I think our time in Phnom Penh was some of the most memorable of my trip with mum. A few reasons for this I think – firstly our guide Sok was absolutely brilliant, he was so kind, informative and just generally a lovely person. Secondly our time at the Killing Fields and the S-21 museum was like nothing I’ve ever experienced, so sobering and incredible to think it had happened in such recent history and thirdly the day we spend ‘off schedule’ at the school and family of Sok….more on this later.
Mum and I had chatted the evening before and decided that we wanted a day off our schedule – what we had done so far had been amazing but we had literally been on the go every day for the two and a half weeks we had been together and quite fancied having a day just chilling and exploring at a slightly slower pace! Mum mentioned this to Sok when we met and suggested that we removed the Zoo from the agenda the next day as mum and I weren’t really too worried about it and it would give us a day to recharge. Sok – along with all the Odyssey guides – was totally accepting of our request and said he would sort it out for us so mum and I thought this was what we were going to do the next day…. things changed later!
We started the day with a very short drive to the royal palace, much like Buckingham Palace, the king is still in residence at this palace. The current king of Cambodia is the son of the previous king who abicated the thone. The previous king is extremely loved across the country as he was in power at the point the peace agreement was signed in the country. He died relatively recently (I can’t remember the exact year though!).
The palace was beautiful -many buildings we could walk around open to the public. Sok (our guide) also showed us the pagodas that had been erected for the previous kings and royality, the traditional royal dress and the gift room that displays just a portion of the millions of gifts the king recieves from around the world. Often the gifts come in the shape of a lion for protection or dragon for good luck. The main throne room was incredibly decorated with the throne surrounded by images and statues of previous kings and famous people.
After a good hour looking around the palace we trundled into the car to our next stop….the Killing Fields. I have heard a lot about the killing fields and S-21 museum (which we were visiting in the afternoon) and thought I was prepared for it….I don’t think anything can prepare you for it. Many people have said to me ‘oh yes, I saw the film about that’ – I would like to see the film now I have been to the fields but I really do think people need to come and see the real thing if they have the opportunity. It is beyond devastating to think that all these people were killed in such brutal circumstances purely for the fact they were intelligent individuals or – even worse – the children of intelligent individuals.
129 mass graves were found in this area – ‘only’ 87 have excavated, the remaining the government have asked to let them rest in peace. The unbelievable thing is that this site was just one of hundreds across the country. The military recruited as part of the regime killed between 200 – 300 people per day each on this site, throughout the duration of the regime over 2million innocent people were killed. Any military that weren’t content or rebelled against the regime were beheaded as a warning to others. Women’s bodies were often found naked indicating they had been raped before they were killed and many small skulls were found in the mass grave next to a tree which was used for smashing the children against until the died. We asked the question why the children where killed as surely they wouldn’t be of an age in which they could be a threat – Sok indicated that the belief was that they wanted to ‘kill the roots and the tree’ as they believed that if children knew of the killings as they grew up they could seek revenge and – given those killed were deemed to be the ‘intelligent’ people of society, the thought the children would also be of a similar nature.
As we walked around Sok showed us the various sites -the truck stop, where the truck load of victims were ferried in on trucks; the detention room – where victims were put if they weren’t able to be executed immediately because there were too many people for the military to kill that day; the executioners office; chemical substance storage room and the area in which the killing tool storage room would be located. He talked about how the excavation had been completed in the area however teeth, clothes and bones still continue to come up from the ground as it rains – at one point he showed us some teeth that had washed up relatively recently – it humanised the situation even more.
The whole experience was very somber, however so so important. We finished looking around by going into the monument that had been erected in memory of all those lost in these Killing Fields. Quite an incredible structure however on looking closely you are able to see the sides are filled with human skulls and bones from some of the many victims. Mum and I laid some flowers and lit some incense sticks.
