Done with Death

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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Tuol Sleng Museum
My journey to Phnom Penh was uneventful owing to the fact I took a tourist bus this time around.  Upon landing here, I've done nothing but continue to take in more sights of death and horror.  I think it's time for a break.  Now when I look back on my time lazing about on the beaches of Vietnam, it was probably for the best given the last few days I've had.

Cambodia's history is one of war and genocide.  The Khmer Rouge took over and ruled this land from 1975-79, a relatively short time, but the country is still recuperating from the destruction left in its wake.  People talk about Hitler and the atrocities of his time, but Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were no different.

One room of torture - the picture on the wall shows the horror but luckily you can't make it out.

I started day one by heading off to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  It's actually an old school that was converted into a prison during Pol Pot's reign.  This Security Prison 21 (S-21) held 20,000 prisoners, but it was not your regular prison.  It was one of torture, leaving just seven survivors.  The rest were taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and executed.  The Khmer Rouge killed almost a quarter of the population during its time (estimates are around 2 million).  The objective of all this killing was to rid the land of all the thinkers, the educated people who may speak out against communist rule.  So only peasants and farmers, considered pure enough, were left.  However, their lives were no picnic either.  They worked the fields, producing rice, most of which was sent to China, leaving them starving.

People were chained together and tied down to the floor.
 

The museum itself is a campus of three buildings with various rooms to tour through.  Some are single rooms used for torture, others school rooms that were converted into small cells or large cells.  Now rooms house photos of the victims and tell stories of the people.  One exhibit had testimonials from those who worked at the prison, still alive and living in Cambodia.  They basically made clear they had no option.  Either join the Khmer Rouge or be killed.  One quote, "No matter what option I chose, I still feared.  There was nothing I could do."  Today these people are still branded as Pol Pot supporters.  A documentary shown featured one man who survived the tortures in the prison who ended up painting scenes from back then that are now on display.

Hallway barbed wired off so no one could jump to their deaths.
  He was joined by a former prison worker, walking with him and confirming that his pictures told no lies.

In one room was a poem on the wall, written by a Cambodian while at a Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater.  It's amazing how you can be so far away from home but find these connections.  Anyway, the poem talked about all that was taken away from them during the Khmer Rouge rule.  They could do nothing really, just work and ask no questions.

I have to hand it to the Vietnamese, though.  They came in here in 1979 and ousted the Khmer Rouge!  Thank goodness.  The history since has not been pretty, but the mass killing stopped.  This country is still clawing its way out of those dark days and it shows.

One cell - home to #23
  New buildings are everywhere and poverty still pervades.  There is a dark underbelly of drugs, sex (with children!) and violence here.  Luckily I've not witnessed this part of the city.  The historical darkness is enough.

Following that afternoon, I took to hibernating in my room. I've been very anti-social since I arrived.  It may have something to do with the fact I spent the last few weeks with a large group, or maybe all this death and dying is starting to get to me.  Either way, I still made my way out to the Killing Fields today.

The best part of my morning was the motortaxi ride 15 kilometers outside of town to the sight.  Sure, a tuk tuk would've been safer, but why not live on the edge, jump on the back of a bike, and crap my pants on the way out there.

A room converted into individual cells
  OK, I didn't crap my pants, but I witnessed the busy life of Phnom Penh while clinging to the hope I'd make it there alive.  Traffic is much like that in most larger SE Asian cities.  If you are on the right side of the road and that's not working out for you, just go on the left.  At one point I saw someone on the back of bike holding up what appeared to be an IV bag, and sure enough, sandwiched between he and the driver was a patient of sorts, with tubes coming out of his arms.  You don't see that everyday.  I finally pulled out the camera (getting braver all the time) and caught a guy transporting a pig on the back of his bike.  I kept praying, please don't let me die on the way to the killing fields.  That would really suck to be sure.
I can't get over this picture. Her anger...his fear
  Upon safe arrival, I thanked my driver and commented that it was interesting, and he just laughed.

OK, that was my attempt at a happy interlude, although I still kept mentioning death.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is basically an area outside of town where the Khmer Rouge killed approximately 17,000 men, women and CHILDREN from mid-75 until 1978.  There are 129 mass graves there, with so far only 89 excavated.  A huge white stupa sits amid the graves, containing the skulls of the victims found so far.  As you walk along, you see the indentations where graves were, and you can even see clothes bubbling up from the ground, unearthed with each new rain.  All the while as I strolled I could hear children playing and birds chirping.

The grounds - apparently this wood beam structure was a sight for hangings.
  I was reminded of my time at Auschwitz and remembered how beautiful it was there that day.  It was hard to wrap my head around the terrible things that happened amid the natural beauty of the place.  Here, too, I could do no better, except here I was in a country field, with just trees, no prisons and gas chambers.  Yet I felt that the Khmer Rouge somehow robbed this place of its natural beauty by shedding unnecessary blood on its branches.

I don't know what I was expecting when I went there.  If there weren't markers indicating what tree they hung the loudspeaker on to drowned out the moans, or the tree used to beat the children to death or the mass grave where 450 bodies were found, I guess you would never know.  In fact, families live just on its outer edge.

One of the many faces found inside. His t-shirt made him seem so childlike.
  I still had enough.  I looked down at the clothes and into the rainwater pooling in the graves and I was done. Done with death. I felt guilty for feeling that way and having the ability to jump back on a motorbike and speed away, but I can take no more.  So ends my tour of death and horror in SE Asia. 

From here I go to Battambang to meet up with my friend I met in Laos and travel with her for a few days.  We hope to do a homestay in the area, and well, find some happiness with the local families that are finding their way back to life.

Cowabunga says:
Nice blog!
Posted on: Apr 08, 2013
paaltjes says:
No words, great Blog
Posted on: May 05, 2008
margeanncullen says:
This entery truely leaves me speechless.
Marge Cullen
Posted on: May 01, 2008
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Tuol Sleng Museum
Tuol Sleng Museum
One room of torture - the picture …
One room of torture - the picture…
People were chained together and t…
People were chained together and …
Hallway barbed wired off so no one…
Hallway barbed wired off so no on…
One cell - home to #23
One cell - home to #23
A room converted into individual c…
A room converted into individual …
I cant get over this picture.  He…
I can't get over this picture. H…
The grounds - apparently this wood…
The grounds - apparently this woo…
One of the many faces found inside…
One of the many faces found insid…
This pig was just chilling on the …
This pig was just chilling on the…
Its a balancing act on these bike…
It's a balancing act on these bik…
The glorious stupa amid the killin…
The glorious stupa amid the killi…
Inside are stacks of skulls from t…
Inside are stacks of skulls from …
The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields
Under the shed is a mass grave whe…
Under the shed is a mass grave wh…
Various grave sights.
Various grave sights.
Tree was marked as having been a p…
Tree was marked as having been a …
Now children frolic just yards awa…
Now children frolic just yards aw…
Clothes still found in the fields.
Clothes still found in the fields.
Would seem like any nice forest sa…
Would seem like any nice forest s…
Skyline of Phnom Penh - notice all…
Skyline of Phnom Penh - notice al…
Filler up!  My taxi driver pulled…
Fill'er up! My taxi driver pulle…
This is a fuel station!
This is a fuel station!
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk