As expected the last couple of days here in Phnom Pehn have been pretty eye opening and heart wrenching. We visited the Genocide Museum on our first day, it's called Tuol Sleng and was the site of a former high school, since renamed S21. I'll try not to bore you with too much of a history lesson (I say TRY) but both of us came away feeling a little shaken and pretty sick. Basically, the Khmer Rouge came to power wanting to create a completely classless society, the educated and intellectual were seen as bad and not required in this new world where everyone was to be equal. The plan they had was to destroy anyone from the former government, intellectuals (And their families, lest they grow up to also be intellectual), professionals (Doctors, nurses, teachers etc) and basically anyone who wasn't from the countryside and didn't work in the rice fields. People who resited were taken to Tuol Sleng, interrogated, tortured and killed at Choeung Ek(The Killing Fields) just outside of Phnom Pehn. They abandoned the idea of money and most of the things that we take for granted such as shops, food (Apart from their MEAGRE rations), clothing (They all were the same, black, pyjama style outfits), and freedom generally, everything they did was for the Angkar (Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot). OK, lesson over (Sorry got a bit carried away), the museum itself was gruesome. Each room was basically a cell. On the lower floors were where members of the former government and military were kept, with a steel bed, iron shackles and some pots for waste. That was it, it wasn't hard to imagine what they went through as each of these big cells had a black and white picture of the victim on the wall. It was sick.
The upper level classrooms were split into many little cells, either with wood or bricks, and again, there was nothing there but shackles and some pots. As you walked around there were mugshot pictures of everyone who was kept there. What freaked both myself and Kim out was how young so many of them were, kids and young women were treated in exactly the same way as hardened men.
Anyway, we spent a good 4 hours here, reading testimony from victims, looking at gruesome pictures and paintings and feeling pretty sick. Everyone else who was there had the same look of disgust as we did and many people were crying after coming out the movie room. We all just walked around in silence. It was a harsh day but we're both glad we went. We were pretty speechless afterwards, there were no words for how sick, wrong and twisted it all was (As all genocide is). We didn't want to see the killing fields in the same day so we thought we'd try and brighten up our day by going to the National Museum, basically art and sculpture from all ages of Cambodia. It was nice, but not being so interested in art myself I chilled in the courtyard whilst Kim looked around!
The next day we went to the Killing Fields (One of the 80 or so fields in Cambodia, though a certain number are closed to the public due to landmines being placed around them by the Khmer Rouge, basically to keep everything secret as it was for years and years) We decided to ask a guide to take us around and he was great, very knowledgable and spoke fab English. We started at the bone monument which is exactly as gross as it sounds. Basically excavated skulls and skeletons of the Khmer Rouge victims. As we walked around the site you could actually see clothing and bones of the victims sticking up out the ground, and even eerier was the sound of a school playground just behind the place! Completely at odds with how gruesome the whole place was. Once again we found it all sick but were glad we had gone. We feel we learnt a lot about Cambodian history and a lot about why the country is as it is now, with many uneducated and poor familes, kids out selling books and not going to school etc. Really sad for us foreigners so we couldn't even imagine how Cambodian people must feel! First war, then genocide, and things are still hard for many of the victims. What we found most difficult to get our heads round was that this happened a couple of years before we were born and that they managed to keep it secret for so long! The Khmer Rouge still represented Cambodia in the UN until 1991!!! The UN failed to recognise the new government when Vietnam steamed in to Cambodia's aid in 1979. Looking around at the people we meet seeing that they're our age or a little older makes us wonder how they still feel about the whole thing. Very strange few days indeed.
We left the killing fields and headed to the Royal Palace (Which I couldn't go to because my shoulders weren't covered, DOH) which Kim enjoyed whilst I had some quality time with my i pod! We spent last night relaxing with a few drinks and are looking forward to heading to Sihanoukeville tomorrow...Beach time! We've really enjoyed Phnom Pehn, the city itself is fantastic, stinking hot but loads to see and do, plenty of bars and restaurants etc and easy to meet poeple...all contrasted with all the heartbreaking stuff we saw as well. Strange but a great experience.
I apologise for the preachy/teachery/boring nature of this blog but it was that kind of place! Promise the next one will be much more upbeat.
Hope you are all well,