Phnom Penh – day 364

First off… An apology! There aren’t many photos today as the places we visited didn’t feel like places we wanted or could take photos of. As you read today’s blog, you will understand why. As a side note – I have truly traumatised Jayne today by taking her to these places and I’m not sure she has forgiven me just yet. 

Having had a cake induced coma, we woke up and had some breakfast before heading out onto the street. Avoiding the gaggle of TukTuk drivers on the street outside the guesthouse who had all, apparently, become our best friends over night, we walked the 2km to first museum of the day to learn about the darker side of Cambodia’s history. Our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school that was taken over in 1975 by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21); it soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. 

The audio guides that were included in our admission fee were really good. The information they provided was detailed and harrowing as it took us through the four building complex. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarianism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. The museum displays include room after room of harrowing black & white photographs; virtually all of the men, women and children pictured were later killed. You could tell which year a picture was taken by the style of number-board that appears on the prisoner’s chest. Several foreigners from Australia, New Zealand and the USA were also held at S-21 before being murdered.When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21, all of whom had used their skills, such as painting or photography, to stay alive. Fourteen others had been tortured to death as Vietnamese forces were closing in on the city. Photographs of their gruesome deaths are on display in the rooms where their decomposing bodies were found. There are fourteen whites grave markers in the courtyard to commemorate them. 

The visit to Tuol Sleng was a profoundly depressing experience, especially for Jayne who teared up a couple of times. I maintain that it was still not as disturbing as the war remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh city but it was the sheer ordinariness of the place that made it even more horrific: the suburban setting, the plain school buildings, the grassy playing area where children would have played… decorated with rusted beds, instruments of torture and wall after wall of black and white disturbing portraits staring back at you. 

Returning our audio guides, we went and had a fruit smoothie in the cafe opposite the museum, barely saying a word to each other as we took what we had seen and heard over the past 2 hours. Walking down the street a bit to avoid the highly overpriced TukTuks hovering at the museum entrance we managed to flag down a lovely gentleman who agreed to take us to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. It must have taken us nearly 40 minutes to get out of town but the breeze was nice on our faces and it was good to see the world go by. Arriving at the killing fields, we were given another audio guide – I think Jayne was seriously distraught at this point at the thought of listening to more graphic stories as we found a quiet bench in the shade to begin our tour. The audio tour includes stories by those who survived the Khmer Rouge, plus a chilling account by Him Huy, a Choeung Ek guard and executioner, about some of the techniques they used to kill innocent and defenceless prisoners, including women and children. Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek (otherwise known as the killing fields). The prisoners were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious and expensive bullets. 

The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in this one-time longan (similar to lychees) orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits. One tree was covered in friendship bracelets as the audio guide explained how guards used to hold babies by their ankles and hit their heads against the tree before throwing them into the pit – I’m not sure how people managed to take photos of it. That tree will haunt me forever. More than 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988.Returning our audio guide and both emotionally drained from the day, we got back to our TukTuk just as the heavens opened. It took us over an hour to get back into town as we clearly hit rush hour and as the roads became more and more flooded. At one intersection, the police were trying to direct traffic but we’re almost getting hit themselves as motorbikes swerved around them to go wherever they wanted!

Back at the guesthouse, we had a drink as I completed my teaching job application so I could submit it. It began raining again so we decided to eat at the guesthouse instead of venturing out. The fried rice and noodles were surprisingly nice and it was great to be able to just walk down the hallway to our room to go to bed!
Wednesday 5th October 2016

2 thoughts on “Phnom Penh – day 364

  1. I remember how horrible it was – all the more because it’s largely unknown here compared to the Second World War. Likewise, no photos – the images stay in your brain for ever – but that’s important so it never happens again. Unfortunately it’s still happening today in other places around the world – and most people seem indifferent to it.


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