Funny story: I’d tried to buy a ticket for the 11am bus from Battambang to Phnom Penh, but it’s low season, so they were only running the 8am and 3pm buses. 3pm it was! J, a Belgian girl I’d seen around Battambang, was on the same bus, despite staying at a different hostel, and we were going to the same hostel in Phnom Penh.
A few minutes before 3, I had my hostel call the bus company to see why they hadn’t picked me up yet, and we were told, “Soon.” At 3:20, a 2nd phone call wasn’t answered. When they picked me up at 3:45, we asked why they were so late, and we were told that the driver was peeing. Peeing for 45min? See a doctor!
Anyway, the bus wasn’t too bad; it was a minivan/minibus type, and I was in the back row, which has 4 seats in the space of 3 seats & a miniature aisle in the other rows, so it was kind of tight, but we arrived safely & in 1 piece. J & I split the cost of a $2 tuk-tuk to the hostel and wound up being assigned to the same room. I couldn’t help but notice this poorly-spelled sign in the lobby:
The hostel also had a sign-up board in the lobby for people interested in going to the killing fields & genocide museum, so J & I signed up for that for the next morning, along with a German girl from our room, so we could split the cost of the tuk-tuk taking us around & waiting for us all day.
Choeung Ek, located about 20 minutes southwest of Phnom Penh, was an orchard and site of a few family graves from local Chinese immigrants, pre-1975. Now, it’s the site of one of the most infamous killing fields during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Estimates are that over 12,000 people were killed and dumped into mass graves here, usually only living here for a few hours, arriving on trucks after being tortured at the famous Tuol Sleng in the city.
No one had any idea what was happening here, and they played patriotic/propaganda music at high volumes to cover up the sounds of screaming.
I got the audio guide, which was narrated by a guy who had escaped a torture camp, made it to the US (in Texas), learned English & graduated from university, before returning to Cambodia. Many of the stories were his personal stories; for the other languages offered, I think there would be less impact, because I doubt the stories on the German or Dutch or Russian versions had this element.
The things that impacted me the most were 2: bullets were considered “expensive,” so the guards never shot anyone. They just hacked people to death with farm tools.
The 2nd thing is the one that hit me the most: the Khmer Rouge had a saying: “To get rid of a weed, you must pull out the roots, also.” That’s why, if you were considered an enemy, they killed your whole family. When kids arrived, they simply bashed their heads against this tree to kill them. There are still blood and brain remnants here. Awful.
I sat and cried for a while at the end of the tour before finding the 2 girls to head out. I can’t believe the way we treat each other.
Our next stop was the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. This had been a high school; when the Khmer Rouge forced everyone out of the cities in 1975 (city people were bad, farmers were good, and so everyone had to move to the countryside), this became a base of operations for finding traitors, torturing them into confessions, and then rounding up anyone they named during the process.
Here’s the catch: your confession wasn’t “good enough,” if it didn’t include names, so the torture started again. Of course, this meant that they had to round up more people, because you’d start naming everyone you know, just to make the torture end.
These 14 graves out front mark bodies that were left behind and found by the invading resistance (Khmer Rouge defectors and Vietnamese Army). No one was ever intentionally killed here, but the “interrogators” often went too far and killed people by accident. Ironic twist: some of them got tortured and killed by their superiors for these mistakes.
Anyway, when they fled from the resistance, they killed these 14 people and left the bodies. They’ve never been identified.
The first building had all of the barbed wire and stuff removed, to make it easier for visitors.
Here’s Pol Pot. Both middle fingers to this guy.
The remaining buildings have been preserved as they were found, as much as possible.
The thing I found really weird was at the exit from Tuol Sleng: there are 2 people who managed to survive this place, and both wrote books. They sit at the exit every day, selling their books, and with signs like, “Meet a survivor.” It seems really weird and messed up to come here every day, knowing what you went through, to turn a profit from it. I guess that’s capitalism at work, but I find the motives really disingenuous—plus super creepy.
Next, we went to dinner at the Russian Market, which has nothing Russian, and got caught in some crazy rain.
The next morning, J & I walked along the riverside to Sugar & Spice Cafe, which is run by Daughters of Cambodia. A staggering 1/40 Cambodian women will be sold into the sex trade at some point, and the biggest obstacle to getting out is that their families need money, so they have to find other employment. Lots of places don’t want to hire an ex-prostitute. Daughters of Cambodia runs several businesses to hire these women, 1 of which is this cafe.
It’s crazy that 5-10 women PER WEEK came to these businesses, asking for help in getting out of sex trafficking. Just wow.
Next, we walked by the Royal Palace (closed for a day of fasting) and through a nearby park that’s under construction. I like that they put the monuments in first!
I really, really like that this tuk-tuk is about to haul a scooter.
This green space in the middle of a boulevard along embassy row leads to a statue of the first king of independent Cambodia and then the freedom monument.
No tuk-tuks on this road! (no one followed it).
It’s not just China! Elderly people dancing to techno in the park near sundown.
Lastly, some great English on this snack (plus, tomatoes don’t come from the sea), and this little monster who loved chasing me around the hostel in her walker. She thought my tattoos were super confusing and kept trying to rub them off.
I have some good memories from Phnom Penh. It really impacted me a lot, and I learned a lot about myself here. After every genocide, we say, “The lessons learned here will help us make sure this never happens again. Never again!” However, it keeps happening. We said that after the Holocaust, and then we’ve had Rwanda, Cambodia, East Timor, Kosovo, Kurdistan/Iraq, and there will be more. What’s wrong with us? That’s a question that doesn’t have easy answers.
Next up: Kampot, on the south coast of Cambodia.