Phnom Penh – Our Introduction to Cambodia

We opted for a change of scenery today, and have settled in at Cafe Void for the evening, a small coffee shop in Zhong Tian Hua Yuan.  The rainy season has begun in Guiyang, and although the temperature is much better now, we are getting several thunder storms a week.  A fairly severe one hit while we were having supper tonight at our favorite hot pot place (it’s never too hot for hot pot!!) when it started thundering.  Starbucks is about 20 minutes away by scooter, so we chose to stay close to home instead.  Void’s got a great atmosphere anyway, and it’s nice to switch it up now and then anyway 🙂

Now, I know I never got around to finishing all of my posts about Thailand, but I think they’re just going to have to wait.  I wrote about most of the major stuff already, and the 2 posts I have left to write (1 on the elephants at ENP and one about nightlife in Thailand) can wait until I’m done with our latest trip:  Cambodia!!

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Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Siam. It’s most famous for Angkor National Park, which I’ll be getting to in my next post 🙂

Cambodia is amazing for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, it’s incredible exotic…even for people living in China.  Unlike Thailand, which is basically Canada’s ‘Caribbean’, Cambodia hasn’t been open for tourism for very long.  They have a rather ugly modern history, and until the late 1990s, people simply didn’t go there to visit.  But I’ll get to that in a bit…First, I’ll tell you a little bit about our first stop:  Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh

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Located on the Mekong River, Phnom Penh is very different from the rest of the country

Phnom Penh is a fairly modern city.  It isn’t a rich place, but compared to the rest of the country, it has a booming economy.  There are plenty of sights to see in Cambodia’s capital, including several markets, monuments and temples and Cambodia’s National Museum.  There’s no shortage of places to visit and we had to limit ourselves to a few top choices as we only had 2 days to see the city.

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The national museum was one of our stops. Unlike the grand palace and the temples, there was no dress code here, and with the +40 heat, I was glad to not have to wear long sleeves!
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I like that they used shrubs for this elephant’s body 🙂
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Some very nice architecture at the museum!

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Still, there is extreme poverty here.  Many children don’t go to school and instead beg on the street or sell bracelets to tourists.  The city is also very dirty, which is common in poor countries.

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We saw this type of thing both in the city and in rural areas. This was a particularly bad area, on a river bank. Nearby is a fishing village built entirely on stilts
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The garbage provides income for families who are too poor to send their children to school. Although education is free (and compulsory) in Cambodia, families keep their children at home to help earn income to keep everyone fed. This young girl was looking for things she could sell in town.
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Similarly, these children are sifting through plastic and garbage, looking for anything valuable that has the potential to earn them some income.

 

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We met this group of boys in Kratie. They were very friendly and very excited to see foreigners. We saw them on the weekend, so I don’t know for sure that they don’t go to school, but we saw many groups of children just like this during the week, who asked us to buy things from them so that they COULD go to school.

And when it comes to helping the poor in Cambodia, there is a catch 22 for tourists.  On one hand, if you don’t buy the things they are selling you feel like a terrible person.  $2 isn’t much to a Canadian, but it’s a small fortune for a family as poor as some that we saw.  But on the other hand, by giving in and purchasing items from these kids, you are telling their parents ‘yes, sending your children out to sell things is a good idea.  I could say no to you, but I can’t say no to them’.  I felt awful every time I gave in, but I couldn’t say no, and Dave and I ended up with a lot of bracelets, postcards, books and magnets.

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We met these children in Kratie. They were so cute and so shy. I kept making faces at them to make them laugh, trying to get them to come over and say hello (they were hiding behind some boxes trying to get a glimpse of us). I eventually got them to come over and I asked them their names and taught them a little English. When I left, they came running out and said ‘Goodbye, Teacher!!!’. I met another group of girls who were selling flutes. We bought one flute from each of them ($1 a piece…) and I asked them what their names were and how old they all were. They all lit right up when I gave them that little bit of attention. I doubt they have many tourists ask them about their lives. More often than not, they are just shooed to the side.

I'm not sure what's worse...sifting through garbage, or being treated like garbage...Either way, these kids don't have the life I wish they did...
I’m not sure what’s worse…sifting through garbage, or being treated like garbage…Either way, these kids don’t have the life I wish they did…

But it wasn’t long ago that children in Cambodia suffered a much worse fate than a lack of education.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, Cambodia has an ugly past.  From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, and the people suffered one of the worst genocides in world history.  Millions of people died through starvation, torture and execution and this ugly man was the brain behind it all.

