Firstly, I make no apologies that this is a long blog. There's much I want to convey about the appalling history of Cambodia and the slaughtering of its people. It also doesn't make for an easy read...
As we crossed the border and into Cambodia, the landscape soon changed to that of lush green paddy fields dotted with tethered bony cows. It was considerably less built up than Vietnam - life looks much more simple and rural.
The road to PP was as straight as a dart for mile upon mile, with very little traffic. At frequent intervals along the road, we passed countless political party billboards (Cambodia People's Party - the current government, Cambodia National Rescue Party, Funcinpec Party and numerous others I couldn't make out from the bus), which given its unforgivable past, made me wonder just how stable this country currently is.
Bus views as we start to get closer to Phnom Penh
Sure enough, as we were driving through the city, Rod spoke about the political troubles and unrest with its people towards their thoroughly corrupt government. He warned that the country could be on the brink of a civil war at any time and we should be prepared to leave the city quickly if told to do so. Highly unlikely given our very short stay, but it did make me feel a little uneasy nevertheless.
The current government have been in power since 1979. The results of the general elections last summer were broadcast live on TV. It looked as though the opposition party, Funcinpec, were going to win, much to the delight of the population - finally the chance for some changes. Then the TV coverage went down, only for hours later a public announcement to be made that the existing party were victorious. Unsurprisingly, there have been cries for an independent investigation and public demonstrations ever since.
After a quick orientation walk through the market (less sanitised of all the food markets we've seen so far) to the river front (complete with park benches sponsored by Prudential!), we had a group cyclo tour. We had a quick photo stop at Wat Phnom before the wind suddenly whipped up and the heavens opened. We got a drenching which was both uncomfortable and amusing in equal measures... the tour was cut short to get us all back to the comfort of the hotel.
We only had 2 nights here and the main reason was to visit Toul Sleng Prison (also known as S21) and the Killing Fields.
Our guide was excellent and gave us so much information on the history and the current political state of his country. Sadly, he lost three older brothers and his mother and aunt were raped during Pol Pot's reign.
Quick history of Pol Pot's and the Khmer Rouge regime -1975-1979
Cambodia was deeply affected by the Vietnam War. Once the Americans found the Viet Cong Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran down the Vietnam/Cambodia border, they bombed vast areas and many innocent Cambodians were killed. This, coupled with an equally corrupt Lon Nol government heavily supported by the US, lead to many Cambodians to support the Khmer Rouge. When they overturned the government in April 1975, there were celebrations and rejoicing on the streets of Phnom Penh, in anticipation of liberation and a new start.
Literally hours later the Khmer Rouge soldiers drove through the city forcing its inhabitants to leave. They told people they only had to leave for 3 days as the Americans were going to bomb the city. People were evacuated with few possessions and mostly on foot for mile after mile in burning heat.
Three years, 8 months and 20 days later the regime ended. In that entire time, no-one was allowed to return to the city, their people deceived from the off. Pol Pot's (abbreviation of Political Potential) aim was to create a utopia of simple, rural folk and to rid the country of any western or city influences. To achieve this 'vision', the genocide of Cambodians took place during his almost 4 year reign of terror.
People were enslaved to work up to 20 hours a day in the fields. Thousands died of starvation or disease even before the mass murders took place. Anyone with an education and white collar job were considered a threat and were to be disposed of.
After the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, they set about adapting a school into a secret prison, for the purpose of torturing 'VIP' prisoners (lawyers, civil servants, doctors etc) and commoners. Of the 17,000 who were imprisoned here, all but seven died from the brutality. Of those survivors, two still live today. Incredulously, they are both present each day in the prison grounds having both written books on their ordeal, and are there to sign copies. It was so humbling to see a man (known as Chum Mey), now aged 73, who was once kept chained in a tiny cell and made to clean up his own defecation with his tongue because his body was too weak to use the box provided for waste. We bought his book, 'Survivor', which will undoubtedly be a difficult read.
The Khmer Rouge made detailed records of the prisoners and after the regime had ended, hundreds of photographs were found of point of entry and of death for each prisoner, as macabre before and after shots. These are on display throughout what was once the cells of the prison, and made for grim viewing.
It's unspeakable just how gruesome the prison torture and the treatment was to its captives, it was a very upsetting and chilling visit.
The buildings have changed very little externally since they were in use - there were 196 places like Tuol Sleng across the country
Cells just like Chum Mey had, and the man himself
Cell numbers etched into the wall by the guards
Choeng Ek - The Killing Fields
We were then taken to one of the Killing Fields located 15 minutes out of the city. At its peak up to 300 people would arrive here each night, transported by trucks for their imminent fate.
The site consisted of many mass graves, once filled with decapitated bodies because the Khmer Rouge believed a soul cannot reincarnate if there is no head. We also saw a memorial building housing 9,000 skulls excavated from the area, categorised by age and gender.
Bracelets left around the mass graves by visitors in remembrance
Memorial housing some of the skulls found
The sign says it all... they went to great lengths to ensure their operation went undetected
The most disturbing of all was a grave next to a tree. When excavated in 1980, it was found full of naked women and children. The Khmer Rouge used the tree to smash the skulls of babies, whilst unblindfolding the women so they could watch. Words cannot describe. I felt sick to my stomach and couldn't stop the tears for the pain and suffering of these poor people. It's so incredibly hard to believe what humans are capable of doing to each other.
Only 5 Khmer Rouge leaders have been charged for their part in the atrocities, and four of those are STILL on trial. One who has been sentenced to life has had a $1 million purpose built cell made, whilst the average Cambodian earns just $1.25 a day. Even today, the government instils fear into the populous by saying if they don't vote for them, the Khmer Rouge will return.
This poor, poor nation. There appears to be no justice whatsoever.