We headed back into the city talking about what we had just seen. Mum asked Sok if his family has been impacted – it transpired that he had lots aunties and uncles during the regime. He himself was separated from his parents for 20 months at the age of 6, not knowing if he would ever see them again. His mother just escaped being killed (we didn’t go into how she avoided it) and her father managed to trick the military into believing he was a farmer despite the fact he was highly educated (I can’t remember now what his profession was) as he had the skills passed down from his parents so he was able to ‘perform’ when tested by the military individuals. Sok saw friends on his own camp die in front of him – not through being killed but through malnutrition or extreme dehydration. He experienced things we wouldn’t even wish on others in nightmares.
We stopped in town for a quick fruit shake before moving on into the S-21 museum. We always knew this day was going to be hard and more was to come. As we sat over a drink Sok was asking us what sort of thing we like to do when travelling around. I said that I really liked seeing ‘real life’ – the touristy bits are fine but I don’t think it shows how the country actually is. It was at this point that he invited mum and I to visit his family the next day. He didn’t want us to feel pressured as knew we wanted a quiet day but based on what I had said he thought I might enjoy it. We didn’t commit at this point as I wanted to chat with mum to make sure she was happy to do it but I was so excited at the thought of visiting his family. We chatted later over lunch and mum was equally as excited about it so we agreed with Sok we would visit his old primary school and family home the next morning instead of what we had on our original schedule. We would then have the afternoon to ‘chill’. He was as excited as we were as he had never taken any tourists to visit his home village before.
S-21 was our next stop – a prison that had been used during Khmer Rogue period. S-21 had historically been a school. The Khmer Rogue took over many schools, places of worship and workshops to convert them into prisons / places of torture. There were 167 prisons throughout the period.
This prison had 15,000 prisoners throughout the 4 years of the regime. Some of the were tortured for information, some sent straight to be killed and some were made to work if they could be useful. Only 7 adults ultimately survived when the Liberation Army found the prison in 1979 – 5 have subsequently passed away of natural causes, 2 continue to visit the prison every day to ensure the devastation isn’t lost and educate people on the period – quite incredible that they relive it every single day.
We walked around some of the rooms – each with a picture in it of someone being tortured in that room. The Rogue took many pictures during the time to send to leaders as ‘proof’ that they were doing what they were being asked. As a result there is a far amount of documentation of it. The ‘school’ / prison was still surrounded by barbed wire that had been put up to stop any one from being able to escape. Each prisoner had their photo taken when they entered into the prison, many of these were up and displayed in the rooms, along with other pictures of different ways the prisoners were treated. I asked in which situation a prisoner would be tortured rather than sent directly to the fields – apparently it was down to the information the person may have. The Rogue wanted to know where friends and allies were hiding and so would push people for information in the worst possible way.
After a good walk around and feeling quite sobered by the experience we started heading out. We stopped to speak to the two survivors who there having lunch with their families. Sarah had been to Cambodia last year and one of her regrets was not stopping to say hello to these men – she had asked if I would if I went. We spoke to them for a minute although they didn’t have much English but we thanked them for sharing their stories with us.
After quite a heavy morning mum and I were basically ready for bed! We headed for a lovely lunch on the river before visiting Phnom Penh temple and the National Museum. We were completely exhausted by the time we were done!
Heading back to the hotel we had a quick drink before getting ready to head out for dinner. Mum had mentioned she wasn’t feeling 100% but thought she’s be find so we went out to a place called ‘Friends’ which is a Not for Profit restaurant in the city. Unfortunately she went from bad to worse and didn’t eat a thing (I ate it all….. took one for the team) – as time went on she literally went green and so we rushed to get a tuk tuk back to the hotel. Unfortunately they didn’t know exactly where we were meant to be going and so pulled into a petrol station….at which point mum ran out and threw up all over the forecourt…. Not funny at the time….but in retrospect . We headed back as fast as we could and mum settled in bed. I headed out for a wander locally to try and find something for us to take to the school and family the next day, I found a little shop which sold pads and pencils so I stocked up and then stopped at a street side mobile coffee tuk tuk for an ice tea and watched the locals hiding on ‘hoverboards’ and generally hanging out before I made my way to back to the hotel.
