S: Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh has suffered a great deal of setbacks. After the country gained independence it became a prosperous city in the 1960s. However, all was taken away in 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took over. Today it is a city which is still finding its feet.
Our first sobering visit in Phnom Penh took us to Tuol Sleng, or the Genocide Museum. Once the home of learning Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces in 1975. It was renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21) and the classrooms were converted into torture chambers and holding cells.
We couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sadness as we walked around the museum. Although there was not much information displayed, the bare rooms with their bitter scents spoke volumes.
Once a classroom, under the Khmer Rouge pain and suffering were the only lessons.
At the height of its activity, some 100 victims were killed here every day.
The Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed. When the Vietnamese army rescued Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21. They had largely survived because their skills – such as painting or photography – were deemed useful to the regime.
The barbed wire was put up in order to stop individuals committing suicide by jumping from the windows.
In desperate need of something uplifting, we also visited the tranquil grounds of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace.
The Royal Palace.
With its classic Khmer roofs and opulent gilding the huge palace complex dominates central Phnom Penh. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied the Palace since it was built in the 1860’s, with a period of absence during and shortly after the reign of the Khmer Rouge. One thing which did strike us as bizarre was that there were no benches or seats on which to sit back and relax. It seems a shame such an idyllic setting in Phnom Penh is so restricted.
It could be a scene from a fairytale.
Although we weren’t staying in a five star hotel our accommodation was perfectly adequate. It felt uncomfortably salubrious though when we looked outside of our window and saw another side of Phnom Penh.
The locals hard at work bagging coal.
Phnom Penh had one last gut-wrenching experience in store for us. On our last day in Cambodia we travelled fifty minutes out of town to Choeung Ek, infamously known as The Killing Fields.
A serene setting you may think; perhaps even a golf course? No, this is where thousands of prisoners were massacred and then buried.
On the 17th of April 1975 the Khmer Rouge put into action one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Its goal was to transform Cambodia into an agriculture cooperative. Within days, the entire population of Phnom Penh, including the sick, elderly and infirm, were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Intellectuals were wiped out – having glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed. The arrival of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero.
When wandering through this peaceful, shady former orchard it is hard to imagine the cruelty that unravelled here. A memorial stupa soon brings it home, displaying more than 8000 skulls of victims and their ragged clothes.
Mass grave of 166 victims without heads.
The Khmer Rouge rule was brought to an end by the Vietnamese, who set free the almost empty streets on 7 January 1979. It is estimated 1.7 million people were killed by the hands of Pol Pot and his followers.
As our time in Cambodia nears its end we have developed an unstinting admiration and respect for the country and its people, people who have suffered so much. Cambodia has been upsetting and exhilarating in equal measure; a county which has been through so much and is yet so resilient – an inspiration to all who visit.
The last country on our itinerary is Vietnam. Fellow travellers we have met seem to have either loved it or hated it. We are hoping for the latter. We plan to travel overland from Ho Chi Minh City north to Hanoi, stopping off at a couple of costal towns and backpacker hotspots. Today we journey from Phnom Penh to our last overland border crossing, and then onto Ho Chi Minh City – a metropolis which claims to have nearly as many motorbikes as it has citizens…