Usually one enters a country via highway or airport. Coming in by boat was an altogether different experience. Once we cleared customs in both Vietnam and Cambodia, both offices “rustic,” to say the least, we boarded our van with the other 11 “International Travelers” aka back-packers, and headed off down sandy, rutted roads and narrow, railing-less bridges. Inexplicably, a casino stood just minutes inside the Cambodian border. “Must be native land,” says Geoff. Who on earth goes there? Maybe the customs officers? Maybe they bring tour boats in for the experience? Hard to say. It didn’t look too prosperous and given the living environment for the next 10 miles, it was easy to see why. It was an eye-opening experience to see the homes of the locals, perched on stilts with water buffaloes housed below. Everywhere was dirt, sandy, dusty, dry. No amount of sweeping could ever keep it at bay.
Note to self: never ever pack white for Asia! We have both worn everything many times and needed a laundry. I had saved white capris for Phnom Penh. It is to laugh. The first day, we took a tuk tuk to Tuol Sleng Museum, then to the Killing Fields. By the time we got there and back, my pants were beyond dirty. Live and learn.
Tuol Sleng is the high school that was converted to a prison by Pol Pot and was the first step prior to being sent to death in the Killing Fields. What a horrendous story! Our guide was 15 when Phnom Penh was supposedly liberated, but the Khmer Rouge was only tricking its people when it told the citizens to pack a few things because they had to move into the country for a few days while things stabilized. That was the first step in separating them from their homes, all belongings, and peaceful existence. Our guide was separated from his family and forced to work in the fields every day for 12-14 hours. The Khmer Rouge destroyed homes and most of Phnom Penh and built traditional bamboo platforms with straw roofs for the people instead. This is just a part of the story. What happened and what most of us remember something about is the on-going torture and genocide of a quarter of the population of Cambodia. Pol Pot murdered indiscriminately, from every walk of life, including his own generals and ministers. He imprisoned simple farmers, children, the elderly, and almost everyone was brutally tortured before they were killed in a most heinous fashion. I asked our guide if Pol Pot was mad, but he was circumspect and asked instead if it were possible that someone else, another government possibly, was pulling the strings. It was hard to imagine. Two of the elderly survivors of the prison were there, selling their books and bearing witness to the atrocities. They had been spared because they had some special skill that was needed. One was an artist and was able to paint portraits of the leaders and document the events in the prison. When we left, neither of us could speak without emotion.
We followed the path of the victims to the Killing Fields, the main national monument in memory of the genocide. It was an eerie experience to walk the fields (a small area, really) where 1000s of people were systematically murdered. With one of the best audio-guides we’d ever heard, we walked without speaking around the grounds, ending at a stupa, filled with skulls of some of the victims. It was heart-breaking and numbing to consider such inhuman treatment at the hands of their own people.
(Ed. note: Terry was much affected by this experience – close to tears several times. The barbarianism of Pol Pot was truly remarkable:
- 2.6 million of a population of 8 million murdered
- turned Phnom Penh and other cities into virtual ghost towns – buildings deserted, trees, weeds etc. taking over the roads etc.
- they severely tortured innocent people for “information” and then just tortured them to make their deaths more painful
- virtually no bullets were used in the mass slaughtering of the people. They used shovels, clubs, knives, hoes etc. to kill – the excuse being bullets were too expensive
- if one member of a family was murdered because they were “traitors’, then all members of the family had to die – women, children and babies.
- in Tuol Sleng, prisoners were made to lie down 24 hours a day. There were three types of rooms – individual rooms where a prisoner was shackled by both arms and legs to a bed, individual cells where people were shackled to a cement floor by one leg with arms behind their backs or larger rooms where 50 – 60 people where shackled by one foot to a long bar and had approximately 1 metre of width and 1.5 metres of length to lie. They were “showered” approximately once a month with a hose washing them down where they lay. Some areas had holes in the walls where the water could drain – some didn’t and the water just stayed there until it evaporated.