08.05.2012 - 10.05.2012 32 °C
The first sight to greet us upon docking in Phnom Penh were 10 tuk-tuk drivers all vying for our business. I'm calling them tuk-tuks but they were really no more than a motorbike pulling a trailer that had been customised into a carriage. They are actually quite a romantic way to travel around and a third of the price of a taxi so a good way to save money. After a couple of the drivers quoted us 5 dollars to get to our hostel, another guy offered to take us for 1 dollar. After making sure this was the total price and not the price per person, or per limb, or some other elaborate scam, we jumped aboard our carriage and were whisked off to the 'mad monkey' hostel a few kilometres down the road. Upon arriving at the hostel our driver, Peter, explained about the tours he offered and then pointed out that as he had taken us to our hotel for 1 dollar, that if we were going to book a tour then would we consider using him. It was a fair enough point and the cheap fair made a bit more sense. Usually we don't book any tours until we've settled in and shopped around a bit, but he quoted us a price of 15 dollars for a 6 hour tour the next day taking in the S-21 prison and the killing fields which seemed reasonable enough, so we agreed to let him pick us up at 9:30 the next morning.
The 'mad monkey' hostel was considerably better than the name suggests it might be. The room was basic, but passable, but the real selling point of the hostel was the restaurant/bar area on the ground floor. The food was tasty and plentiful, the beer was cheap, the atmosphere good and the service excellent. Upon arrival we were given a 'welcome leaflet' that explained the hostels philosophy was to employ young, disadvantaged kids and asked for guests to be patient with them if necessary. In the end there was really no need as the waiters, waitresses and bar people were all so friendly and helpful that if anything you felt a bit over-fussed about but it was all done with a smile and a joke and was a real selling point of the hostel.
After trying to get into the royal palace, one of the only pre-Khmer rouge buildings left in Phnom Penh with any grandeur, but being unable to as Lou was under-dressed (no shorts above the knees), we headed to the national museum just around the corner which proudly displays Khmer art work on the inside, and ancient Buddha statues around the central courtyard area. As was becoming customary, at 3pm the heavens opened and it chucked it down for an hour or two. When it finished we waded through knee-deep water to the street outside to find a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.
The next day, as planned, Peter picked us up at 9:30 to take us to the Tuol Sleng museum (S-21 prison). Formerly a school, the Khmer Rouge converted the classrooms into torture chambers and from 1975 some 17,000 prisoners came through the gates. When the prison was finally liberated in 1979 there were 7 prisoners remaining, the rest had been taken by bus, sometimes up to a hundred a day, to the nearby Choeung Ek fields (the killing fields) to be executed and dumped into mass graves. Most of the prisoners were 'political prisoners', which for the Khmer rouge includedwas anybody who may pose an immediate or future threat to their totalitarian rule and their vision of a peasant-based society. These included employees of the previous government, anybody who could speak a foreign language and anybody who was intelligent – indeed apparently wearing glasses was enough to get you killed.
Walking through the former classrooms turned torture chambers is a truly haunting experience – the metal beds and torture equipment have been left as they were as a stark reminder of the relatively little amount of time that has passed since these events occurred. Some of the other rooms have been turned into exhibitions – several of which contain wall after wall of prisoner mugshots. The Khmer Rouge photographed everybody who was detained at S-21 and less than 30 years later you can walk through the same dark concrete rooms where such evil took place and the faces of the 17,000 victims are staring straight back at you. One of the rooms has also been turned into a video room where you can watch a 1 hour long documentary which includes interviews with the few survivors of the torture as well as the torturers. Its an experience that isn't for the faint-hearted and one that can't fail to move you but as a lesson to what human beings are capable of under the correct conditions its really worthwhile.
14km away from the S-21 prison lie the 'killing fields'. Trucks picked the prisoners up from S-21 and drove them to the former orchard turned mass-graves site where they would be bludgeoned to death using whatever apparatus was handy. The site now has birds chirping away and as everybody is wearing headsets explaining the importance of various parts of the site, the fields have an eerie silence to them. The memorial stupa displays the recovered skulls of more than 8000 victims and during the wet season (we'd had torrential rain the day before), small fragments of bone and old clothes find their way to the surface of the now-exposed graves. The 3 and a half years of genocide went un-noticed by the world.
I'm no historian and am only repeating what I learned on the tours, but if you want to know more about the Khmer Rouge regime, a short but excellent account of life during that period is 'First They Killed my Father' by Loung Ung.