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Meet Pol Pot: the world’s 6th most murderous dictator of all time.  In just 4 years, he killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

As North Americans, we grow up hearing about Hitler and his atrocities. The Khmer Rouge, however, was completely foreign to me, which is strange given how recently the Cambodian genocide  happened.  After all, I consider myself to be a worldly minded person…I read the news and keep track of the big things that are happening in the world.  But this one I hadn’t heard of.  And that’s probably because so little was done by western powers to stop this man.  We can’t be proud of bringing down this assailant, like we brought down Hitler, so Cambodia’s story just doesn’t make the cut in our history books.

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One of many famous quotes attributed to Pol Pot.  Another depressing one: “It is better to kill 10 innocent men than to let 1 guilty man escape”.

When the the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, Pot had big plans for its citizens.  He believed in a perfect communism that was based on agriculture.  Pot thought that anyone educated or anyone who lived in the cities was the enemy and he treated them as such.  Many of those people were sent to S-21, one of the many schools that the Khmer Rouge turned into torture compounds.  We toured the old school and saw some of the things  accomplished there in those 4 terrible years.

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This is S -21…the most infamous prison of the Khmer Rouge period. It’s since been turned into a Genocide Museum in an attempt to educate people about the genocide here and give voice to the victims who died in these walls.

There are several buildings in S-21, each with their own brand of horror.  Our first stop was a building where high-status inmates were held.  This is where they kept people who were suspected of working with the CIA or other foreign intelligence agencies.  It’s said that the Khmer Rouge would arrest anyone who wore glasses, because glasses, after all, are a sign of intelligence.  And intelligence was not to be trusted.

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This is the bed an inmate was given (there was never a mattress). But that was the least of it. The people who were kept in these cells were tortured on a daily basis…water boarding and beatings were a regular occurrence. And the female prisoners were raped and forced to eat their own excrement. All because they had an education…

After seeing many rooms like the one above, we moved to another area of the prison where groups of prisoners were kept.  The quarters here were far worse…

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Because this was originally a school, S-21 didn’t have cells right away, so the Khmer Rouge had them built. This is one of many that we saw
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When they weren’t being tortured, prisoners were left alone in these cells. It was forbidden that they speak to other inmates and if they were caught,t hey were beaten further.

 

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Cell 18

The last building we saw told stories of individuals who survived S-21.  In total, it is estimated that 17,000 people were kept here, tortured and beaten.  Of those 17,000, only 12 prisoners survived.  We met two of them while at S-21 and bought their books.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read them.  The things we saw here bothered me a lot.  I couldn’t sleep for several nights without dreaming about the things I read.  The fact that humans could do this other humans is beyond me.

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Some prisoners would have been able to see some of the yard from their windows.
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Stories from the prisoners of S-21concentration camp

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Like any camp of this sort, the inmates had to abide by a list of rules set by the guards.  Some of them are impossible for me to understand…

You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.”

While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

No matter how much S-21 bothered me though, The Killing Fields were much, much worse.

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The Memorial Stupa in the Phnom Penh Killing Fields

The fields themselves are quite a thing to see.  Upon arrival at the Fields, which are just outside Phnom Penh, you are provided with an audio tour  (the recordings were very well done and available in many different languages).  Everyone has their headphones on and are listening to the stories and history behind the fields.  It is completely quiet as you walk through this massacre sight and it feels eerie.  If you look up at the other visitors, everyone has the same look on their face.  Nobody can quite understand how these things happened.  How humans could do this to other humans.

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What could be a lovely park, is actually several mass graves where nearly 9000 bodies were found. This is only one of Pol Pot’s many killing fields. In total, it’s estimated that he killed 1.2 million people in fields like this. The other 500,000 people who died under his regime died of starvation and exhaustion in the rice fields.

Since the fields were discovered, the individual pits have been carefully excavated, in an attempt to understand what went on in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  Many of the larger bones (skulls and femurs) were removed from the earth, cleaned and examined.  Some DNA testing was done to help give families closure, though many families have never found their lost relatives.  Once DNA analysis was complete, the skulls were moved into the Memorial Stupa that was built at The Killing Fields to honor the dead.

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9000 skulls can be found in this memorial stupa. They all have different coloured stickers on them, which indicate the way each individual was executed. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to pay for bullets, so most victims were hacked to death with farming tools or with weapons made of bamboo or sugar cane branches. That’s one of the things that haunts me the most about this genocide. These were not quick deaths…

The smaller bones were left in the ground and when it rains heavily, they move up through the soil.  As a result, you are often reminded by signage to watch where you are stepping.  You can often see bones on the ground as well as the clothing of victims.

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The employees at the Fields routinely look for bones and clothes that have come up from the ground and stack them respectfully like this to remind people to watch where they are stepping.
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They also collect some of the bigger pieces of bones and the clothing and put them in display cases for people to see. Notice on the left hand side, in the front, there is a pair of children’s shorts…they’re hard to miss…

 

We saw a lot of clothing in the pits.
We saw a lot of clothing in the pits.

Some of the bigger pits, or pits that were reserved for ‘special’ groups of victims have been sectioned off.  On the bamboo posts used to section the pits off, people have left bracelets to commemorate the dead.  Many of these bracelets are recognizable from street kids who sell them in down town Phnom Penh.

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This was the first grave we came upon. Over 200 victims were found in it. The bracelets have been left by visitors.
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Women and Children were found in this grave. They were killed the same as the men…with bound hands.  They often had to watch their children die first.  They weren’t important enough to keep alive, but they were somehow special enough to have their own burial space.  So much insanity on the part of their captors…
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Many of the victims in this grave were found wearing guards clothing, so it’s assumed that they were people who had been found guilty of somehow opposing the revolution. Perhaps they tried to help a prisoner escape, or showed kindness to a woman or child.  Even the people running these camps and killing fields weren’t safe from Pol Pot’s grand scheme.
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This is the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life. This tree is located right outside the pit where women and children were found. This tree was used to murder babies.

It was difficult walking around these fields.  I feel sad and depressed about it even now, as I write this post.  Nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed during the 4 years that Pol Pot was in power.  And because this all happened in the last 40 years, everyone you meet in present-day Cambodia has a story they can tell you.  They all have either an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a parent or a friend who was killed.  The trials against the Khmer Rouge’s top officers are ongoing even today, and Pol Pot was never even brought to justice.  He died of old age…he spent his final years with his children and grand children: a right he took away from so many innocent people.

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The rest of the world wasn’t listening…and to keep the locals from hearing what was happening every night in this field, the Khmer Rough blasted loud ‘Revolution Music’ from speakers hanging in this tree. The end of our audio tour played that type of music, along with the sound of a generator running in the background, so that we could hear the last thing all those people heard. Talk about making an impact…

It’s taken me a long time to write this post because of how much it bothers me that these things happened.  Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields would be similar to visiting Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.  What happened in Europe in the 1940s is as horrific as what happened in Cambodia in the 70s, but on some levels, Cambodia bothers me more.  Not because of the atrocities themselves…but because of my government’s reaction (or lack of reaction) to the Khmer Rouge.  Refugees who got out of the country during that awful time were called liars or were accused of exaggerating.  Nobody did anything to help the Cambodians…the world didn’t care because Cambodia is so small and far away.

The number of bracelets left behind by tourists is an indicator that I'm not the only person who was affected by this visit.
The number of bracelets left behind by tourists is an indicator that I’m not the only person who was affected by this visit.

And that’s why, no matter how much I don’t want to think about this stuff…I have to write about it.  Through ‘knowing’, we can prevent these types of things from happening in the future.  Sure, reading the news can be a bummer, but if you know that your government isn’t taking steps to help people in cases such as this, you can write to your government representative and encourage action.  There are petitions to sign and protests to attend.  There ARE things you can do to help.  Margaret Mead’s words are something to live by:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

My next post will be on a lighter topic:  Angkor National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and boy were there some sights to see!!

3 thoughts on “Phnom Penh – Our Introduction to Cambodia”

  1. As I read this tragic documentation on some of our more recent history, I cannot help but feel so somber especially at the prevention for the future piece. This is still all happening in North Korea and has been since the 1950’s, decades of concentration camps. I don’t understand how this lesson is so horrible and yet we do not seem to be learning as it happens again and again and again.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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    1. There’s far too much apathy in the world, which is precisely why I said what I did at the end of this post. I don’ t like thinking about this stuff either…I hate knowing what I know about certain corporations (Pfizer for example…a pharmaceutical company who let millions die of AIDS in Africa so that they could keep the prices of AIDS medication up in America), but no matter how much it bothers me to know, I’d rather know and boycott accordingly. And share information accordingly. **On that note, if you haven’t seen ‘Fire in the Blood’…you need to. It was an eye opening documentary Dave and I watched a few months ago. Unreal what human beings will put other human beings through, for the sake of the bottom line….

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