A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about s21

Phnom Penh

you may find this a depressing entry, but I am just trying to be insightful...don't worry I'm having a blast, just needed to get this off my chest!

sunny 30 °C
View South East Asia mark II on ljmac2's travel map.

I always said that I wanted to go back to Cambodia, but never dreamed that I would return so soon. Yet, less than 12 months later since I kissed the $2 cocktail goodbye, I found myself back on Cambodian soil (…or should I say sludge with all of the rain there has been?) Even though for the queen of planning things this trip was a pretty last minute decision, when I booked the ticket the 21st of October still seemed ages away…at that stage Geelong didn’t look like they had a hope of winning the flag! Yet they did (and thank god I decided to hang around for that), but like all good things that come to an end, at the end starts something new.

When I landed in Phnom Penh I hit the ground running. Having never been there before I wanted to make the most of my three days before I start volunteering, which sounds like not very long, but it’s actually the perfect amount of time to see everything there is to see if you don’t want to cram everything in. Killing fields, tick, S21, tick, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, tick, Russian Market, tick, Central Market, tick, Wat Phnom, tick. I didn’t really know what to expect; I’ve heard good and bad reports about the city, but what surprised me the most was that Westerners are fairly hard to come by. Sure they are the reason tuk tuks line the streets outside the tourist hot spots, but in their defense, I think it would be much harder to get work here than in Siem Reap. I mean in Siem Reap the World Heritage Listed Temples of Ankgor are the main drawcard, a symbol of prosperity that the Khmers are incredibly proud off. However, besides being the capital of Cambodia, which brings with it being the country’s largest and wealthiest city, Phnom Penh is most well known for it’s museums of genocide, being the Tuol Sleng Prison, better known as S21, and the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek.

It sounds horrible but these are two of the main reasons I wanted to come to Phnom Penh. Not that I would splurge a grand on a return ticket purely for this reason, but I read “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, when I was coming to Cambodia last year, and for those of you who don’t know, I’m a war-survivor-book junkie. Once I pop I can’t stop. Since then I’ve read Ung’s sequal “Lucky Child” and countless other books about the Khmer Rouge’s reign and it just fascinates me. Yes, there are countless cases of genocide in world history, even cases when people have persecuted those who have previously seemed to be their ‘own’, but in a way I think the atrocities performed by the Khmer Rouge have helped make the Cambodian people the humble and kind race they are today. Which is amazing seeing (a) it was their ‘own’ that brought this upon them, and (b) Westerners didn’t step in and help until the very last moment - the four head honchos of the Khmer Rouge who are still alive only began to be tried in 2010. When I was volunteering in January, one of the teachers said to me “did you know we had a war in Cambodia?” I wanted to say, “Of course, how can you not know?!”, but when I said yes he simply replied “that is why we are so poor”. He didn’t say that it was unfair that a quarter of the country’s population was murdered, nor that no one rushed to their aid – he said it so matter of factly he may as well have been telling me the sky was blue.

I did the ‘museums’ of the Khmer Rouge in non-chronological order. Walking into the killing fields is a bit surreal, as besides the beggars at the front gate, it looks just like a park with a big monument in the middle and a museum off to the side. Yet you know there’s more to it than that. As you walk closer to said monument, you notice it is piled high with 8000 skulls of those who met their untimely deaths at the Killing Fields. There are also remnants of their clothes. However, what is most disturbing, is that due to the rain, remnants that weren’t able to be excavated from the graves (of which there are over 100 but only half have been discovered) are starting to rise through the earth, and now litter the surface that the tourist walk on. The park curators collect them and keep the area in immaculate condition, but I guess there’s only so much you can do with such a large amount of rain in such a short amount of time. Walking through the fields is quite a haunting experience – you can hear the squeals of laughter of the children playing at the school next door and the flora is so lush and green that the area really would be quite beautiful, if it weren’t for the signs indicating a location of a mass grave, or certain trees that the Khmer Rouge preferred for performing certain atrocities.

Most people I’ve met since I’ve been here have said that they found S21 harder to go to than the Killing Fields, but that the Killing Fields was the more important one to see. To me the most disturbing thing about S21 is the fact that it was a former high school, which the Khmer Rouge saw as an opportunity to get rid of the intellectuals and torture them, all in one fowl swoop. It’s pretty much just four buildings with three levels each that have been shoddily divided into miniscule cells, slapped together with bricks and mortar so that if you wanted to lie down and take a nap, you’d have to bend your knees. The thing that really gets you though is the thousands upon thousands of mugshots they have there as ‘exhibits’. They were taken as everyone went into the prison, but they may as well be a way of recording the dead, as only seven of the 17,000 people imprisoned in S21 survived.

So I realize this has been a rather depressing first blog, but as I often do, I just feel like I needed to throw my opinion around a bit. I’ve met a few people who have said they reckon S21 should be knocked down, and particularly at the Killing Fields, heard many people loudly whispering (and self-righteously might I add) “I’m not going to be disrespectful and take photos here”. No, I don’t agree with getting your wide angle lens as close as you possibly can to the sign next to the mass grave just so you can make sure you can read how many bodies were found there. But seeing truly is believing. You can appreciate it as much as you want from afar, but you can’t really grasp the gravity of the event unless you’re there. Realistically however, not everyone is going to be able to visit Phnom Penh, so then the photos of people who have been there are the next best thing. They don’t need to be posted on Facebook and splashed around in slide shoes, but I believe they are important. Besides, the tuk tuk drivers want to take you there, the people selling the tickets (which are $2 by the way – the Palace is $6.25 and I would argue it is no where near as important) want you to take your cameras in. All except one of the masterminds behind the operation still deny it ever happened. With proof like this, this should warrant the throwing away of their key.

Oh and in case you didn’t get the memo, I am having a good time…happy hour; tick, tick, tick!

Posted by ljmac2 05:18 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh s21 killing_fields khmer_rouge Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 1 of 1) Page [1]