Good afternoon from Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh. We arrived back here yesterday after a comfortable 5 hour bus journey from Sihanoukville. The driver barely used his horn at all and they even had a TV playing entertaining Cambodian music videos for us. Most of the songs were Asian covers of western pop songs, but there was also some original local music as well. The videos really highlighted the cultural differences between the two socieities. One ended with a late 20s male pop star crying on his mother's shoulder for instance - not something you would likely see Kanye West doing.
My initial impression of Phnom Penh, based on our previous visit to the central market area a few days prior, was that it was a totally chaotic, dirty and overcrowded city, and I wasn't relishing coming back. Certainly the traffic congestion here is horrific, and the market covered streets, particularly on the outskirts, are crazy busy with people. But our hotel is actually located on a quieter and more sheltered side of the city, close by the banks of the river and a short walk from the royal palace. The streets are still hectic at rush hour and the area smells a bit, but it is a lot nicer than the central market area.
Having had lunch at the slowest service restaurant in Asia (which is really saying something) we headed across to the Cambodian Royal Palace - the official residence of the Cambodian King. The complex was quite similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, only less impressive. It lacked the intricate detail of the Grand Palace, there were no funny looking guard statues, and many of the paintings had been damaged. Never-the-less the palace was still a beautiful building, and the gardens were well maintained. Next door, in the same complex, was situated the Silver Pagoda - a temple housing many national treasures and so named because of its silver floor. This was another stunning example of South East Asian atchitecture, but there were no information boards in English so we didn't really no what any of the artifacts were. Having looked round the palatial complex I took a walk down a wide mall to view the Cambodian war memorial and impressive looking independance statue. There were hordes of kids playing football on the grass, which was good to see. Volleyball is the most popular sport in Cambodia but football's popularity is definitely on the up. On my walk back I also got caught up in the school rush - which here commences around 5pm. Hundreds of children were all riding their motorbikes out of school and crossing the road was absolutely crazy - possibly a hint of things to come in Vietnam!
My walk to the independance monument was somewhat wasted, as soon after I arrived back at the hotel (which was pretty tricky to locate in Phnom Penh's maze of the streets) we all went on a cyclo city tour which took us straight back to it! Cyclo's are push bikes with seats on the front. I rode a two seater one in Puno, Peru, but the ones here are only one seater. The cyclo foundation is one of Intrepid Travel's charities and all the riders turned up in the same T-shirts. My guy preferred to ride at the back of the group, which was good because I got some good photos of the cyclo procession in front of me, but bad because we rode many red lights to keep up with the group. It was evening rush hour and how all the motorbikes and cars don't crash into each other, or hit pedestrians, is totally beyond me. Its organised chaos and a world away from the western road system. Our hour long ride was very pleasant though, even with motorbikes and cars rushing past millimetres from my legs! We didn't see an awful lot, but my driver was keen to point out a posh house where a Cambodian pop star lives. He showed me a video of her on his phone to get this point across as he spoke no English!
This next paragraph is a bit of history lesson about Cambodia I'm afraid, but I hope you find it interesting and eye opening. This morning I went on a tour to S-21 prison and the Choeung Ek killing fields, and I think a bit of background information is necessary. Cambodia in the 1960s and early 70s was a country scarred by American bombing in the Vietnam war - particularly in the rural areas. The disparities between the rich city dwellers and the rural poor were also growing, and there was a lot of civil unrest. These are some of the factors which enabled the Khmer Rouge regime to seize power of this country in April 1975. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge were an extreme communist political movement who sought to return Cambodia to "year zero" - a time where there would be no class divisions in society and everybody would be equal. They attempted to do this using devastating force. All urban dwellers were forced from their homes and sent to work in labour camps as rural farmers. Families were seperated and allegiance to any religion or other institution was outlawed. It was against the law even to miss other family members. The Khmer Rouge treated humans as machines. Everybody was forced to wear black and the working conditions were terrible. The urban dwellers had no idea about farming, yet were set production targets far higher than what the knowledgeable local farmers were producing at the time. The end result was massive food shortages and famine across the whole country, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
What is worst is that the Khmer Rouge sought to rid the country of all intellectual and educated people, who they saw as a threat to their rule. Schools and hospitals were abolished, and many lawyers, teachers, doctors and people from all professions were rounded up and ultimately tortured and murdered. Within Cambodia the Khmer Rouge set up 167 prisons, the largest of which was S-21, a converted high school in Phnom Penh. We had a tour of it this morning. At S-21 inmates were tortured twice a day, and forced to confess their "crimes". These crimes could have included talking to a UN aid worker, or picking up an apple as this was deemed private enterprise. We saw the cells where the last 14 people to be killed in S-21 were held, and in each cell was a picture of the inmates body as it was found. The Khmer Rouge rarely used guns on their victims as this was too humane and expensive. They instead preferred to batter people to death using spades and small pickaxes. The pictures were pretty horrific. Babies were torn apart limb by limb, pregnant women were raped and disembowelled, and people were buried up to their necks in sand and left to die. Much like the Nazis the Khmer Rouge kept records of all their prisoners, and in some cells the pictures of some of them were on display, as well as pictures of the brainwashed uneducated teenagers who guarded the prison. We also saw some of the instruments of torture. There was a place where people were hung upside down until they fell unconscious, and they were then dumped in contaminated water and electrocuted until they woke up. Many inmates were forced to eat their own faeces and drink their own urine, and all the while they remained in tight shackles. Some people had their organs ripped out while still alive, and then had poisonous snakes set upon them. It was horrific.
We met one of the 7 survivors of S-21 - a mechanic kept alive for his skills who the soldiers forgot to kill when they fled. He is 78 now but was in good spirits and was happy to talk with us and pose for photos. He even had a mobile phone which went off repeatedly as he talked! He said he did not know why he was brought to S-21, and that when he arrived he was accused of collaborating with the CIA and KGB, organisations he had never even heard of. He spoke of his daily torture and many beatings, and of the family members he lost to the Khmer Rouge. It was very moving.
After S-21 we were driven 15km out of the city to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, one of over 300 such sights around the country. This was a quiet area of the countryside where prisoners were sent to be murdered. 8,000 skulls are on display in a memorial at the sight, and there are bones and clothes strewn all over the floor near the mass graves. We saw a tree where toddlers were thrown against until they died, as well as pit where all the bodies had no heads. Of the skulls in the memorial, many of them had indents and marks where they had been beaten.
The Khmer Rouge were toppled by an invading Vietnamese army on January 7th 1979. They continued to exist as a guerilla movement until the late 90s, and their impact on Cambodia is still felt today. The country has never fully recovered and for over a decade after the Khmer Rouge fell there was civil war here. Despite the Vietnamese intervention, there was a still a lot of ill feeling about Vietnam's involvement in the country, as the two nations have never got along throughout history. Vietnamese influence is still evident today but the country is now somewhat at peace, though corruption in the democratic government still exists. All in all the Khmer Rouge executed well over 1 million people, and were responsible for the deaths of between 1.7 and 2.3 million people. Cambodia's population at the time was only 7 million. Nearly all the Buddhist monks were wiped out, as well as nearly all the countries educated people. Some western journalists also met their ends in killing fields around the country. It was a genocide of epic proportions, but I thoroughly enjoyed learning about it and seeing the two historic sights this morning.
On a lighter note, and for a cheer up, most of us are tonight going to watch some Cambodian kick boxing at a venue 15km out of the city. Its supposed to be really good and I have never been to a boxing match so am really looking forward to it. This is our final night in Cambodia as early tomorrow morning we set off bound for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I'll update from there!