Phnom Penh. The good, the evil and the ugly

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

 › entry 4 of 8 › view all entries
Tuol Sleng prison (S21)

So back in Phnom Penh and as the title of the this blog suggests there are several sides to the country. The latest experience of the ugly side was a Tuk tuk driver in Sihanoukville on the way to get the bus back here. Our guesthouse was about 1km from the bus station a journey of less than 5 minutes in a Tuk tuk and the first driver we approached saw our backpacks and demanded US$7 to take us and the two girls, Esther and Lyndsay, we had got chatting to last night. The day before we had done the journey for US$1!! He refused to negotiate the price down and was screaming 'fuck the tuk tuk driver who took you' which was nice of him.

One of the many panels of photographs depicting the prisoners held, tortured and killed at S21
We moved on to the next guy who was more intelligent and rather than make ridiculous demands and sit around earning nothing, he agreed to take the four of us for a more reasonable US$2 and half. The first guy went mad screaming at us that we were stingy and that we should leave his country and never come back and in his words "fuck us all". Really he should be made ambassador or something!! We should also point out that the 5 hour coach journey from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh only costs US$4.5!!

Arriving in Phnom Penh we checked back into Capitol 3 guesthouse, a basic room, aircon etc but only US$8 a night so no complaints there. We dumped our bags down and headed straight off to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. Also known as S21 this is where the mad regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge cronies imprisoned and tortured anyone they considered to have betrayed them or the state.

Cheong Ek "Killing Fields" Stupa which holds tier after tier of skulls excavated from the mass graves
It was never going to be a fun trip and we knew we were in for an emotional time but nothing can prepare you for coming face to face with the horrors that we humans can inflict on each other. We arrived just in time to see an introductory movie which had interviews with relatives of people who had been through the prison to their deaths as well as a former guard and a painter who was one of just 7 survivors of the several thousands who entered the prison gates. After the movie you move on to the rooms where the regime systematically tortured the prisoners for hours on end. Each room had a metal framed bed that prisoners were chained to as they were subjected to the most inhuman tortures and photographs on the walls of the torture rooms showed the dead bodies that were found in the rooms when the prison was finally liberated.
A fraction of the skulls held in the monument
The floors of the rooms appeared to still be stained with the blood of prisoners which made it all the more harrowing. Next up were the tiny brick built cells of the first floor and the ridiculous rules that the prisoners were made to follow. One stated "you must not cry out even when subjected to the lash or electric shocks". The second floor had more tiny cells this time partioned by wood but were just as tiny and equally eerie. The third floor housed prisoners in mass detention and they were shackled 20 to 30 at a time to a 6 metre long iron bar and were forbidden to whisper to each other, were not allowed to move at all and were not unshackled even to use the loo. The outside landings of the upper floors were shielded by barbed wire to prevent prisoners on the way to interrogation throwing themselves over to commit suicide.
Excavated mass graves
The regime was meticulous in documenting its prisoners and as each came into the prison they were photographed before being stripped to a loinclothe and put into their cells. A third building housed panel after panel of these pictures and this was probably the most disturbing aspect of the whole place. The looks in the eyes of the people in the photos was haunting and brought them back to life in our imaginations and made the suffering seem that much more real. Some faces conveyed pure terror, others were pleading and more were utterly resigned to the certain death that awaited them. There were all ages from old men to youthful boys, withered, harmless old women to innocent young girls and children so young they could not stand for their photo but were propped in a chair.
One area of as yet unexcavated land
All these faces were looking right at us and we knew that they were all dead. The next exhibits were paintings of the tortures prisoners endured along with some of the despicable equipment used. Surprise surprise that the Khmer Rouge had used the very same water torture that George Bush's regime has admitted using to interrogate Iraqis which only served to make us think that we humans never learn our lessons. Finally there was a room with pictures of people who had been either victims or perpetrators of atrocities and the singular lack of contrition of those responsible is a reflection of the fact that none of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime have ever been brought to justice. Trials are allegedly begining this year but there doesn't seem to be much will on the part of the present Cambodian government to drive the process forward!!

Totally dazed we headed across the road for a much needed beer with conversation and words to describe the experience very hard to come by.

Wat Phnom
Knowing that those who committed so many evil acts are still living freely in Cambodia and for all we know might be driving our tuk tuk or walking the street next to us is shocking. We suspect though that in this country it's probably them in all the four by fours and luxury cars.