Mum slept well and felt a lot better in the morning which was good as she really didn’t want to miss the slightly ‘off piste’ day we had ahead of us! Sok and our driver picked us up and we heaed west out the city. He talked about how the city had really grown in the last 20 years – when he was studying in the city and commuting in he would pass fields where there are now factories, housing, industry – apparently it’s already changed quite a lot. We stopped at a local bakery for some bread for the family - $6 for so much food – in the UK I think it would have cost about £15! The factory had quite a few teenagers working in it who were happy to show me how they made some of the bread. I think I was a bit of a novelty for their day! We headed off the main road onto – what Sok referred to as ‘new roads’ – they were concrete but we would definitely complain about them if they had been in the UK! We passed his old high school where he talked about how the headteacher had once put all of their bikes in the pond at the front as he was fed up of them being scattered across the school grounds and how he had beaten and had his hair cut off when he went into school – quite different now!
Heading further into the countryside we came to his old primary school – the children were on a break so out in the grounds. The gates were wide open and children from the kindergarten across the road were wandering across the road waiting for someone to pick them up, no teachers watching or waiting with them.
We said hello to Sok’s nephew and then were taken into the principle’s office who was an old school friend of Sok’s. We met a few of the teachers – one of whom had taught our guide in the past and thy explained (though Sok) that the school had 400 students, they were split into morning and afternoon groups, no one came for the whole day. Each class had approximately 50 children in it and the children worked and were ranked within their class….they knew their own ranking – quite soul destroying for the one at the bottom!
After chatting for a while and having some photos it was the end of break, the bell rang and the children disappeared into their classrooms. The headteacher took us to the new library that had been built recently, it was a lovely space and clearly an extremely prized building for the school. Sok told us how during his time at the school – given it was immediately after Khmer Rogue they had no buildings so had to have lessons outside with whichever adults could teach them as most of the teachers had been killed during the regime.
We were invited into a couple of the classrooms where the children stood immediately to greet us, some spoke to us in English and one of the groups sang us the national song. It was lovely.
After a while and after a lot of thank yous we headed on our way to the local village – stopping to say hello to Sok’s cousin and sister in their shops. We saw the stupa that had been built for this late grandmother and experienced less and less maintained roads as we got further into the village.
Sok hadn’t mentioned to his parent’s that we were coming so it was a huge surprise for them – they were delighted though! We met his mum, dad, sisters aunty, niece and three nephews (one of which had just started dentistry at university).
Sadly his brother in law had been killed in an electrical accident at the house the year before so the little baby boy had never met his father. You could see the sadness in the eyes of one of his sisters. His mother and father enjoyed showing us photos of all of their sons and daughters getting married. They had a simple house – one room at the front with a double bed and a hammock and a garage space at the back with the car and another bed. They had a working toilet which was new in recent years and out at the back they had chicken pens, 2 cows (who were out on a walk – they turned up but were told to go away and come back later – apparently that’s normal!) and a well for collecting water they may need to use.
His mum and aunty were cooking for the family so we joined them for lunch. I think they were quite surprised by how much I ate – they thought tourists wouldn’t eat their local food but I told them I loved trying new things. They made a gorgeous pork (Mchua Kroeung) soup – so fresh and tasty, so many herbs and leaves from the tress all about their house and a salty paste with cucumber – I have no idea what the paste was but it was nice!
We gave the children some pencils and pens, looked around their family shop – run by his sister and just generally enjoyed their company for a good hour and a half – such a great experience.
Before we knew it it was time to head back into the city – we stopped at the ‘village pub’ where they made sugar wine and people congregated to enjoy a few drinks on a bamboo platform with sugarcane roof.
The afternoon was extremely chilled (which we had planned) – we sat by the pool for a few hours, where I promptly fell asleep and then enjoyed a massage (me) and pedicure / foot massage (mum) before heading out to the FCC, a popular traveller restaurant overlooking the river for some (very nice!) food, a glass of wine and a baileys to top it off! Fortunately as we were sitting there mum found $50 I had ‘put away safely’ for tips for the guides a few days earlier. I hadn’t remembered doing it at all but given I’m on a bit of a budget now $50 goes a long way out here so I was a bit worked up having lost it….. very pleased when we found it again!