We had been to Cambodia before, 3 years ago, to see Angkhor Wat.
Stunning – but still an eye opener to the poverty and desolate lifestyle of many people.
It did not however prepare us for Phnom Penh.
Right from the moment we arrived at the boat landing in the city we were met by the most abject looking individuals I have ever encountered. The people, almost everyone (or so it seemed to me) was wearing a look of absolute misery. Immediately asking either to help (with hand held out) or just begging. All ages. Even the children are very practised at this ( this was the same in Angkhor, but there the children generally greeted you with a smile).
Upon arrival we picked a taxi driver to take us to the hotel. Same as before, here was a guy with a car who wanted to be our guide for a few days. At $30 US per day, including car and driver/guide, that’s a steal, but of course requires one to be careful in selecting a partner for a few days. By the time we arrived at the hotel, about 35 minutes ride, we had decided to trust the guy, and hired him. Mind you, in that ½ hr he had already given us another of what seems to be the spiel there, all about his family having been bombed by the Americans, then killed by the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot and then “liberated” by the Vietnamese. So much so that his mother, who had 12 Children, had lost all but 4 of them and now (my age) could never stop crying!
What a start.
First up we went to see the genocide museum – one of the killing fields from the Khmer Rouge / Pol Pot days.
How could/can people do that.
The entrance is a tower full of skulls, which show off the killing methods. No bullets used – would not waste the ammo; hammer or other blunt instrument blows or driving nails into the head; axes to the head; throats cut, sometimes with the serrated edge of a fresh cut palm tree branch. Bodies were then tossed into mass graves and buried. At the base of the tower was a pile of clothes removed from the prisoners.
Men, women and children, all killed here.
One should also remember that these atrocities were largely committed by children too, under the leadership of only a few adults.
We employed a guide for the museum – the whole aspect of the place, along with his stories (also of how is family was decimated) was extremely depressing.
After this, and in order to get all this out of the way quickly, we went to the infamous Tuong Slor prison of torture and death. This was the processing facility for people going to the killing fields. It had once been a school – what a corruption. Right in the middle of a residential district too, though one must also remember that Pol Pot emptied the cities and made everyone work in the fields. Being anything other than a peasant qualified one, and one’s family, for the prison and/or the killing fields. Teachers, doctors, politicians, civil servants, bosses – almost anything could get one arrested; even something as trivial as wearing glasses got one classed as an intellectual and arrested.
The prison was even worse than the killing fields with all the cell layout and torture tools on show, as well as pictures of the victims and paintings (done by a guy now participating in the recent Khmer Rouge trials) of the torture. There was also a film that followed the life story of one woman and her lover through that period, with interviews with the mother.
Enough to reduce me to tears.
Once again – it must be remembered that children were trained to do all this.
Talk about mans inhumanity to man.
This all went on until about 1998 when the Khmer Rouge were finally ousted – starting in earnest with the Americans indiscriminately bombing the country (Napalm and Agent Orange too) to try to weed out the VietCong; then progressing through Pol Pot to the fight between the Kmer’s and the Vietnamese who eventually became the liberators of Cambodia – even if not to everyone’s benefit.
Since 1998 gobs of aid money has poured into Cambodia, but there is little evidence today of that aid getting to the general population. There are still raggedy assed – bare assed – sometimes naked children running round the streets, and there are more dirty/badly clothed people in the streets here than I have seen anywhere else in SE Asia (yet). Not obvious where that money is getting stuck eh?
So that first exposure to Phnom Penh certainly took the edge off our trip. I couldn’t wait to get out, quite honestly, and nothing afterwards, even if we did try to lighten things up for the last couple of days, served to change my mind.
I’ll leave it up to Tricia to tell the story of the other – lighter side, of things.