Friday, May 15, 2009

Cambodia - Phnom Penh

It was raining "out of buckets" when we arrived in Phnom Phen. It was only 6:30 pm, but the sun had already gone to bed and a skinny moon awaited us when getting out of the bus.

I had no plan yet, so I followed a fellow "white" traveller into a tuk-tuk and shared a room at the Top Banana - a cozy little hostel above a restaurant, with a third floor terrace, overlooking a busy side street of Phnom Penh.

I started the next morning with a walk toward the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum aka S21. On the way there I had breakfast with the locals - here in SE Asia that means soup. Compared to my usual isolation at my "own" table, here I was joined by the locals ... not even for them to practise their English (Which happens pretty regularly), but simply to enjoy their soup with someone else on the table ...

I arrived at the Security Prison 21 around 7:30 am (great time if you like to take it all in by yourself) ... In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

S21 used to be a high school. Its strange to walk into a class room (some of the rooms still have boards on the wall) and at the same time seeing a iron skeleton of a bed frame in front of you, on which the inmates were tortured and often killed. The first dozen rooms you see include large posters of this room 30 tears ago, after the Vietnamese came into Phnom Penh, finding horrific looking corpses in each of the class rooms....

The Khmer Rouge documented their acts, taking pictures of the prisoners upon arrival and sometimes after death. Many prisoners were tortured until a made up confession was signed by them, often confessing to ludicrous action, such as working with the CIA, trying to undermine the efforts of the Khmer Rouge. They were also tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. After the confessions were signed, the prisoners were ofter taken to the killing fields in large trucks ...

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, though the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000-1,500 prisoners. Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months. However, several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer. Within two or three days after they were brought to S-21, all prisoners were taken for interrogation.

One can easily spend 4-5 hours here, reading the information provided, watching the movie and simply walking through the left over cells and rooms ...a chilling experience, but so very helpful in trying to understand what was going on just 30 years ago ...

Great websites to check out are:

After a very-much needed break at the hostel, I made it to the Royal Palace in the afternoon (the king still resides here). Very beautiful (similar to the Royal Palace in Bangkok) and in general Phnom Penh looks much better than expected. Assumable because a lot of foreign aid was send this way, to rebuilt this country that had suffered so much.

The local market was my next adventure -more for the atmosphere of this tent city than for my shopping needs. However Cambodia does have a recognizable feature : the Khmer Scarves - as simple, fairly short scarf, checkered, back in the day it used to be red and white, but these days you can get it in any color you'd like ... for$1 each. Did I mention that in Cambodia they use the US dollar ... the local riel is only used seldom (for small prices and bargaining at the markets)

The night ended with a great conversation about all this, with a fellow German speaking room mate, making me realize how valuable human connection is to me. It important and great to see all this, but it so much better when you can share your experience with someone else.

The next morning I took a motorbike to the killing fields, getting caught in a national party parade - Maly and I drove along them on out motorbike for about half and hour : ) The killing fields were another sobering experience, but not quiet as shocking, since little is left on side, as S 21.

After a afternoon nap and another "talk session" that night : ) I was moving on to Siem Reap aka AnkorWat the next day.

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