Phnom Penh, Cambodia

12 Jul

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We arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh around 7:30am, got our visas and our bags and proceeded outside where we waited for my girlfriend, FES Tal (FES stands for Foreign Exchange Student as I met FES at Ottawa U while she was completing her degree on exchange from England).

Close to an hour after arriving I saw FES hopping out of a tuk tuk and over to us on one foot, the other wrapped in a white bandage. She reached us, out of breath, and filled us in on how she’d spent the past few hours at the dodgy shanti Phnom Penh hospital having her foot stitched up after having gotten it caught in the spokes of a motorized scooter while on her way home from a club the night before. I still can’t believe she showed up at the airport at all after having hurting herself so badly and having had 12 stitches. My guess is that she was still in shock and hopefully still a bit drunk to numb the pain.

We hailed a tuk tuk, loaded our bags and were on our way back to FES’ Phnom Penh house, a former guest house, that she shared with 5 of her closest friends from England as well as 2 French people. The rooms were enormous and I literally discovered yet another full bathroom each day that we stayed there.

Since we had been traveling for the past 24 hours and had spent an uncomfortable night in the KL airport and with FES in her condition, we spent the afternoon resting, relaxing and catching up. In spite of not having seen each other in 6 years, FES is one of those special friends with whom you can just pick up exactly where you left off as though no time has passed at all.

In the morning, after making sure that 2 of her roommates were able to accompany her to the best hospital in Phnom Penh for a second opinion on the state of her foot, J.J. and I hailed a tuk tuk and made our way to the S-21 museum. Admittedly we didn’t know a whole lot about Cambodia’s harrowing history prior to our visit and so FES recommended we begin our education at this particular location.

Our tuk tuk dropped us off on the side of a dusty road outside what was once a high school. We learned that in 1976, after the Khmer Rouge had won the civil war, this institution of education was renamed S-21 (Security 21) by the Khmer Rouge, the communist party of Kampuchea and its followers, and used as a center for interrogation, torture and in most cases, execution for an estimated 14,000 – 17,000 people. Of the thousands of people captured by the Khmer Rouge and brought to S-21, only 7 people are known to have survived.

So who exactly was the Khmer Rouge? Wikipedia explains the answer to this question relatively simply in saying, “This organization is remembered primarily for its policy of social engineering which resulted in genocide. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the deaths of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide.”

My next question was what exactly caused the Khmer Rouge to capture, interrogate, torture and murder these 14,000 – 17,000 people in particular? Through the literature provided at the entry of S-21, the signage throughout this historical landmark and in speaking to 1 of the 7 people known to have emerged from S-21 alive, I learned that a great number of the victims included mostly academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, activists, their families and eventually even people within the ranks of the Khmer Rouge itself. Very simply put, anyone with an education was believed to threaten the agricultural reform of the Khmer Rouge and was therefore killed for posing a potential threat.

Now that I’ve given you a very top-line background of the history, I can describe the inside of S-21. At first glance it looks like an uncared for series of 2-floor and 3-floor buildings arranged around a meticulously manicured rectangular courtyard. As I began to walk through the worn tiled and concrete floors of these buildings, in and out of the rooms, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I no longer needed any sort of imagination to be able to picture the atrocities that took place only 30 some odd years ago, completely unbeknownst to the rest of the world.

In one building: Iron bars on the windows, bare and scuffed yellowing concrete walls, rusting single bed frames, rusting weapons used for torture laid out, rusting chains used to lock prisoners to their beds and small tin boxes marked “Human Excrement”.

In another building: Walls and walls of black and white mug shots taken of prisoners that had lived out their remaining days being tortured in S-21. Photos of men, women and children. Mug shot photos of women prisoners holding their newborn babies. Photos of starved and tortured prisoners. Confessions, or essentially death warrants, signed by prisoners who were forced to do so during interrogation and torture prior to execution.

In yet another building: Tiny dark cells with barely enough room for a grown person to lie down. Holes the size of baseballs in the concrete of the cells where the walls meet the floor and sunlight streams in on a good day, where water, insects and snakes filter in on an especially bad day. Wooden doors, with only a very small window, used to cage each person in his or her individual torture chamber. Rusty metal bars hang overhead, once used to hold a prisoner’s hands above his or her head. The same small tin boxes for Human Excrement and the same chained torture weapons as found in the first building. Following the balconies of this particular building is barbed wire fencing to prevent suicide of any escaped prisoners.

