Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
05.09.2010 - 09.09.2010 34 °C
Cambodia has been on our list of countries to visit for a long time so it was great to finally arrive although it was rather a depressing start.
Our journey from Saigon was shorter than expected so we arrived into Phnom Penh with the afternoon free however the heavens opened up and kept us indoors. Pete informed us that this should only last 45 minute’s however 3 hours later the monsoon rain was still teaming down.
Cambodia is still recovering from the devastation that was caused by Pol Pot in 1975 and we spent the day trying to understand what the country went through during that time visiting the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields by tuk tuk. The Khmer Rouge run by Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh on 17th April 1975 and took over the capital, forcing everyone to evacuate and head to the countryside to work as slaves. His goal was to turn Cambodia into a peasant-dominated country. Within 3 days, the 2 million residents of Phnom Penh and surrounding areas had left, leaving Phnom Penh as a ghost town.
Pol Pot turned Tuol Svay Prey High School into Security Prison 21 (S-21) which today is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum. S-21 was a place of interrogation and torture where the vast majority of the capitals educated residents were tortured. The Khmer Rouge felt threaten by them and if they weren’t found with their families, they were tortured until they revealed their location. Within the 4 years more than 18,000 people passed through the prison and once the location of family members were given, they were then taken to the killing field of Choeung Ek blind folded. Class rooms with a bed, a toilet pot, shackles and a food bowl were located on the ground floor and used as the torture rooms with blood stains still visible in some. Other class rooms were turned into cell blocks with each cell measuring 1m x 1.5m and it wasn’t uncommon for the prisoners to die in these cells from starvation.
Men were kept on the ground floor whilst women and children were kept on the floors above. No one escaped from the prison and only 7 people survived, with 4 people still alive today. They used their skills of painting or photography to stay alive. The classrooms are now covered in photographers of those that were killed after leaving S-21, instruments that were used for torture and the torture rooms as they were found. As the Vietnamese were closing in on the city, 14 prisoners were killed and it wasn’t until 2 weeks later that the High School was searched and this was only because of the smell coming from the decaying bodies. Everyone that passed through S-21 were photographed and labelled which is how the museum has been able to identity people today.
From S-21 the prisoners were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek or the Killing Fields which it’s called today. 383 killing fields are located across Cambodia, but this one just outside of Phnom Penh is the biggest. 129 mass graves are here with 43 of them still left untouched. Most of the executions were done from tools such as shackles, leg irons, hatchets, knifes, hoes and shovels as they did not want to waste precious bullets. Prior to 1975, the area was an orchard and a Chinese cemetery with some gravestones still visible.
In 1980 nearly 9,000 people were exhumed from these graves and their skulls and bones that were found are now displayed in the Memorial Stupa for people to remember them.
Mass graves were found, one containing 166 bodies without heads which is believed to be high ranking officials from the Khmer Rouge as they were still in their uniform and another containing 100 women and children who were naked. Babies were killed by bashing them against a tree and then thrown into a grave nearby. Due to the floods, pieces of human bones and clothing emerge every year and whilst walking on the paths which we were told to stick to, bones and clothing we visible through the dirt and grass. It was a very eerie feeling. When the Vietnamese finally took over the country, half of the population had been killed and it’s thought that every family has been affected by it.
It was a very heavy morning and a lot to think about especially since it happened only 30 years ago so most of us just chilled in the afternoon before heading off to the Foreign Correspondence Club to celebrate Simon’s 50th Birthday.
With Neill in Australia for one more day, it was decided that the morning would be spent exploring the Russian market where I must admit only a few purchases were made despite there being so much to buy.
Neill arrived back safely and the best thing was that he brought some treats from home in terms of food and an empty backpacker for us to fill over the next 5 weeks.
We explored the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda in the morning but unfortunately a few of the temples were closed due to the Slovakian President’s arrival in the afternoon. The Royal Palace still serves as the residence of the King and was first built in 1866 but most of what is seen today is from the 1920’s when the wooden structures were replaced by cement buildings.
The Silver Pagoda is named after the floor, as it’s covered in over 5,000 silver tiles which are mostly covered up apart from a small section at the entrance for visitors to view. The structure of the Silver Pagoda was preserved by the Khmer Rouge however, the half of its contents were destroyed.
The various wat’s and temples within the complex are surrounded by lush gardens and leafy havens but on closer inspection, the flowers are fake which we found rather amusing. Some of the temples that we were allowed into were the Preah Tineang or otherwise called the Throne Hall which is topped by a 59m high tower which was inspired by the Bayon at Angkor Wat. The hall is used for coronations and ceremonies and unfortunately many of the items once displayed were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
We wandered up to view Wat Phnom which is set on top of the only hill in Phnom Penh and is surrounded by fat Buddha monkeys. Some of them had trouble moving, let alone running which they tried when the sight of food was seen. They knew exactly how to peel a banana and what parts of the sugar cane to eat.
For dinner we headed to a restaurant called Friends which is a charity run restaurant which helps children stay off the street by helping them with schooling, finding jobs and providing them with housing. The chef's are all street children that have been trained within the restaurant and we must say the food was fantastic. Honey and garlic meatballs with plum sauce; zucchini, aubergine and pepper spring rolls; Khmer steamed fish wrapped in banana leave and the best was last - chocolate and banana spring rolls. All of that was accompained by pineapple and chilli margarita's and raspberry and lime daiquiri.