The second part of the genocide experience is a visit to the Killing Fields at Cheung Ek, which we did a couple of days later. Prisoners were driven about 15km out of the city, blindfolded and chained to iron bars in the back of trucks. Once at the fields they were immediately marched to the edge of the mass burial pits still blindfolded and forced to squat or kneel and then murdered. In the early days they were shot but as the killing went on they were bludgeoned to death in order to save on bullets.

Inside Wat Phnom
A memorial at the site houses some of the almost 9000 skulls so far excavated from mass graves with as many more in as yet unexcavated mass grave pits. A tree at the site is labelled as having been where babies and young children were held by the feet and had there heads swung against the tree to beat them to death. Again words cannot describe the feelings this induces especially as we couldn't help but put the faces in the photographs we'd seen previously at S21 over the skulls that were staring back at us.

Needless to say that is the evil part of the title.

The good and more of the ugly came in our visit to Wat Phnom a short (and cheap) tuk tuk ride from our guesthouse. The Wat is a temple on a hill which was totally beautiful and serene.

Buddhas adorned with offerings of lotus flowers and money at Wat Phnom
The walk up is a gauntlet of beggars and the allegedly homeless kids all wanting money but once at the top that stops and the temple itself is magnificent. The main room was full with statues of buddha and offerings such as lotus flowers, money, food and incense. As with everything in Cambodia there has to be a downside and for us that was the literally hundreds of cages contaings hundreds of sparrows which are supposed to be paid for and then released for good luck (they're only captured again in nets later so not much luck for the sparrows). Also there is an elephant at the site, named Sam Bo, who those that like cruelty to animals can pay to ride on but is a very sad sight to see.

From Wat Phnom we walked along the river front to he Foreign Correspondants Club.

Us at the Foreign Correspondants Club
A very western bar but a must do. It has fantastic views and the ambience is very old world colonial. It is not a place for those on a budget so we only had one beer but it was a very entertaining visit. We chose to have lunch at a place a few doors down called Frizz which was very good but some rather naive tourists on the next table were handing out spring rolls to the begging urchins that tend to pester you and then got upset that they were being bothered for more!! Come on!! The more you give to these kids the more they want and the more they want the more they'll steal as is evidenced by the made rush for the stuff on their plates when they left. After our initial dismissals our lunch was uninterrupted and very enjoyable. If you make it plain that you will never give these kids a thing then they leave you alone and move onto the next victim.
Steph at the Royal Palace

Finally we  visited the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda which were both truly beautiful and amazing. Another must do. The buildings in the two compounds are stunning and reading up a little on the history makes it a better trip. Hopefully our pictures will do it justice. If we ever get them uploaded. The final ugly aspect came with an encounter with a seemingly friendly and interested monk who gradually turned the conversation we were having around to his request for us to pay for his university fees!!! When we informed him that we wouldn't be doing so and that his assumptions that all westerners are wealthy are quite wrong he tried to guilt us by asking how much we paid for our room and sunglasses. He was a bit disappointed at our US$8 room and US$2 glasses.

Adam and the view from the Royal Palace
Perhaps we should have tried to get some money from him!!!!

 

Virginiagoodings says:
Darlings:
It must have been horrible...how impossible to understand man's inhumanity to man!
Love
Mum xxoo
Posted on: Feb 11, 2008
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Tuol Sleng prison (S21)
Tuol Sleng prison (S21)
One of the many panels of photogra…
One of the many panels of photogr…
Cheong Ek Killing Fields Stupa w…
Cheong Ek "Killing Fields" Stupa …
A fraction of the skulls held in t…
A fraction of the skulls held in …
Excavated mass graves
Excavated mass graves
One area of as yet unexcavated land
One area of as yet unexcavated land
Wat Phnom
Wat Phnom
Inside Wat Phnom
Inside Wat Phnom
Buddhas adorned with offerings of …
Buddhas adorned with offerings of…
Us at the Foreign Correspondants C…
Us at the Foreign Correspondants …
Steph at the Royal Palace
Steph at the Royal Palace
Adam and the view from the Royal P…
Adam and the view from the Royal …
Steph in front of the steps up to …
Steph in front of the steps up to…
Offerings of meat placed inside th…
Offerings of meat placed inside t…
Phnom Penh riverfront
Phnom Penh riverfront
Heads atop the Royal Palace
Heads atop the Royal Palace
The Silver Pagoda
The Silver Pagoda
Carvings on a stupa
Carvings on a stupa
Stupa on the grounds of the Silver…
Stupa on the grounds of the Silve…
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk