We decided to continue our cultural and historical education in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. Being short on time (as usual), and not fans of big cities, we only stayed 2 days. Unlike other SE Asian cities we had been to, Phnom Penh was surprisingly not as densely populated, or spread out. We mostly got around on foot. Taking a tuk-tuk is always an option, but we weren’t in the mood for bargaining (you can always get the fare down to half the original price).
The city center is spacious and clean, with wide avenues, gardens, monuments, temples and administrative buildings with obscure functions (‘Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspection’).
In the rest of the city, there always seems to be some construction, or deconstruction, in progress (we even saw a live demolition, which drew the crowds), the power lines are a mess, and around the markets and transport hubs, the sewers overflow and rubbish lays everywhere. We even saw vendors sleeping on the floor at night in the market.
On the first day, Renaud visited the Royal Palace, a good introduction to the colourful architecture we see in most modern Buddhist monuments in Cambodia and Thailand: pointy golden spires and intricate tiling contrasting starkly with white-washed walls.
I found the $10 entrance fee a little steep, so took an afternoon walk down the concrete banks of the mighty Mekong river, watching the fishing boats in the distance. It was exciting to think that in its long journey towards the sea, this murkey brown water had already criss-crossed through China, Burma, Thailand and Laos.
The Cambodians were out and about: running, cycling, skatebording, stretching, playing a kind of volley-football with a reed ball, and an old ladies’ aerobics class livened up the promenade. Many of the locals are actually Buddhist monks, in their distinctive orange robes, taking public transport, shopping, using smartphones, and living just like everybody else. After regrouping, we chose a little Indian restaurant for dinner, in the middle of all the activity. An international diving competition was playing on TV, and a child street seller stayed for a while, transfixed. It was heart-breaking talking to him: despite being witty and able to recognise the flags of all the countries showing on the screen, like so many other kids here, he had very little prospects other than hasstling tourists to buy a bracelet.
The next day we went with our English dorm-mate, Edward, to the Genocide Museum, also known as S-21 or Tuol Sleng, which was the name of the school which the Khmer Rouge regime converted into a torture prison in the late 1970s. The location was the biggest prison in the country, responsable for the torture, and later transfer to killing fields, of 14000 Cambodians, of which only 12 survived.
We opted for the guided commentary, visiting the blood-stained cells, the chambers which would hold hundreds of prisoners at a time, chained-up together all day long, the torture rooms and contraptions, endless photo galleries of the victims and perpetrators of these atrocities, and the memorial outside.
For a little context: the Khmer Rouge, or Communist Party of Kampuchea, started out as a Maoist guerilla mouvement, fighting for independance from France in the 1940s and 50s, alongside neighbouring Vietnam. In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was ousted, following a US-backed military coup. The Khmer Rouge, aided by Vietnam, resisted the new government in a bloody civil war. All of Cambodia suffered heavy casualties from US air raids, and joined in support of the armed struggle. The Khmer Rouge army were welcomed as heroes when they finaly freed Phnom Penh in 1975.
The whole city was immediatly evacuated by the regime, people forced to move back to rural areas to particpate in what later became forced agricultural labour, working 12 hours a day, all year round. In their effort to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless, society, The Khmer Rouge abolished democratic freedoms, the free market and monetary system, all forms of education, culture and religion, and discourage family ties. Public places were turned into torture prisons, labour camps and killing fields. An estimated 2 million Cambodians (a quarter of the population) perished: villagers died of exhaustion and starvation in the fields, and all citizens and even Party members who were remotely suspected, or denounced under torture, were condemned without trial. All intellectuals perished (ie. lawyers, journalists, artists, engineers, doctors, or even someone who just wore glasses!), which explains why Cambodia has had a very hard time getting back on its feet, and diversifying its economy, since.
Relations between Cambodia and Vietnam broke down for ideological reasons, and Vietnam finally invaded Cambodia in 1979, pushing out the Khmer Rouge and freeing the country from their brutal, merciless, rule. What is most surprising, and revolting, is the stance of the international community, who were, through their endless meddling and neo-imperialistic policies, partially responsible for the civil war in the first place. Until 1990, none of the atrocities were reveiled, or recognized, and the Khmer Rouge were considered as the only representative government of Cambodia, even being given a seat at the UN. Most Party members were exiled in China or Thailand, so were never held accountable. Some were given pardons by the King, in exchange for his return to power in the 1990s.
The regime leader, Pol Pot, remained incognito for decades, and was found dead (suicide or assassination?) in 1998. A tribunal was finally set up in 2004, but most of the accused were too old, or dead. Till the very end, none of the Party leaders took responsability or showed remorse, the chorus was: ‘I was just following orders, I didn’t know’. The only significant conviction was that of ‘Comrade Duch’, the head of the S-21 prison, who was finally condemned to 35 years of prison in 2010: too little, too late.
We ended our visit of the prison by joining up with a South African couple we had met at the border crossing: Alice & Ivan. Together we watched a documentary projected by the museum recording interviews of prison guards and survivors many years later: the guards cripled with guilt, but not taking responsability, and the victims haunted by memories of their dignity, humanity and loved ones, stripped away from them.This country’s suffering has clearly not been recognized or dealt with. Hundreds of thousands of survivors and descendants of the ‘lost generation’ still live with significant psychological wounds today.
We were quite shook up after the visit, so decided to go for drinks at a rooftop bar by the river, to wind down.
Our museum visit naturally got us talking about politics, which was evidently a subject we were all passionate about, and not necessarily in agreement on. One topic led to another and by the end of the evening we had covered studying at the UK’s elite universities, how to finance tertiary education, Brexit, our respective travels, being a travel blogger, the transport system in Cape Town, sports and fire-dancing! Thanks to stimulating conversation, good beers and good company, the day ended on a higher note than it started! Sadly, we had to part ways the next day, so said our goodbyes at the end of the evening, promising to keep in touch.
And so ended our short, but educational, stay in Phnom Penh. We departed the next day on a very long (and very late) bus headed for Sihanoukville on the coast. Our gateway to some long-awaited beach-time!