Phnom Penh: facing the past, looking towards the future.

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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Phnom Penh.

That 6 hour journey turned into 7.5 hours before we knew it. After being picked up from the hotel at 11:45 and taken to the bus station and sitting around there for an hour, we finally left 45 minutes late at 12:45. After a noneventul journey southbound, we rolled into PP after ngiht fall. Our tuk tuk driver from Siem Reap supposedly had a friend that was picking us up from the bus stop, but he never showed so we set off following another couple from somewhere in Europe to look for a hotel. Mistake! We walked and walked, looked in one hotel and then another, then walked some more.

 Finally Ji and I just hopped in a tuk tuk alone and headed off to a guesthouse we’d heard about. Checked in there, had a nice dinner, and this day was done.

I knew our next day was going to be a tough one emotionally and it was every bit what I thought it would be. At 9am we headed out to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, once a high school in downtown Phnom Penh, then turned into the notorious S-21 detainment center where 17000 people were held and tortured during the notorious four year reign of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

 The first rooms we entered contained only a metal bed, a shackle, and a black and white photo depicting the remains of the victim when they were found at the end of the Khmer reign in 1970. Fourteen bodies were found in these cells, killed by their torturers hours before they fled.

 The other rooms contained hundreds of photographs of the victims: men, women, intellectuals, people that wore glasses; anyone that had a semblance of an education or that was thought to somehow pose a threat to the regime. And the children, the babies…. Pictures of mothers holding their infants tightly to their chests were on the walls as well. There was mercy for none. Of the 17000 people that entered the prison, only 7 were said to have lived. And this was just one of such centers…

 We left S-21 and drove 15km south to the Killing Fields where all of the victims of the prison were brought to be killed. Mass graves littered the area and heaps of bones were piled up seemingly at random. We saw a pile of bones at the base of one large tree and with a massive knot growing in our throats and stomachs, read the sign depicting this as the killing tree, where soldiers would take infants and slam them against the tree to kill them.

 A stupa in the center of the complex held thousands of skulls uncovered and stacked three stories tall. Over 8,000 skeletons have been recovered from the site and walking around the grounds one can still see pieces of clothing and bone half-buried in the dirt of the graves.

 The genocide in Cambodia during that four year reign of terror is estimated to have claimed the lives of 1.5-2.4 million people, nearly a quarter of the entire Cambodian population. And this all happened just over 30 years ago. With a twist of the stomach, I realized that virtually everyone we saw over the age of 30 probably had a friend or family member killed during that time, and undoubtedly everyone both then and now have been greatly affected by the atrocities which absolutely devastated this country.

 Humanity weeps.


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Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk