Welcome to Khmerland
Phnom Penh...

Monday 29th November 2005

Julie was totally empty this morning having hardly eaten a thing last night so she was really looking forward to piling her plate high with fried potatoes for breakfast! When we got to the hot buffet counter the space where yesterday a tray of perfect stodgy greasy potatoes were offered was now home to rice and curry! She was completely disheartened and felt like going back to bed. She sent a text message home saying "Diet going well". We like our food, as you can tell, and it's now becoming an issue. The enforced lack of choice was demoralising. We vowed that tonight we will escape our shackles. Sod politeness!

Today was going to be a tough day on the old emotion as we were going to be visiting the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. It's difficult to answer why people visit sites of such atrocities. It must be something in human curiosity that makes us want to look at a road crash. We're not all the same, thankfully, and Julie wouldn't out of choice wish to be exposed to the reminders of past evils. She was not looking forward in the slightest to today's itinerary. She actually admitted later on in the day that her 'irrational-fear-of-the-day' was that our guide and driver were going to take us to the killing fields and chop us up!

For me, I was fascinated by the history of what happened and felt that to witness the recounting of these events would be an invaluable life experience. Heng arrived with a new driver. We were told his name but it sounded too much like 'whore' for us to ask him to repeat it! In contrast to the other drivers we've had, this guy was worryingly cheerful and exceptionally talkative. We couldn't smell anything on his breath so we hoped he was just excitable! He spoke no English but he just didn't shut up! Heng hardly got a word in edgeways! He did mange to explain that Toul Sleng loosely translated meant Poison Tree Hill with 'Toul' meaning raised land and 'Sleng' being a variety of poisonous trees.

It didn't take us long to reach Toul Sleng Prison. We were still within the city in what could be called Phnom Penh suburbia. Barbed wire and electrical wire were the chilling tell-tale signs that we had arrived. The high concrete walls hid from view the prison complex inside. It seemed that little had changed from when it was used to process 'enemies of the revolution', a little over 25 years ago.

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and infamously called it Year Zero. They emptied Phnom Penh forcing everyone out to work in collective farms. Anyone who complained was imprisoned.

All intellectuals were imprisoned; teachers, politicians, diplomats. If you were Cambodian and could speak a foreign language, you were obviously clever, so you were imprisoned.

The regime's paranoia went as far as imprisoning those who wore spectacles because it was a sign of intellect.

Above the entrance gate a sign displays its name as The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. It was also known as S-21 within the Khmer Rouge security structure.

It was a former High School and as we walked inside it still looked like a school. There were four blocks of three tiered class rooms, one North, one South, and two along the West side.

In the centre was a grassed sports area. You could quite easily imagine it filled with the laughter of children at play, alive with the innocence of youth.

That is until you looked closer. We walked past what appeared to be a simple climbing frame to read that it was used for torture. I suppose we shouldn't have been so surprised!

They tied the hands behind the back then lifted them up off the floor by the cuffed wrists. They left them hanging there in this unnatural position until sometimes the arms became dislocated from their sockets. That must have been such unimaginable agony.

A list of the regulations by which all the inmates had to adhere by was displayed on a board outside. There was one rule in particular that was terrible; rule 6 "whilst receiving lashes or electrification you must not cry at all."

#Failure to comply with any of the laws would result in a severe beating and sadistic torture. How could anyone be so inhumane?

Heng and I entered Building A. Julie refused to come inside as if she had some sixth sense. I'm glad she did as it would have been far too upsetting for her.

In the first room a solitary rusty bed stood in the middle. The frame bashed; the restraints still in place.

On the wall above was a photograph of what was found in this cell when the prison was liberated. A pulverised corpse of a prisoner bludgeoned to death, still chained to this interrogation bed.

His remains were hardly distinguishable as human form such were the severity of the injuries. I felt sickened to the pit of my stomach at the brutality.

This was only the first cell of several along the ground floor of Building A; each one repeated the same evil tale. Apparently the Vietnamese Army were almost at the gates of Toul Sleng whilst the prison guards were still torturing and killing the remaining prisoners. The photographs of these mutilated bodies were taken by the Vietnamese soldiers. The graves of the fourteen found now lay in front of Building A.

We moved on to the ground floor of Building B which housed a gallery filled with the photographs of petrified faces.

These were mug-shots of people who glaringly feared for their lives. You could see the distress in their eyes. The terror they must have endured was appalling. You could feel the heavy presence of death in this room.

Each face we saw was a face that died soon afterwards. Julie could not continue through here and walked out almost in tears.

There were even some photos of children who got caught up in this madness. Children!? What had they done to deserve this fate?

Heng explained that sometimes if a prisoner was considered a major threat then they would just annihilate his entire family, from grand parents down to new born babies. The evil was beyond belief.

At the end of this gallery were distressing photos of dead prisoners who had been beaten beyond what their bodies could survive.

Meticulously kept records show that over seventeen thousand prisoners were processed through S-21 and only seven people remained alive when the prison was liberated.

The vast majority of deaths did not occur at Toul Sleng prison but were instead transported out to the numerous killing fields to be exterminated en mass.

Heng said "I don't agree when people say Pol Pot killed his own people".

This freaked Julie out as she thought he was defending the madness, but he continued. "It was not only Cambodians but Chinese, British, Americans." In amongst all these photos was the tragic face of an Australian who was arrested and later killed.

I wondered what his story was. How did he find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time?

The front of Building C had been covered with an electric mesh. The shock was designed to be extremely painful but not to kill because it would otherwise been far too conveniently used as a method of escaping their torture by committing suicide.

Inside were individual cells, small red brick enclosures, hardly 3ft by 6ft. They were provided with nothing, no sanitation, no bedding, they were left to sleep on the floor, which I'm sure was the least of their worries.
 

The room still looked like a classroom, only filled with bricks. A hastily hacked hole had been made through the wall into the next classroom with more cells, and the pattern continued.

Julie remained outside throughout. With her hand held to her mouth she looked as if she was going to be sick.

Heng told us that apparently on the first floor the cells were made of wood, and was used to house female prisoners, and on the second floor the large classrooms were just filled to bursting with prisoners. They would filter through the system. Initially kept in the large holding pens they would be then selected for interrogation and brought down to cells.

The final section, Building D, was kept in very good condition because this was used by the prison officers as their administrative offices.

Now it housed artwork from one of the survivors of Toul Sleng, Vann Nath.

 

He was curiously spared his life because of his talent and painted many pieces for the prison administration. They were a record of the atrocities as if they were proud of what they were doing?

I'm unsure if all the art on display were painted for the Khmer Rouge or were created after he was free but they all graphically showed the difference forms of torture and execution.

One showed a restrained prisoner, having already had his nipples cut off with pincers, suffering further with a scorpion on the chest to dig away at the wound.

The principle of pain upon pain was evident in another painting of a prisoner whose fingers had been cut off having vinegar or alcohol poured over the hands.

The worst of all the artwork were those showing soldiers killing babies by either beating them against a tree trunk or throwing them up in the air and bayoneting them.

That must be the most depraved acts of evil I have ever heard.

At the end of block D use to be the infamous Cambodia Map of Skulls.

This has now been taken down as they thought it was in bad taste.

The skulls are now kept in a glass case in the room and a small photograph has replaced the original. I felt terribly sick leaving here.

As we stepped out of the gates our driver wasn't there. We could see Heng getting a little anxious as a troop of maimed beggars hobbled in our direction. He got onto his mobile to phone 'whore'. Next we heard a ring tone from behind us and the cheeky chimp appearing from around the corner with such a sheepish grin. I wonder what he'd been up to?! He made us laugh which felt odd, almost wrong, after an hour of intense repulsion and sadness.

Our respite from the horrors of those "not nice people" as Veasna called them was only brief because our next attraction was to visit the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. This was fifteen kilometres out of the city down quite a bumpy dirt track road, which apparently during the rainy season becomes an impassable quagmire.

When we arrived at the gates a group of charming children were singing the familiar song "One Dollar for Photo Please Mister". I took a photo and gave my $1 to the youngest of the group. Her face lit up.

There was a calm ambience about the place, almost pleasant.

It could have been a gentle stroll in the park on the surface.

That illusion was shattered when you walked up to a shelter which informs you that this pit was the final resting place of over 180 people.You walk along to another dip in the field, another 100 bodies found.

Choeng Ek has eighty six mass graves with eight thousand six hundred and forty victims, with probably many others yet to be unearthed.

As the paths are worn into the ground they continually reveal bones in the dirt; an unclaimed fragment of someone's remains.

 
We saw several piles along these paths. The place is literally littered with bones. It has to be one of the most morbid places on earth.

The whole country is full of these so called 'killing fields'. Over three hundred have been discovered although this was possibly the worse. In the four years the Khmer Rouge were in power over 20% of Cambodia's population perished, either through malnutrition or murdered. That's over two million souls.

A large memorial stupa has been built here at Choeng Ek here to house the skulls of those recovered in these fields.

They have all been arranged according to age and sex; males on one shelf, females on another, twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, and on it went.

You could see the gruesome evidence of their execution on several skulls. Some with holes or large fractures; some had half the head missing.

At least we were spared the skulls of children.

With all that we had seen this morning we left here in a very sombre and reflective mood. How this country has suffered. During the early seventies it had been dragged into the Vietnam War and the East of the country was carpet bombed into oblivion. Then the insanity of the Khmer Rouge regime brought the nation to the brink of extinction. Then the communist Vietcong invaded and a civil war ruled the land until 1989. Since the UN intervention this traumatised nation has pulled itself together and now there is a strong air of optimism. Cambodia deserves a bright future and those cheeky charming children at the gates smiling once more for another photograph deserve a future. The atrocities of the past should no longer haunt them.

Perhaps a change of name is in order to signal a bright new future. Maybe they should take a leaf out of the Siamese book and become known as Khmerland! It's not as silly as it sounds because the informal name used by the Khmer people for their country is Srok Khmae which literally means "Khmer Land". (srok = land; Khmae = Khmer). Although Cambodia has changed its name before in the past to Kampuchea but that name now seriously suffers from the stigma of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. The country's formal name is Prâteh Kampuchea in the Khmer language.

Anyway, back to the city we returned and went to 'Phsar Toul Tom Poung' or better known as the Russian market. It's so called because it used to be the best place to buy communist military memorabilia such as medals, hats, flags and Kalashnikovs. Heng offered another explanation; apparently during the eighties it was popular with Russian tourists. As the Vietnamese occupation installed a communist regime it attracted mainly communist tourists from neighbouring Laos, Vietnam, China and also from the Eastern Bloc countries like Russia, East Germany or um …. Bulgaria! But I didn't think comrades were allowed to leave the country during those dark secretive iron curtain days?

As we were totally disinterested with the Central Market yesterday we tried to be a little more enthusiastic today. We didn't exactly shop 'til we dropped but we had a good go. It wasn't a grand structure like the Central Market but it was a far better market for souvenirs. I finally found the traditional red and white krama, Khmer scarf, that I was looking for and Julie bought a silk scarf with Chinese motifs in a beautiful red colour. (Or 'mofits' as Julie once called them in Woolworths!) The school teacher Heng informed Julie that the colour red is very lucky in Chinese folklore. He was funny in that respect, as if he was born to be a teacher. He took great pride in teaching you a new fact. He'd puff out his chest and nod when he knew he had increased our knowledge. It's a shame that he can earn more money as a guide.

As a true teacher he didn't like it if you were too clever for him! Yesterday at Wat Phnom an elephant walked past and Heng asked "What is the largest mammal in the world?" expecting Julie to instinctively be fooled into saying "Elephant" but she didn't. She correctly answered "Whale" and you could see how disappointed he was. "Oh,…uh… yes, … that's right" he mumbled and shuffled away!

We were really enjoying the Russian market. We even had some fun bartering as I bought a carving of an Apsara dancer. I expertly bargained the price down from $8 to $6. As he was placing it on a bag for me I noticed a price sticker in Cambodian riel on it. He hurriedly peeled it off before Heng saw it. "Did that say $1 in Cambodian money?" I joked.

He couldn't stop laughing and protested his innocence! "Don't worry," I said "I'm happy with $6, you're happy with $6. It's no problem". We shook hands and he threw in a free bamboo flute for Julie!

I don't like this hard bargaining lark. It just doesn't seem fair to me. As an example a little further down we heard this pompous French guy bargaining quite forcefully. He was practically bullying the seller into giving it away. For the sake of a few dollars, just give the poor girl a break! I bet he feels big and clever having screwed any profit that she was going to make!

Further along I found myself getting very excited when I found someone selling a Cambodia flag. I must admit to having this "thing" about flags and have quite a collection at home. Although I'm not too sure why?

We continued to walk around stalls full of motorbike spare parts and electrical bits and bobs. We then crossed a central food hall, for want of a better description, where we saw the world's most unappetising of appetisers; a tray full of deep fried spiders, super-sized! They were huge gargantula-sized arachnids. I just couldn't imagine eating anything worse. "Hungry?" asked Heng. Despite his crap timing he actually didn't mean the spiders. It was only 11:30am and our appetites had unsurprisingly left the country but we nevertheless decided to go for lunch. It meant the bonus of an early release from our chaperone.

We drove out along Sihanouk Boulevard and stopped at a restaurant snappily called Khmer Kitchen. When we arrived I asked if I could choose from the menu. The pleasant waiter nodded his head encouragingly but then said "No, you choose the drink, and we'll show you food." I protested with an almighty huff and quite firmly explained that I did not want stir fried veg. "Yes, you can choose any set menu" he said.

Now whilst that sounded like a great compromise, when I looked at all six set menus the only non-meat option for me was bloody STIR FRIED bloody VEGETABLES! Well, I just couldn't take it anymore and I started to unravel. I went off on a rant, "No, no, no! I do not want stir fried veg!" I pointed to each set menu in succession with such force I'm surprised I didn't dislocate a finger bashing the table with a hammering thud. I repeated "stir fried veg, stir fried veg, stir fried veg, stir fried veg …." with increasing pitch until I squeaked like a bat, visibly alarming the waiter. I had in that moment completely lost my senses and was shaking and quite emotional.

With my desperation blatantly on show they granted my wish, well almost, as they suggested a Tofu Green Curry as an option. I am so glad that I like tofu! It was certainly worth kicking up a fuss because when it arrived it was the tastiest dish I had eaten in Cambodia; absolutely delicious. Julie wasn't as enamoured over her half a chicken because she couldn't get out of her mind the possibility that the greasy pieces of bones with some meat attached on her plate could have been frog meat!

When we returned to the hotel we were shattered. Our plans of wandering up Sisowath Quay went out the window as we spent the afternoon recharging our batteries in our room and lounging by the pool. The emotion today had taken quite a lot physically out of us. We just wanted to sleep! The afternoon flew by with us in this comatose state. Sadly we had to miss today's Silly Swimming Gala performance as we left early for our sunset river cruise. It was a pity because yesterday's silver medallist arrived, complete with a bright orange lifebuoy. I would have loved to have seen what he was going to do with that?

Heng picked us up about 5:00pm and took us down to the river to find our boat. The water level was surprisingly low so we had to walk down the muddy banks of the Tonle Sap along wooden planks that squelched and sank into the filth as we put our weight on them. Now Julie's not the most balanced of customers in the acrobatic sense and walking the plank was not her forte! She shuffled along cautiously, wobbling as if it were a tightrope, edging her way nearer to the boat until she reached the final plank.

This final section was the most daunting as it was a very sharp incline to get onto the boat and by some trick of the mind seemed much narrower than all the others.

I went first and as soon as I stepped onto the plank it started to bend. By the time I was at the midpoint I was left bouncing in no man's land, out of reach of the boat crew, waiting for it to snap.

Whilst I found it difficult, Julie found it near on impossible! She was stranded in that same point of no return, bouncing up and down, wobbling, and desperately trying to discover her centre of gravity by waving her arms like a novice surfer. She almost fell arse over tit, head first into the shit, when she over compensated a wobble, briefly rising up on one leg, before wobbling back and into the stabilising hand of the captain.

Off we pushed and down river we floated, passing along the way the Royal Palaces. From our low vantage point we didn't see much. We joined the amalgamated rivers and crossed to the far side where we sailed up close to a Cham floating village. Heng explained that the Cham people are ethnically different to the Vietnamese. They were displaced centuries ago and now live peacefully in Central Vietnam.

