Monthly Archives: December 2016
I’m not really quite sure where to start with our afternoon of culture in Phnom Phen. I had done VERY little reading on the Khmer Rouge era and Pol Pot’s regime and as a result I think I was even more shocked with all of the information that I absorbed. First off, in the heat of the day after our lunch, was The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) where I had tried fish amok as suggested to try by H and actually enjoyed it, using quite a meaty fish makes it not quite so fishy tasting which I think might have stopped me from perhaps trying it again.
First we paid our respects at the (Buddhist) Memorial Stupa, erected in 1988, to honour the victims of the atrocities that took place here. This particular location is only one of over 300 locations currently been identified across Cambodia and it is believed that at this location ALONE 17,000 men, women & children were killed. I think I had read about the tower of skulls prior to my visit but had not really taken it in. It was breathtaking, as in a shocking way. It wasn’t just a tower of skulls, it told you on the glass as they were separated into sections by sex, age and what was presumed to have happened to them from the excavations. I spent a while taking in all that these victims were put through by reading the labels on all four sides. 8,000 skulls lie here in sections. Each individual was savagely tortured before being brutally murdered in some of the most barbaric circumstances and this was something that was happening around the time my parents were getting married and up to the first year of my life. Bullets weren’t used as they were considered to be wasted if used to murder in this way. This happened IN my lifetime.
People were rounded up, mainly from what was the prison at the time called S-21 a former primary school that we were going to visit later the same day. Mainly in the dead of night after being blindfolded and brought out here on trucks. Loud music was played from a speaker placed high up in a tree so that the noises from the victims were not heard from neighbours at the time. There seemed to be no specific criteria for those destined for a gruesome ending, if you had a job, were an intellectual and even young, tiny children were taken. All to be ‘re-educated’ they were told after interrogation to learn more – nope taken to be slaughtered. The thing I think that got me the most about this site is that it is still only part excavated. There are still remnants of bones or teeth and sometimes even clothes that have been brought to the surface of the ground through rain and so on. Only in the past few years apparently has the wooden walkway been built as visitors had commented that it was like walking all over their graves to be walking direct on the ground.
There were several mass graves here (only 43 of the 129 communal graves have been uncovered) and areas which had significance such as the tree where the loud speaker hung that played the music whilst the killing took place. The other one that was really really quite hard to take in was the tree against which the youngest children were battered. Sorry to paint such a bleak picture but LITERALLY whacked against after being held by their feet so that their skulls were crushed. Then casually tossed into the mass grave next to it. Bodies would be gayly tossed into the air and caught on spears – as if for fun. It was worryingly easy to envisage and therefore simple horrendous to think of. What totally got me was the information on the age of these Khmer soldiers. I’d imagined them to be twenties upwards ish but 20s being the youngest. Not a bit of it – those that did this to these innocent people were anything from 12-17. That’s ONE YEAR older than primary school. On what level did they believe that they were doing the right thing??!!!! They had to have been brainwashed. I kind of lost focus on the info from the guide trying to absorb all the information and more to the point process it. I have some fairly harsh reading to do on my return to fill in the gaps.
It felt awful taking photos of the resting places but it’s important to share the information I feel. Our local guide, Sam, has a few grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and cousins still unaccounted for from the genocide. No remains have been found so they have no inparticular place at which to remember them which, to me, must be one of the hardest things to come to terms with, but the larger memorials to all victims offer him & his family some small amount of solace. Just hearing our guide’s information from the horses mouth as it were, from someone so closely linked to the atrocities kind of made it all hit home a lot harder. Watching him take a moment at each individual board and spot on the site having told us the gruelling information was heartbreaking.
Our final but if culture for the day and indeed year was S-21 the Security Prison which was once Tuol Svay Prey High School. It soon became the largest detention and torture centre in the country holding over 17,000 people between 1975-1978 the majority of whom then all were taken on to the Killing Fields as I mentioned before. Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept a record of every single victim that passed through, some even before AND after their torture. One of the blocks today, B I think it was held rooms and rooms of the individual cells taken out on the bottom floor and boards with faces upon faces of the headshots of the victims of the regime like some sort of glorification or proof of their barbarism. It was sick. Utterly sick. All of them dead behind the eyes, the womens dark hair all chopped off to a bob cut about earlobe level. It was just too horrific to think that of all these faces I was looking at virtually all, bar a handful, were later killed. Even foreigners in Cambodia at the time were inflicted under this regime with some photos of Australians, Kiwis and some from USA in amongst the head shots.
