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Phnom Penh: The Killing Fields

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 15 December 2005 | Views [1131]

And here I am in the Capital of Cambodia, coming to the end of my first full day here. Today has been so full of incidents, visiting the sites involving Khmer Rouge brutalities, hiring mopeds to get around this compact city, and having to deal with a corrupt police officer - if your interested, read on!

Yesterday we left Saigon and had no problems getting through the border controls and into Cambodia. On the trip I was sitting next to another Irish lad called Patrick, who is doing much the same trip as me, although he is off to Singapore soon. He's had a bit of a cushy life in Saigon - he was staying with a friend of his brothers, who is a co-pilot for Aer Lingus. AL have leased some of their pilots to Vietnam Airways, and the pilots are based in Saigon in a plush mansion like house - the swine was telling me that the maid did his laundry before he set out - something I need to do pretty soon!

We got in late, shared a double room and hit the sack in order to be ready for today. After an early breakfast, we hired a moped and after consulting the map, zoomed off to our first destination, Tuol Sleng museum. This place was a former high school which was taken over by the regime of Saloth Sar, otherwise known as Pol Pot. He turned it into S-21, or Security prison 21. It became the largest centre of detention and torture. Almost all of the people held there were later taken to the killing fields to be executed. It is an eerie, gruesome place which is a perfect testament to the Khmer Rouges' crimes. As we walked in, we saw the cells, which had on one wall a picture of the prisoner, dead, in a horrible state. More often than not, in the cells there was a steel bed and wires which were used for electricution. Faded and mixed in with the decaying paint work in places was what I thought splatterings of blood. Some of the pictures were heart wrenching, in particular the picture of a woman holding her baby as she was being electricuted from the back of the head.

After this, feeling a little sombre, we headed over to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, obviously after getting lost on the bike first. The story behind this area is that around 1975 and 1978, 17,000 men, women, children and some foreigners who were detained at S21 were later brought to the extermination camps at Choeung Ek. Many of the prisoners were further tortured, before being bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting bullets, which were better used in the war.

At the killing fields there is a stupa, which inside it has glass panels which house thousands of skulls, from people of all ages. The glass shelves they are piled on rise high up into the stupa, making for what I think is the most upsetting thing I have ever seen. Unbelievably, as you walk around the PATHWAY, you see shards of bone sticking out of the earth, and also pieces of bone piled up in this or that corner. The mass graves are marked, telling of how many people were there. The remains of 8000+ people have been found. It truly is mind blowing.

And so I'm finding it a little difficult to comprehend these two sites and their involvement with mass tourism. Much as the same in Thailand or Vietnam, the guesthouses here proclaim in shiny letters behind counters, "come and see the killing fields", much the same way as a visit to a waterfall or an elephant ride, whilst foreigners ask the locals the best way to get to the fields, imitating a bullet to the head to further explain just where they would like to go. For the most part, the locals, both in the hotels and out, are happy to help and point the way, (in the end is it all about the $$$?) but I think that it's troubling that these are PPs main attractions, and the reason why so many foreigners (LIKE ME) come to this place. I only got back from the place a few hours ago, so perhaps I'll be able to figure it out in the next few days.... but I definitely do have a better understanding of the progress Cambodia has made since.

And so to the ride home, and our police officer friend. We were pulled over with a few other bikes, and the officer (no english) and began to flick our licence plate. He then got a pad out and wrote $20. We told him that we weren't paying, and, after spotting a westerner who had a mobile phone, called the bike shop to tell him our problem. "$20!, pay no more than $2" was his advice. Patrick and I, disgusted, managed to barter this corrupt worm down to $2. He got angry as we asked for a reciept, and even more so when I wrote the license plate number of his bike down. We would have pushed further, but I didn't like the idea of being taken to the police station with my camera - I'd never see it again once I had to hand my things over. The locals though were puzzled by our display. They cheerily, bantering with the officers, put the money into the folder, never into his hands, as he directed us to do. After S21 and the fields, this just seemed a bit too much for the day, and we were happy to get away from it all and back into the hotel.

I'm thinking about heading up to Siem Reap (which means Thai's defeated, just so you know) either tomorrow or the next day, depending on buses. Here I will see one of Cambodia's more positive sites - the majestic Angkor Wat.

Tags: Adventures

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