In the courtyard: The Gallows – the following is verbatim from the sign beside the gallows in the courtyard, “This pole with cables attached to it had been used by the students to conduct their exercise. The Khmer Rouge utilized this place as an interrogation room. The interrogators tied both hands of the prisoners to the back by a rope and lift the prisoners upside down. They did like this until the prisoners lost consciousness. Then they dipped the prisoners head into a jar of smelly, filthy water, which they normally used as fertilizer for the crops in the terrace outside. By doing so the prisoners quickly regain consciousness and then the interrogators could continue their interrogation.”

Also in the courtyard: The Security of Regulation – the following is verbatim, from the sign declaring The Security of Regulation to be followed by S-21 prisoners:

  1. You must answer accordingly to my questions – don’t turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something you must do it immediately without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
  9. If you don’t follow the above rules you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either 10 lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Needless to say, we left feeling heavy hearted, in complete disbelief that all of this had happened in relative secrecy from the rest of the world, extremely saddened for the victims and their families and with an understanding that anyone we saw over the age of 32, J.J.’s age, had lived through the genocide. As we got to thinking, we also realized that many Cambodians had been denied the opportunity to benefit from a formal education as educators in their many forms were executed during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

We sat quietly in the tuk tuk as we drove through Phnom Penh to Riverside, the area of town along the river flanked by a number of bars and restaurants. We sat outside and before long were approached by a boy of 7 or 8 toting a cardboard box of photocopied books to sell. I showed interest in ‘First They Killed My Father’ (a book I highly recommend reading to learn more about Cambodia’s history) as well as the Vietnam Lonely Planet.

As we bargained back and forth, I commented on how well he spoke English to which he responded, “you can do anything if you work hard and study hard”. Wise words for someone of the ripe old age of 7 or 8 but I imagine you’re taught to appreciate the gift and privilege of an education if you’re born to parents who were denied that same gift and privilege.

So did I buy the books or not? I did, after we agreed to rock, paper, scissors for them. If I won 3 games I would pay the price I proposed, if he won, I would pay the price he proposed. I won, but also gave him my remaining Malaysian currency in the amount of close to $10.

We had plans to meet J.J.’s friend, Rob, and his girlfriend Meaghan for drinks and dinner  later that evening and so J.J. and I decided to visit the Royal Palace. Unfortunately I had forgotten to toss my pashmina in my bag when we’d left FES’s house that morning and so I was denied entry for my hussy look of a maxi dress and bare shoulders.

We killed time walking around the city and enjoying the breeze blowing off the chocolate-milk looking river until it was time to meet Rob and Meaghan at the Foreign Correspondence Club for a drink. From there, the boys rode off together into the sunset on Rob’s motorcycle while Meaghan and I enjoyed the ‘cool’ of the dark night sky and walked to the Lazy Gecko. Good food, cheap drinks and great company – I even saw a cat chase a cockroach into the kitchen and eat it on a trip to the washroom. (You know you’ve been on the backpacker trail for a while when a scene like that doesn’t even cause you to flinch. In fact, I walked back to the table and finished my dinner.)

In the morning we visited with FES, who had been instructed to return to Phnom Penh’s best hospital every day for a week to have her stitches examined and her dressings changed. We got to see firsthand just how amazing her friends are, as there was never a shortage of volunteers to accompany her to her appointments.

When FES left with Hayley and Rich for the hospital, J.J. and I negotiated a rate with a tuk tuk driver to take us to the Killing Fields just outside of town. It was going to be another heavy day and J.J. and I rode there, along the dusty roads, in nearly complete silence as we tried to mentally prepare ourselves for what we were about to experience.

We accepted the offer of an audio tour and placed the headphones over our ears. I can honestly say I don’t think anything could ever have prepared me for the haunting feeling of walking through the grounds, listening to the history of every step as well as the personal recounts told by survivors themselves by way of translators. Harrowing tales of starvation, separation from family, brutally violent rape, beatings and torture.

While the experience in its entirety was life-changing, 2 things in particular struck me as especially horrific. The first is the white and glass building that we encountered as soon as we walked through the gates. Shelves upon shelves stacked one on top of another, filled to capacity with the bones and the cracked skulls of the people who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge right there at that very field.