In the latter stages of the Regime the insanity stepped up a level as the torturers were taken over by others who in turn them tortured them. Come 1977 the prison was claiming an average of around 100 victims a day through starvation and torture. But one of the most shocking this is for me which I really hadn’t taken on board is that a huge percentage of these barbaric beings (the Khmer soldiers) now live as ordinary people in Cambodia with few, to no one, aware of their involvement of the regime. Some are being brought to justice and the trials are on going for some, sadly too some of the bastards have since died of natural causes. I find this so grossly unfair in comparison to the number of murders they will have each completed yet they state that they had no idea what was going on.
I, for one, couldn’t do much more of the gruesome images, the constant reminders of the past with the descriptions of the types of torture that was undertaken and the ‘rules’ at the prison. Thankfully we were coming to the end of the tour with our guide and offered free time for a further 20 mins or more to take in the remainder of the site. This was just before meeting two of the prison survivors for that time. I did the tourist thing I’m afraid and had my photo taken with & paid for both of their books of their ecprriejce, memories and indeed life since. I’ve already read a few pages of the first gentleman’s (Bou Meng) who managed to survive as he was a painter and painted portraits of Pol Pot as his means of escaping being re-educated. What the hell do you do when meeting these people? I greeted him with the typical gesture of palms together fingers pointing up and quite high on my chest as a mark of respect. I apologised for what he suffered through, bloody stupid thing to say in reality but my heart was in my throat. I had tears welling up in my eyes as we hugged, squeezy BIG hug and he kissed me on the cheek & said thank you, thank you. A mere flash in the pan but it just seemed to kick me into touch. There was a second survivor Chum Mey (there were 7 originally) with his book there and I too purchased that. I have some fairly hideous films to watch on my return.
UPDATE: interview with Chum Mey 20th Feb 2017
Further beyond the two survivor was another playground area if the former school where you could just envisage the children kicking a ball around. Only in the last year or so has a memorial been built here with plaques with all of the prisoners names on, the photographs and information of whom is in existence from that time. I just stood quietly and strolled round the area. I popped into one of the buildings to see the size of the individual cells but didn’t brave it to the other higher floors where the rooms of victims were larger and more in them. The bodies of the 14 that were in the torture cells at the time of the Vietnamise invasion in 1979 lie in white coffins in the first courtyard are just outside the cells in which they were found. Quite a depressing visit to end the year on but none the less eye opening and fascinating. Looking at the population of Cambodia today there is a very small percentage of elderly and you only really see those younger than me as anyone older was simply wiped out.
Why did the Khmer soldiers slay so many? What was their motive?
What would they gain from doing this?
Why was Pol Pot himself not put on trial/murdered himself?
Our first stop of the day was to the Royal Palace which is where the current King is usually in residence. The flag was up as it is when the Queen is in residence back in the UK but I think I’ve heard on 3 different occasions that the King left for his seaside residence for new year on the train yesterday. Here we needed to be appropriately dressed, no short shorts and no shoulders showing – no need for long sleeves as I’d packed for as t-shirts will do thankfully. I’d kind of imagined the necessity of covering all skin as much as possible not just the bare minimum. I guess that as it’s so hot in the height of their summer visitors would be wearing very little as even though it’s their winter it’s still a tad sticky.
Sadly, despite being pretty warm the sky was overcast so the photos don’t perhaps look as spectacular as they could. It’s an impressive complex within the gated walls and thankfully the large majority of it has survived the Khmer Regime of the late 70s. During that period the King was kept under house arrest, not allowed out for any visits to his people as he is known for.
The Silver Pagoda was another beauty, again photos of the interior were banned sadly. Not silver in appearance from the outside however, so named because of the remarkable floor which is laid in silver tiles each weighing 1kg in weight and there are 5000 of them! Covered in carpet in the main and visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entrance there are parts of the carpet peeled back for you so see the beautiful floor. The building was rebuilt in 1962 as the first building here was from wood in 1892. The contents are simply stunning despite being massively depleted in number since the regime when a large percentage of the contents were stolen or destroyed. The main highlight is the Emerald Green Buddha thought to be made of Baccarat crystal which sits a top a guided pedestal. Also, which was rather impressive, was the life sized gold Buddha which is decorated with 2086 diamonds, the largest of which is in the crown and is a whopping 25 carats. It was created in the palace workshops here and weighs approximately 90kg. The steps leading to this treasure-trove is made of Italian Marble, and although still early in the day a nice cooling sensation on the feet!
