Day 72-74: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It’s taken me some time to come back to write this post. At first, it was because visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum felt heavy and I didn’t want to post something cursory. Then I simply ran out of free time as we met up with our friends to travel around Tokyo. Now, near the end of our time in Japan, I’m coming back to write about Phnom Penh.

Then and now

In 1999, Paul and I had a beer at the Foreign Correspondents Club, opened only six years earlier in 1993 and located in a three-storey colonial building on the bank of the Mekong River. It was a place for foreign journalists to get together for a drink after Cambodia opened its doors in 1991. Back then, the capital seemed like a busy city of dirt roads and motorcycles and bustling markets. When we looked across from the FCC to the other side of the river, there was just a muddy bank. Undeveloped land.

Now in 2019, as we sit again for a beer at the FCC — which doesn’t cater to journalists anymore but to expats and tourists — we see a well-used promenade, shiny new cars alongside motorcycles, and many, many hotels – even across that once-undeveloped muddy bank.

Elina sitting at the Foreign Correspondents Club, looking out at the promenade along the Mekong River. Photo by Paul
A creepy, crumbling, rundown building just behind the FCC.

Phnom Penh is also now a sprawling metropolis of 1.5 million people. (There was about half that many when we were last here.) You can still take a tuk tuk to get around, but you will run into a lot of traffic. The manager of the hotel we stayed in, Prasat’s Boutique Hotel which we recommend, said many tourists underestimate the time it takes to get across the city to the airport and miss their flights.

A ride around the capital in a tuk tuk.

Twenty years ago, there were also many “happy pizza” restaurants in Phnom Penh that offered “special herb” toppings; now illegal. And back then we exited Cambodia (from Siem Reap to the Thai border) in the cab of a truck for $5 while others sat on the backpacks in the open truck bed for $3, scarves wrapped around their heads because the dirt roads were so dusty and potholed.

I also remember getting impatient as it seemed we were taking forever to get to the border and the driver kept picking up more and more backpackers. A Brit we’d been travelling through Cambodia with was also sitting in the cab with us. I told him that I was going to say something to the driver to get a move on and he said in all seriousness, “No, don’t. He could be former Khmer Rouge and I’ve seen people with guns.” Oh yes, those were the days …

A vendor selling some kind of large citrus fruit. Maybe a pomelo?

Phnom Penh is now an obviously prosperous capital. There is much evidence of foreign investment: new buildings, fancy cars, Starbucks outlets. We even went to a very popular and delicious Japanese restaurant in the BKK area around 57th Street, where many expats live. The area has lovely tree-lined streets and upmarket shops and restaurants. What’s lacking however are sidewalks to walk on as they are taken up by parked cars and motorbikes, so you have to be very wary of traffic when walking on the road.

At Khmer Surin restaurant, which serves traditional Khmer food.
View from the Orussey One Hotel’s rooftop pool where we stayed for one night. Photo by Paul

This huge building (photo above) is across the road from Prasat’s Boutique Hotel, where we stayed. And no, it isn’t a fancy hotel. Paul asked our hotel manager and she said it was the home of a Cambodian army general. Maybe some things don’t change …

The markets

There are plenty of markets in PP. The photos below are from the Russian Market where we wandered around one afternoon.

Longan, dragon fruit, mandarins, mangosteen, oranges.
Lots of green veggies.
Fish vendor.
A butcher.

Orussey Market

Paul and Elina went to the Orussey Market for a wander, where Paul took these two photos. My little cone set: the toy no child can do without. His comment on the second pic: “We all know GRNWRKS everybody’s steelo.” Regarding this sign (below) for a Chinese restaurant: “I have no idea either.”

Fried bugs? Hmmm, no thanks

Cambodians don’t mind eating insects, but we were never tempted. Paul came across this lady’s stall near the FCC.

So many to choose from! Photo by Paul

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Now for the heavy bit. Paul and I had been to Security Prison 21 (S-21) before and knew what to expect. It’s the former secondary school which was turned into a torture and prison centre by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79. It’s now the site of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We hoped it wasn’t too scary for Elina. She ended up being OK about it (no nightmares). But I wasn’t. This time round, I felt very nauseous, wanted to vomit and had reflux. I haven’t posted the most gruesome pics, but a caution nonetheless for highly sensitive people like me.

“The security of regulation” (above) were the rules of S-21. Basically, anyone brought here had to “confess”, usually after long bouts of torture. After a confession was extracted, they would be taken to the Killing Fields to be exterminated. Some of the prisoners were “peasants”, some were members of the fallen government, some were educated city folk: teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians. There were also ethnic Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese and foreigners – anyone who wasn’t considered Khmer.

Under the Khmer Rouge’s  “Year Zero” policy, which was a return to the agrarian ways of the past, the general population was dispersed into the countryside to do hard labour without the help of any machinery or animals, and fed a watery rice gruel or not fed at all. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation and disease.

When Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese Army in 1979, one of the first people to discover the horrors of S-21 was Hồ Văn Tây, a Vietnamese combat photographer. He took the photos (above left) of the 11 corpses still left on the torture beds when the Khmer Rouge fled the city. The 11 are now buried on the site.

The 11 dead who were found by the Vietnamese army are now laid to rest on the S-21 site.

An estimated 20,000 men, women and children passed through S-21. Each prisoner’s childhood and personal history and eventual extracted confession were all meticulously recorded along with their photograph.

More cells.
A wooden bar used to be nailed onto this wall with hooks for keys used to shackle prisoners.

The Killing Fields

There were many killing fields in Cambodia, but the most well-known is the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, about 15km or about 45min by tuk tuk from Phnom Penh. It is estimated that about 17,000 men, women and children were executed here – many were prisoners taken from S-21. The estimate of those killed during the regime’s genocide range from 1.8 million to 3.4 million out of a total population of 7 million. It means that every Cambodian was affected by Pol Pot’s genocide.

At the entrance, we opted to listen to the audio tour that was included with our ticket. (The audio tour wasn’t available 20 years ago.) It includes first-hand accounts from Khmer Rough survivors, guards and executioners, and details what it would have felt like to be transported, blindfolded, to Choeung Ek not knowing what was going to happen to you. People were executed by bashing with wooden clubs, stabbed with a sharpened bamboo, throat cut using a razor sharp leaf, or other means that didn’t involve shooting as bullets were in short supply.

Elina listening to the audio tour. On her right are the depressions left from the mass burial graves; the bodies have been exhumed but apparently, after the rainy season, sometimes clothing or jewellery or bits of bone still rise to the surface. These bits are put into a glass box (see photo below).
There were bodies thrown into this pond, but they’ve left them there to lay in peace.

This tree (photo above) is called the killing tree because babies and toddlers were killed by being smashed against it. This was to save bullets. The colourful dangly things are bracelets strung together. Many visitors, including Elina and I, took off a bracelet that we were wearing and attached it to the many others on the tree in honour and memory of the children who were killed here.

This memorial Buddhist stupa houses the skeletons of almost 9,000 people who were exhumed from the site.

Inside the stupa, the sight of skulls and bones is eerie, horrifying and depressing at the same time. After seeing S-21 and the Killing Fields, I felt sad and angry at the pointlessness of it all. How Pol Pot’s madness could make millions of people suffer so much. And why the world hasn’t really learned from this because genocide still happens today.

The onsite museum displays the Khmer Rouge uniform for women (left) and men (right).

Have you been to Cambodia’s Killing Fields or to Phnom Penh? Let me know your thoughts.