Cambodia, Travel

Extremes in Phnom Penh

The newly formed travel group of myself, Steve and Paul from Bristol, George from Gloucester, Steffi from Germany and Karen from The Netherlands, headed off together in what turned into a private minibus from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. It quickly became apparent that from now on I was tour guide and organiser for all trips, which I loved and hated simultaneously!

We arrived at an amazing hostel (recommended by Sean) hostel eighty8. It had a pool table and a swimming pool! That evening we all got in the pool and initiated a late-finishing pool party which ended due to complaints from fellow guests…. oops!
England was playing in the world cup that night so George and I patriotically stayed up til 5am to support… by stayed up I mean fell sleep on the Thai sofas in front of the TV… lol unfortunately, England lost :(

Our first full day in Phnom Penh we visited the killing fields, a museum and one site of mass killings and executions during the Pol Pot regime. We got a tuk tuk to take us and on the way there he stopped at a shooting range which allows you to fire any gun you want… strange, but apparently all killing field day-trips include a stop at a shooting range, so it’s probably better that we went before, rather than after learning about how millions of people were killed… 😦

I didn’t fire any guns, but George and Paul did… wow it was loud! Even with heavy duty ear defenders on.
Gangsta Paul… hahaha

From here we went to the killing fields… what an experience. I didn’t know anything about the killings in Cambodia before visiting here. I had heard of Pol Pot and his comparison to Hitler, but I had no idea why or what that meant…

In 4 years (1975-1979) an estimated 3 million people (including women and children) were executed or died due to the Khmer rouge regime. A staggering amount considering the population of Cambodia at that time was only around 8 million…

Life under the Khmer Rouge: Wikipedia.
In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people (often splitting up families) from urban areas to collective farms where forced labour was widespread.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labour camps. They forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation. Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality.

During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, at the same time executing selected groups who they believed were enemies of the state or spies or had the potential to undermine the new state. People who they perceived as intellectuals or even those who had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses, would also be killed. People would also be executed for attempting to escape from the communes or for breaching minor rules. If caught, offenders were taken quietly off to a distant forest or field after sunset and killed.

The executed were buried in mass graves. In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using wooden sticks, spades or sharpened bamboo. In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Chankiri trees. The rationale was “to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths.”

The killing fields included an audio tour with accounts from survivors and graphic details. Waking around the fields you could see places were mass graves were. And even the tree used for killing children…
Killing tree.

A memorial building housed hundreds of skulls and bones…
The place was shocking…

From here we drove to the S-21 prison or ‘Tuol Sleng’ (which was a school before). It was used to interrogate and torture potential enemies of the regime… it was kept almost intact as a memorial and museum, and was very creepy…

The day was emotionally draining and we returned in the afternoon to chill in the pool, all of us very quiet in our own thought…

After a swim and a nap we headed for food, which lead to drinks and karaoke (there were karaoke bars everywhere!) And eventually a very seedy night club!

The next day we spent the whole day lounging by the pool and snoozing, still tired from the full day before. We left that evening on a night bus to Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat.

Phnom Penh really was the city of extremes… from shooting guns, to fields with hundreds of thousands of bodies buried. From beggars on the street to high end karaoke cocktail bars… We all struggled to deal with it emotionally and it was hard to enjoy yourself after learning about so much death. If I’m honest, we were glad to leave…

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