Being the official residence of King Sihamoni there are only a few buildings actually open to the public. The Throne Hall being the main one is tipped by a 59 Meter high tower which was inspired by the Bayon at Angkor an tod was inaugurated by the king in 1919. It’s used for coronations and ceremonies such as the presentation of credentials to diplomats. Whilst the building was kept in tact as I mentioned by the Khmer Rouge the contents of some of the buildings that were on display were destroyed. You weren’t allowed to take photos of the room itself. It was long and had a splendid full length carpet in the same style of the mosiac on the floor surrounding the room. The throne as you can imagine was incredibly ornate and golden and the ceilings were adorned with paintings of a Cambodian story similar to an English one (at this moment I can’t remember what it was). To the right of the Throne Room was a separate house that is still used for meetings today that was also where the King would once alight the elephants – his chosen mode of transport for centuries for when he went out to the countryside to visit his people, however clearly modern modes of transport are more viable in this day and age!
The Silver Pagoda complex itself is surrounded by a mural depicting the classic Indian epic of Reamker (as it’s known in Cambodia). Created in around 1900 there are many parts of it that were destroyed or defaced during the Khmer Rouge regime. There are also several stupas within the complex which are shrines, ashes of the deceased are kept inside them one housing the previous King in a stupa dedicated to his 4 year old daughter.
Just before the exit was the Elephant Room which had a whole load of the seats that the various kings and dignitaries would have sat in over the years on top of the elephants. Some were more ornate than others as you would expect. Quite strange in a city so full of mopeds to think that elephants were once the choice of transport for the royalty.
From here we headed to the National Museum of Cambodia which we could have actually walked to from the hotel if needed as it was just round the corner, I’d stumbled across it the previous evening on a stroll having had a tactical nap and shower after the flight over. It’s a terracotta coloured building built in the early 20th century with a beautiful courtyard garden. The sculptures from across the centuries are in chronological order and we had our own guide that showed us round with our own commentary. It seemed that the majority of the pieces had come from Angkor Wat and surrounding temples which kind of made you wonder of the was actually anything of any significance left at the sites! Many Buddha, Vishnu, Shiva, Laksmi statues, enough to make you feel some what lackadaisical about them come the end of the tour. I’m sure that they will feel more beautiful and relevant when we see any at the temples themselves later on in the week. The religion in Cambodia is a real mid of Hindu and Buddhism as far as I can work out, quite confusing initially to be seeing Vishnu statues in a country I thought was Buddhist bit according to our guide they celebrate all gods. Buddha is seen usually in 4 different forms, teaching, meditating, and I can’t remember the other two (will fill in later!) and we saw enough of each in the museum to sink a ship!! It was getting ridiculously hot by this stage but we still had one more thing to visit before our lunch stop Wat Phnom which we got back on the bus to head out to.
Wat Phnom is the only ‘hill’ in the city standing at 27m high on top of which is a Buddhist temple and multiple shrines at which there were many of the locals laying gifts to Buddha and to other gods as it is new year this evening. Lions and naga (a mythical serpent) adorn the eastern staircase which was how we accessed the temple. Many of the locals come here to wish for good luck and if it comes true then return to bestow gifts to the gods such as lotus flowers, fruit, suckling pig (this might have been an exception to the rule tho!) they also set free birds to take away their bad luck (they often return to the cages as they are trained to so the guide book tells me). It was ridiculously busy and there were numerous beggars and so on trying to sell us things with signs in English about how they are trying to make a living. On the one hand one wanted to buy abut the cautious soul in me avoided like the plague, mindful of tourist scams and the fact that is then be surrounded by others trying to sell me similar things.
Lunch was on route to our afternoon cultural activity that I was mentally preparing myself for. I tried the fish amok as recommended by H to try as it was delicious. Made with quite a meaty white fish it’s a very flagrant mild current with a lot of lemongrass. I rather liked it – for a fish dish!