Life went on despite our intrusion. Supper was being cooked on a gas fire on board their floating wooden shed. The children were swimming and larking about waving at us mischievously. Something tells me they were calling us names!

Julie was talking to Heng about our flight back to Bangkok tomorrow and about how she hates flying.

He then came up with a peculiar Chinese proverb. "When you fly, you sit next to your coffin"!

He wasn't helping!

As the boat turned around for the return leg we saw the deep orange sun blazing behind the city's skyline. It was very dramatic.

We sailed past fishermen casting their nets, silhouetted against the beautiful backdrop. This alone was worth the sixty minute boat ride.

We returned to the banks of the Tonle Sap and found getting off the boat far easier than getting on, although Heng did miss a step and planted his left foot right in the sludge.

He wasn't at all impressed at soiling his cream chinos and whilst we were trying our best to suppress the laughter, fighting back the giggles was not that easy!

We went straight from here to our restaurant for this evening. It was called Hua Nam and looked very pleasant. It was more Chinese in style than Cambodian with a high percentage of red and gold in the décor. After the "success" of lunchtime I was feeling confident that we were going to have a great meal tonight.

When the waiter arrived I calmly explained that I did not eat meat but also did not want stir fried vegetables. He smiled and without batting and eyelid he said "Yes, we have many choices for you. You have Fried Vegetables?" I had a vision of delicious Tempura and said "OK, that'll be fine." I felt pleased with myself that tonight had gone without any emotional outburst and was looking forward to my meal.

Our food arrived, and proudly displayed in front of me was a dish of Fried Vegetables - stirred. That's right; the same fucking dish that I had endured all week! I could have shoved chopsticks in my eyes to stop myself from having to eat it. I felt like bashing my head against the table until my forehead bled. I could have done some serious and grievous bodily harm to someone in those early moments. Fortunately nobody crossed me as I shovelled it down in a strop. I was too hungry to send it back in protest.

They did redeem themselves slightly with a bowl of tofu and seaweed. It tasted very salty, almost fishy and I wouldn't have been surprised to have found a barnacle or two in the murky waters. Julie wasn't having much better luck either. Her shrimp soup made her recoil with revulsion and she was convinced they were trying to pass off pig's ears as the thinly sliced pork in her sweet and sour dish. She always gets a bit wound up the night before a flight!

We didn't hang around for long. In fact only ten minutes after being served our food we were paying our bill and heading for the exit. Heng almost choked on his Soya bean milk by the surprise of seeing us marching out. "Not hungry?" he asked.

He had given us a questionnaire earlier in the day where I had raised the issue of the stir fried handcuffs so we didn't make a big deal now as not to make Heng feel personally responsible. It's really for his superiors at Hanuman Tours to address. For five minutes we stood in silence at the pavement whilst we waited for the driver to arrive. At least we had the company of lizards and cockroaches to entertain us because Heng wasn't in the mood to talk. You could tell he was quite concerned about our negative experience.

We returned to our hotel via a diversion through the permanent riverside fun fair that was just a short distance away. It was fascinating to see tents erected with hammocks for hire. Row upon row were slung up within the view of a Widescreen television. What a great idea!

When he left us at the hotel he must have considered the situation and surprised us by saying that tomorrow he will not take us to a restaurant for lunch and would pick us up at 5:30pm to take us to the airport. Finally! We almost hugged him we were so happy! We thanked him so much that I think we frightened him again!

We celebrated our liberation by going to the hotel bar and ordering a pizza!! Oh, my God! My taste buds had died and gone to heaven! We had a roasted onion, garlic and artichoke on a mozzarella, pesto and tomato sauce base. We groaned with such ecstatic pleasure that perverted food fetishists would have paid good money to have watched us. I couldn't remember the last time we had eaten with such gratification before!

On the subject of odd sexual behaviour, as we retired to bed, we walked past room 625 who had his door left wide open. An open door is an open invitation to peer inside but how we wish we hadn't. The occupant was sitting there, watching the TV in his underpants, giving his bollocks a good old scratch. How foul.

   
Tuesday 30th November 04 >>  
©Copyright Colin Owen 2005 Contact me at c.a.owen@bangor.ac.uk