The road to Phnom Penh (3)
The road to Phnom Penh (4)
The road to Phnom Penh (5)
The road to Phnom Penh (6)
The road to Phnom Penh (7)
Tuol Sleng (1), Phnom Penh
Torture Room (1), Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Torture Room (2), Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Arrival photograph of a child detained at Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Holes cut in classroom walls to make cellblocks, Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Prison cells built inside classrooms, Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Floor of a typical prison cell, Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
View into school courtyard, Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Classroom window, Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Iron re-bar shackles piled in a hallway, Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Security Regulations, Tuol Sleng (S-21)
"Classe Special", Tuol Sleng (S-21), Phnom Penh
Mass graves at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
"Chankiri Tree against which executioners beat children", Killing Fields of Choueng Ek
Scraps of clothing in the earth beneath the Chankiri Tree, Killing Fields of Choueng Ek
A girl I met while walking around the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek
Typical gas station along the road outside of Phnom Penh