The second was the Killing Tree. It is a thick-trunked tree growing out of the ground on a 45-degree angle. Colourful handmade bracelets have been fashioned to the tree in memory of the babies and children who were beat to death against it. Beside the tree is a thatch-roof covered patch of earth enclosed by bamboo posts, all of which also bear the colourful bracelets. This was the grave where the Khmer Rouge would dispose of the bodies of the children and babies that they’d killed. Even writing this some weeks later, I have a lump in my throat and chill down my spine. I can’t say enough how completely unbelievable it is to me that the killings that took place in these fields were successfully kept secret from neighbouring farmers, in addition to the rest of the world.

It was another deafeningly silent ride back to Phnom Penh for J.J. and I. We were completely awestruck and still processing everything we’d just seen and heard and learned.

We decided to try to return to the world in its current state at a coffee shop just outside the Russian Market before eventually wandering through. The Russian Market sells everything from clothing to jewelry to fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also completely covered – great if it’s raining but also makes for extreme heat. We lasted only about 20 minutes before deciding to walk back to FES’s.

We had a relatively quiet evening, joining FES and her housemates for dinner in Riverside at a new restaurant called Chat and Chew before needing time to recover from the experiences of the past couple of days.

That morning we woke up to more house drama. While we’d all been asleep, someone had climbed the iron gate and stolen the 2 motorbikes parked in the front yard. One of the motorbikes was being rented and resulted in the loss of a pretty significant deposit and the other had only been purchased the night before. We later found out that the house was being watched for about 4 nights prior to the break-in and it was confirmed that it was most definitely a professional job.

Later that morning, we planned to go for breakfast at the Blue Pumpkin, a bakery, gelato shop and restaurant we discovered and had fallen in love with. We also bought our bus ticket to Battabang for the following day at a local travel agent where we met a character of a man, to say the least. He was born in Sri Lanka but raised in England. He talked in circles, contradicting himself at every turn, for close to an hour, passionately trying to convince us in this  one-sided conversation why the Islamic religion is trump, attempting to explain why so many North American women of my demographic (mid-twenties and white – his words, not mind) are converting to Islamic. Very, very strange experience.

When we managed to get out of this conversation, we began walking to the Royal Palace. I had an ankle-length dress on and a pashmina to fully cover my back, chest, arms and shoulders. Again, I was denied. The Royal Palace is apparently not much for scarves. Lesson learned: to visit the Royal Palace you must wear a t-shirt, even if it’s extremely tight, barely has sleeves and your very large breasts are hanging out (this is what the woman ahead of me in line was wearing – she got in).

We hailed a tuk tuk and asked him to take us to a run-down building in a very rough neighbourhood so that we could take some photos. The building has particular significance and will be shared in my next post about the Cambodian sex trade.

We arrived back at Tal’s with enough time to shower and make ourselves presentable for the birthday celebration of one of Tal’s friends, Sara. Tal was such a trooper, even though Sara’s apartment was a 4-floor walk-up she braved the stairs to wish her friend a happy birthday.

From Sara’s, Tal and a few of her roommates decided to call it a night while J.J. and I went on to the dive bar, Absinthe, with the others. (No, I didn’t drink any, but I will wager that CK made yet another appearance.) Rob and Meaghan were able to join us and from Absinthe we went on to Pontoon, the nearby dance club. I’ll just say that we had an awesome, awesome night and made it home safely in a tuk tuk with FES’s roommate.

When the sun came up the next day, it was time for J.J. and I to pack up our things and head to Central Market where we had to catch our bus to Battabang. We said our goodbyes to FES, happy that she’d chosen to book a flight home to the U.K. for later that week to receive proper medical care for her foot and excited that we’ll have the chance to see her again in September. We can’t wait to see this crazy House of Brit in their homeland in just a couple of months – look out London!


One Response to “Phnom Penh, Cambodia”

  1. Talia Smith July 13, 2012 at 14:47 #

    Good write-up Kait!! Im still SO, so bummed I couldnt have been the tour (and party!) guide I would have loved to have been for you guys!! Wickid to have you visit never the less and il be the London tour/party guide instead!!! xox

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