Phnom Phen is a city of contrasts, extreme poverty vs. the opulence of ornately decorated golden temples. Arriving by boat, we were swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers looking to some score business with incoming tourists for a day or two. Owning your own tuk-tuk is a prime entrepreneurial business for many men (never once saw a female driver) & there are literally thousands. One such person who vied for our business was ‘Sinal’. He seemed honest & sincere so we contracted him to the drive us to our hotel & for the various sites we wanted to tour during our time here. It proved a very good choice!
The beautiful riverside boardwalk extends from the boat arrival for a couple of kilometres & we enjoyed strolling the area each evening. Restaurants & the night market make navigation a chore as the traffic quadruples. Nearby, the King’s palace is nothing short of opulent & only foot traffic is allowed on the streets surrounding it. Motifs on the walls surrounding the numerous monk monasteries (yes more monks!) are intricate & depict stories of various goddesses. Monks are seen throughout the city at any given time & each morning they go from business to business collecting alms & bestowing blessings.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are about 15K from the city & one site of the genocide of the Cambodian people by Pol Pots regime in the mid-70’s. On April 17,1975, teenage soldiers of the Khmer Rouge forced the city dwellers to leave their homes & march to the remote countryside to work rice farms in slavery-like conditions. Those who opposed (or not) Pol Pot or were considered educated or intellectuals, e.g. professors, physicians, monks & even those who were left-handed or wore glasses, were imprisoned in the former Tuol Sleng primary & Tuol Svay secondary school, or what has become known as S-21. The intention was to get to ‘year zero’ & start over with no class structure; people were expected to just farm the land. There was no commerce, no education, no worship of family or ancestors.
The prison is made up of 4 buildings, 3 stories high & housed up to 20,000 people who were detained for 2-4 months before transferred to Choeung Ek to be killed. Here they were interrogated, tortured & killed after being made to confess to crimes they never committed. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was meticulously documented & photographed their faces hauntingly starred back at us as we viewed the exhibit. Wandering through the now peaceful orchards where the Killing Fields are located, it is hard to imagine what was going through the people’s mind when they arrived here. This site is just one of 300 fields throughout the county where an estimated 3 million people were killed in just over 3-years. The main & cheapest method of killing was to line the people up by open trenches & use blunt force to the head. The victim would fall into the pit & the bodies sprayed by DDT in order to eliminate the smell & suffocate those who were still alive. One mass grave unearthed over 450 bodies. The other very gruesome & very
disturbing sight we saw was the ‘killing tree’, where babies were snatched from their mother, swung by the ankles, heads smashed against the tree & then thrown into a mass grave with their mother. So hard to believe all these atrocities happened just 40 years ago; when putting it into perspective, I was graduating from nursing around the same time the Khmer marched into the city. Quite the history lesson to say the least! A memorial Stupa erected at the site holds more than 800 skulls & fragments of victims clothing. Many of the buildings were destroyed by the
Khumer when the Vietnamese overpowered them, taking control. Even to this day, after a big rainfall, bone fragments, teeth & bits of clothing rise to the surface & are collected by the people working there. The audiotape we were provided during our tour had several ‘survivor’ accounts & are strong, poignant stories that left us wondering & how anyone could ever escape the mental aftermath.