The Khmer Rouge – Phnom Penh

The coach journey to Phnom Penh turned out to be a VERY local bus. We made many stops, and there was no rush at all to make it to the city. We were the only tourists and no one spoke English, making life a tiny bit difficult when someone threw up on the bus and suddenly we were all pushing to be first off the bus to stand on the side of the road.

Even with the language barrier we managed to make a few friends, I think we introduced one woman to the concept of a Pringle (the food at the stop looked like a great way to get ill so we played it safe with Cambodian Pringles).

3 hours later than we were meant to, we arrived into Phnom Penh, a much much larger and busier city, with Tarmac roads and traffic systems throughout. The majority of buildings looked substantial and the sheer size of the place was something new!

We were grabbed by a tuk tuk before we even got off the bus (they saw us in the window and all came running over!) and ended up with a lovely guy taking us to the hostel and decided to book him again for the next day.

This day was definatley the hardest so far, with only one day in Phnom Penh, we planned to do both the Killing Fields and Genocide museum in basically one sitting.

Its easy to read up on the history of this country, and I think its often easy to go to museums centred around a war and distance yourself from the event. Maybe from the knowledge that it was so long ago, or even just the glass between you and the artefacts or displays is enough to make everything less real and ‘of another time’.

But at both these places everything just felt so close to home. There was no escaping the awful truths about the Khmer Rouge, what they did and just how recent it all was.

We began the day with the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The fields are obviously a lot different today to how they used to be, many of the sheds and buildings are gone, and the mass graves are all empty leaving these large wells in the earth over the entire area.

The place itself was presented very well, there was a free audio tour that took you round explaining everything, giving accounts of from people on both sides. I was quite grateful for it. Visiting this kind of place without enough information could entirely change your perspective and leave you missing out on so much.

With the tour you could really visualise and understand what had happened here. I’m not sure how much detail to go into on here as it’s both hard to to do the events justice in writing and it’s also subject that is quite upsetting to read about.

I think I’ll just leave it at saying we were told how the prisoners arrived blindfolded, and how they were organised and all logged. We saw so many pits of mass graves and a few that were preserved. You could still see pieces of clothing caught in trees and surfacing at the ground on the paths you were walking. We saw the beautiful monument in the centre of the field filled with the skulls and bones excavated from the site. And for me the hardest thing to see was the mass grave for women and their children. Their babies. And next to it the tree at which they children were thrown against to kill them.

The whole place was truly horrific. Listening to the music the Khmer Rouge blasted over the fields to hide the screams, and seeing the clothes found at the site kept pulling me back to the realisation that this was just so recent. The clothes were hardly different from what the locals wear today. With bright colours and new materials. The speakers in the trees too, you just cant hide behind that knowledge that this was from a different time and that things have changed.

After finding our tuk tuk driver we headed back towards the City, all I could think about was the 20,000 people who never made this very trip back home.

We then, after a break to recover, made our way to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.
Unlike many museums, this was not a building built to hold information on the Genocide. This was an old school, that during the Khmer Rouge was taken over by Pol Pots solders and became a prison that was the largest centre of detention and torture in the country.

The majority of the school was left as they found it. And other sections have been turned into information rooms.

Here you can walk through the torture chambers, the furniture in the same place, a photo on the wall of the room on the day the found it, body of the last to be torture included. You can see the smaller prison cells and the bars and instruments used. The scratch marks up the stairs, chain and weapon marks on the walls and blood stains on the ceilings.

By half way round the atmosphere, heat and lack of food in me made me feel pretty sick, and we took things slow as each room was just as hard as the last.

Displayed we’re the stories of the 7 survivors and the forced biographies of hundreds of those who were tortured until the ‘admitted’ all their wrong doings.

Seeing the mix of prison and torture cells, blackboards and gym set turned Into torture devices was difficult to comprehend. The whole scenario seemed too sick to be real. As did the profile photos of all those sent here displayed in a gallery taking up room after room.

The day was hard, the history here is horrific and so recent. It would be so easy to feel sensitive (I don’t think they come much more sensitive than me when it comes to things like this) and give the place a miss, but, to me at least, it didn’t seem right at all to come to this country and not try and understand what has happened and pay your respects.

I didn’t take any photos, it just didn’t seem right to do so, but there are presumably loads online if you would like to see some.

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