We arrived into Phnom Penh early tea time and headed straight to the Sunday Guest house. It was starting to feel like our second home as we'd stayed there on the two occasions we had passed through the capital. The owners were very sweet and we thought it'd be nice to stay in a family run guest house over the Khmer new year.
The three days we spent in the city were mostly spent shopping - a past time I have been dreaming about this whole trip! Sadly It wasn't my sort of shopping, in that we were running around crazy Cambodian markets buying cheap, boring New Zealand clothes, but it was shopping non the less. We found ourselves some super bargains and actually managed to pick up two real, yes real!! north face coats for under £150!
Once the shopping was done and our bags were ready to burst we decided to spend some time being tourists. I have to say it was one of the most emotionally difficult days. We first visited the Tuol Sleng Prison which is located in the city centre. The prison, that was used by the Khmer Rouge was originally a high school which they converted into an assortment of cells and torture chambers. The atmosphere within the prison was chilling and quite unnerving considering the events that took place only thirty or so years ago within its walls.I have never visited the german concentration camps but I envisage Tuol Sleng to be worse due to the fact it's only recent history. It was unsettling walking through the school corridors thinking that whilst England were rocking out to Slade at Christmas, hundreds of Cambodians were shackled to the floor, dying in these 1 x 2 wooden cells.
In the first block you entered, there were clear bullet marks in the walls and the original shackles were still pegged into the ground. In some of the larger classrooms there were numbers, up to around 80 marked on the walls, each of which was where a prisoner was kept. Sometimes up to 200 in one small classroom. One of the reasons that made it feel real, not like some of the other museums where they've reconstructed cells etc, was that in some of the private cells there were photographs of the individual held there, there were blood stains on the floors and photographs of the condition they were found in when freed. I can't remember the figure of how many were killed there but it was in the hundreds of thousands I believe. Only seven survived and that was down to their skills as artists, as the Khmer Rouge employed them, so to speak, to produce paintings of the party leaders. When the prison was liberated, along with the seven who had survived, there were seven corpses found in various states of decay in the cells. Some had been killed hours before. They are now buried on the grounds of the prison as some were so badly deformed from torture that they were unidentifiable and thus could not be returned to their families for burial.
The second block for me was unbearable and I couldn't go round the whole building. I was so close to tears, which is unusual for me, but it was so emotional. These people had done nothing wrong, many of them were imprisoned for being intellectuals, others simply because Pol Pot said so. I think I found it so hard because the prison was mostly left in the state it had been discovered. It was so inhumane, I can't even begin to imagine the horrors that had gone on within it's grounds. The original barbed wire was still on the outsides of the buildings, put in place to stop the prisoners from attempting suicide.It was strange as the prison was purely a holding ground, it wasn't where they killed the Cambodians. However, many had died due to starvation, injuries sustained through torture etc. There were endless corridors filled with photographs of those who died there. When they were brought to the prison they were photographed and numbered and it was from these photographs we can gather the numbers who died there, or when taken to the killing fields.
I wasn't sure whether I could hack the killing fields after how the prison had affected me but I felt I had to go to see where these people had ended up. It was a long way from the city and I spent the journey picturing the hundreds of thousands who had done the journey years before, under the impression they were being led to a new home. We arrived and after bracing myself for a similar atmosphere to that of the prison, I was surprised to find that the killing fields were oddly serene. When we walked in we were handed audio guides which were particularly informative but I couldn't help but feel that it was wrong to be walking around such a place with a tour guide, making a tourist attraction of such horror but I suppose this is what happens when we are all grossly fascinated with war and murder.
Located in the centre is a stupa containing the skulls and bones recovered from the site when it was first discovered. Walking past this the guide takes you to the 'truck stop.' This is where the prisoners were first delivered. I believe there used to be a number of buildings on the site but these were destroyed by poor local villagers who sold the wood and steel for funds when the site was first liberated. The truck stop is where the prisoners were dropped off and counted to make sure there had been no escapes. They were then taken to a holding room, similar to the cells in the prison. As we walked around the guide gave information on the various offices and weapon houses that had once stood on the field. It talked of the palm tree, telling that the Khmer Rouge did not kill using bullets as they were too expensive, they sometimes used the leaves of a palm tree to slice the throats of the prisoners. They also used machetes, planks, anything they could get their hands on to bludgeon them to death. We came to the first grave, which housed 400 bodies and was no bigger than 2 x 4. The most horrifying thing for me was that bones, teeth and scraps of clothing are still coming up through the earth. Walking around you can actually see bones sticking out of the ground and tatters of clothing poking up here and there. Each year these are collected by volunteers working on the site. They have boxes dotted around that they place these items into and on top of these we saw countless skulls and bones that had come up since the last round of collection. It was just unbelievable and so hard to stomach. We were directed to a tree, 'the killing tree.' whilst standing there we were played an audio from the Khmer Rouge trials that came from the gentleman who first found the tree. He talked of how it was covered in blood, with hair and skin still remaining on the tree. It had been used to hit small children and babies against, literally bludgeoning them to death and the evidence still remained. Even today you can see blood stains and dents. I had to leave.
At the time, the local villagers were not aware that the fields were being used as killing fields. At night when the Khmer Rouge committed their murders they would blast out political party anthems to give the impression it was a training camp and to drown out the screams of those being killed. It was all the prisoners could hear whilst waiting to die, not knowing what was coming. The last sound many would hear during their life time.
We were both glad we'd visited the killing fields, but it was definitely a difficult day for both of us and we were silent the whole journey back to town. It took a few hours for us to return to normality. It was amazing to have seen the atrocities that the country have endured and to see how well developed they are now. The cambodian people were the most friendly in Asia and I felt such admiration for the way the country has recovered. Many adults of our parents generation lost their families and were kept in children slave camps but you would have no idea. They are the hardest working, most welcoming people we came across our whole trip and for that I felt great respect.