First, let me say that I hope you all enjoy your now-ad-free webpage because I coughed up the loot so we could post as many photos as we want. AND, some of the photos in this entry may be a bit disturbing, so just don't click on them if you don't want to see them.
Ok, now let me tell you that Phnom Penh has been one of our favorite cities that we've visited so far. A very different city from Sydney, so it's not fair to compare them, but much more enjoyable than Bangkok, Nadi and Apia. It has a great feel to it and the people are very laid back. They like to have a good time as much as possible, as evidenced by their frequent smiles, playing in the parks and along the water, playing cards often, and by their general positive disposition, and the street vendors and Tuk-Tuk drivers weren't nearly as pushy as in Bangkok. We found some great restaurants, one called Nature & Sea that made an amazing Pure Strawberry fruit shake and a strawberry-mango shake that was very refreshing. The food was also spectacular.
The city also featured quite a bit of contemporary Khmer artists. There were more galleries we would've like to have visited but we didn't have the time. In fact, we had such a good time in the city that we were disappointed our flight came so soon and we wish we could've extended our stay there but it would've been too difficult to rearrange, plus we had a reservation already in Chiang Mai. Funny as this may sound, we are feeling quite rushed on our trip now. There's so much we want to see and do, while simultaneously allowing ourselves time to get to know a place before moving on, that, as we look at our calendar, we feel we don't have that much time. We don't want to spend a day or two in a city and then move on to the next because not only would we spend 1 out of every 3 days travelling (what a waste!), but it would also begin to feel like a whirlwind and we wouldn't be able to get to know each place at all. So we try to stay at least 4 or 5 days, which really isn't much better, but it's the best balance we can find in order to see as many places as possible while not moving too fast. So we are starting to feel rushed as strange as that may sound for a 7 month trip.
As you can see from some of the posted photos, we had a very sobering (this word is way too weak for the sentiment I want to express) day at the S21 Museum and the Killing Fields. Actually, we don't have many pictures from the Killing fields because Laurie just couldn't take them (we were too beat up already from S21), and I was handling the video camera that day, and it's not a very pleasant video either. I don't know why I was taking the video but I figured, we're there, we might as well. We can toss it later if we want, but we won't be going back, so I might as well take the opportunity.
I thought S21 was a museum, which it was, but I thought it was going to be like the Holocaust Museums I've visited in the past with chilling exhibits. There were plenty of terrifying exhibits but mostly because the Museum was actually the prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured many of the high-ranking officials and civilians that it had targeted as enemies of the state. I don't want to keep comparing the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime to the Holocaust, but it is the only comparable event that I know. I don't think it is fruitful to make a comparison about which was worse or to contrast the conditions of the camps or life in general at the time. Nonetheless, the references are unavoidable both in my mind and in this journal entry.
S21, the prison, wasn't as big as I would've thought it would've needed to be in order to perform as the primary prison and torture facility for the Khmer Rouge regime, but that really is neither here nor there because atrocity is atrocity and in fact the small size made it worse for the common prisoners because each cell had to be made even smaller. They made the cells by splitting larger rooms up into these small cells either with cheap brick or just wood. What made the experience more painful was the fact that the complex used to be a secondary school, and it looks like it was a nice one, with a nice grassy quad and exercise area in the front. When we went up to the 2nd floor, we imagined students running up and down the stairs to and from classes before it became S21 (S21 stands for Security Prison 21). But the stairs didn't have that raw energy of adolescent students, just the cold quiet misery of those who must have trudged mournfully to and from the endless work assignments. Up the stairs on the 2nd floor, were more rows of even smaller cells, just rows upon rows of them, with barbed wire fencing them in so they couldn't jump to the quad below and commit suicide. I had a terribly claustrophobic feeling when we were in the stairs and on the second floor. We could've continued up to the 3rd floor or later to see the records on the third floor of another building but I didn't want to get back in those staircases.
I saw why less than a dozen people survived S21. The conditions were horrific: overbearing workloads, meagre food rations, unsanitary conditions, but most of all, S21 was Pol Pot's central torture mechanism and a place for him to keep extensive (and incriminating!) records on his prisoners and others. In fact, many prisoners were former soldiers, agents, or general employees from earlier years and their families as well. No wonder his forces were so small; he killed off his own men.
Most prisoners didn't last more than 4 months in the prison; either they died there from torture, electrocution, starvation, dehydration (diarrhea), or they were sent to the killing fields for mass extermination to be buried in mass graves, which were nothing more than small holes in the ground, most not deeper than 4 or 5 feet. And at the killing fields, most people weren't even killed by being shot; instead, the Khmer Rouge regime deemed it necessary to bludgeon men, women, and children (babies included) with a hammer to the skull so as not to waste precious bullets. And then, they sprayed DDT (the pesticide) on the gravesite so 1) it would kill the smell and any consequential suspicion from neighbors, and 2) it would kill anyone buried alive that wasn't lucky enough to die from the first blow to the head. Laurie raised an interesting question -- from an objective point of view -- about the killing of the babies. She asked why didn't he keep the babies alive to keep supporting the population, which was rapidly diminishing. I think Hitler would've just sent them to a re-education camp, assuming they weren't Jews, and then just made up a lie about their parents. But Pol Pot seemed more paranoid, as suggested by him keeping himself a secret until the revolution was in full swing, maybe 1977-ish. He also constantly moved his dept heads, governors, and soldiers around all the time to new assignments to give praise or discipline, and to keep anyone from obtaining too much information about any one topic.
I'm not sure how much more I can write about this, and I've even had some nightmares about it. One of the most common exhibits showed pictures of the prisoners. Some of the pictures were taken almost as mug shots, and some were post-mortem. I can't really shake the images from my mind, and when I try to, I almost start to feel guilty for trying to do so. The people suffered so much that it seems cruel for me to try to wipe their memory from my mind, but the images can find a way to haunt me, and in time, I'm sure I'll have processed it, hopefully to integrate it in some healthy way.
Pol Pot had the city of Phnom Penh evacuated when his forces took control, partly to begin making his society more agrarian but also because it was a way for him to systematically clean out any hiding opposition. As a result of the overall war, not many old buildings remain, but some do (I even spent a lttle time checking for bullet holes but couldn't definitively find any), and they clearly reflect the French colonial influence from the early 20th and late 19th century and the city still presently reflects that influence. Some streets begin with "rue," and many street vendors called to Laurie as Madame, and hearing french spoken was quite routine. As horrific an event as the people experienced only 30 years ago, they have an extremely uplifting demeanor about them, and that was one of the best lessons I took from our time in the city: yet another example of the indomitable strength of the human spirit.