We arrived in Phnom Penh, after our border crossing bus journey, about 4pm. We were greeted by rain, lots of rain, more than England rain. It was the tuk tuk drivers dream… Loads of westerners soaked to the bone in need of transport to their hostel. We managed to join 2 Austrian girls and got a tuk tuk to our hostel.
However, when we got their all the lights were out (not a good sign) and the owner told us there was a big power cut. No electricity whatsoever. A lady showed us to our room with a flashlight and told us the power should be back shortly…
We couldn’t stay in the room, it was pitch black and boiling hot so instead we went over the road to the companion hostel, which had power wifi and alcohol. Now, I’ve been longing for cider since the moment we left Heathrow, so to see a sign for $2 cider was glorious, suddenly rainy, powerless Cambodia didn’t seem quite so dull anymore. Although, beer and soft drinks are more than double the price of Vietnam.
Once the rain stilled slightly we went for a wander and my mood dampened again when I got charged $5 for cash withdrawal. This was not good. I have an issue with money, a big issue; I’m a self confessed, tight-arsed, stingy, student. I once cried over a £1.60 bus fare. So at this point I was fed up, we’d left wonderful, cheap, glorious Vietnam and arrived in Cambodia, after a tedious border crossing, to crappy weather, a power cut, and “expensive” drinks. Liv, bless her, tried to keep me cheery – not an easy task – a pissed off woman is not easy to transform… However, the 2 portions of gorgeous egg noodles we got from the corner of the street for less than $2 helped perk me up a bit.
After the power cut extended, taking out the whole street, we admitted defeat, pulled out the head torch and navigated our way to our room. And by some serious stroke of luck, minutes after we dropped our bags down on the bed the lights came on and the power was back. We settled into bed, played a movie on the tablet and fell asleep with the very leaky air con blasting.
The next day, despite further monetary problems on my part (insert expletives about Natwest here), was much better. We headed downstairs, booked a bus to Kampot for the following day, struck a deal with a tuk tuk driver for the day and located some more yummy noodles. (Note to travellers of Cambodia – noodle stands are awesome). With polystyrene boxes of noodles and chopsticks in hand we jumped up into the tuk tuk and headed for the Killing Fields.
History lesson starts here.
The Killing Fields are located just outside Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia) where the Khmer Rouge used to take prisoners from S-21 prison to ruthlessly kill them. The Khmer Rouge were a political party, lead by Pol Pot, that rose in popularity with Cambodians during the civil war. Their policies were to completely remove imperialism and capitalism and return to a simple communist lifestyle where the people would live completely off the land. Pol Pot was influenced by the, then current, Chinese communist regime and inspired by the tribes of the rural parts of Cambodia, where the people did not deal in money, instead only food and amenities.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. By this time they had gained many followers, who had either volunteered or been conscripted from the less educated parts of Cambodia, these people ranged in age mostly from 17 to mid 20s. When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh the people thought the civil war was over but just days later the city was being evacuated. The Khmer Rouge used false scare tactics to say the Americans were going to bomb the city. The people were told they were being re-homed but instead they were moved to rural areas and forced to work the land for 12-15 hours a day on little food. Within weeks all of the cities in Cambodia had been cleared and people moved. Anyone who was an intellectual, members from other parties, those who could speak another language or those who wore glasses were sent to prisons and interrogated under the suspicion that they were spies for the CIA or KBG. ‘Ordinary’ people were also sent to prisons for stealing food in order to survive or those who were unfit to work (including the pregnant and the elderly). If one person in a family was sent to prison then the entire family would be sent in order to stop retaliation or vengeance.
At the Killing Fields there were many mass graves, the biggest one housed approximately 450 bodies. People were transported here at night from the prisons, they were then killed either that night or within 24 hours. The Khmer Rouge blasted music and electric motors in order to cover up the sounds of the victim’s screams. As bullets were too expensive to kill that number of people, they used weapons including crow-bars, farming tools, bamboo sticks and long metal pins that were shoved into people’s skulls (similar to those used in meat production today). As a result, all the deaths were brutal, none were short or merciful.
One of the most difficult graves to see was that which housed only women and children who were stripped of their clothing before being killed. Next to the grave is a tree, now known as the killing tree, which was used to kill children, even babies, by smashing their heads against it.
Now, in a Stupa built to remember those killed, the bones and skulls of the victims are housed in a layered system which can be visited today. A logical system has been set up to indicate the gender, age and how they were killed. Bones and ragged clothing have been recovered and bone fragments can still be seen in the ground of the fields.
The Killing Fields was a moving experience, unmissable if visiting Phnom Penh. The location itself is filled with beauty but tainted by the horrendous crimes that occurred.
After visiting the fields we went to the S-21 prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng prison which is set up as a museum to explain the horrors that occurred during the years the Khmer Rouge were in power. The people that were brought here were often interrogated and tortured. One common torture method was to remove a person’s toe nail with clamps and pour on alcohol to cause extreme pain. The Khmer Rouge forced many innocent people to confess to not supporting the Khmer Rouge and being friends with people who did not support the Khmer Rouge. The victims often, exposed their loved ones in order to end their torture which meant they were also sent to prison.
Many of the Khmer Rouge that survived deny the acts that occurred. Pol Pot died while on house arrest, potentially killed, but 4 of the senior leaders are still on trial for their crimes today.
History lesson complete.
Aside from the intense discovery of the horrors that occurred in Cambodia 30 years ago, we also enjoyed amazing Cambodian noodle soup from a street vendor. The soup is slightly different in flavours and spices to traditional Vietnamese pho but it was amazing! We perched on the roadside in scorching heat with a hearty bowl of super cheap soup.
We also visited yet another crazy market before returning to the hostel for a jug of beer for $3.
All in all our second day in Phnom Penh was moving and heart breaking but a much better insight to Cambodia than the first.
History lesson by Liv, written by Kat, as per usual…