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Phnom Penh - In The Footsteps of Pol Pot

Kambodja (Phnom Penh) 2006-08-29

Early morning we crossed the border in Cambodia at about lunchtime. Well, first we visited a fishing village and some minority people before we left Vietnam. Our guide takes all our passports and is going by a taxi boat to fix the Cambodia Visas. Very smooth!!

The boat that will take us over the boarder between Vietnam and Cambodia are waiting for us. Click to enlarge.We have only to cross the customs and get a stamp in our passports. We are now changing boat, to a much bigger one that will take us a few hours in to Cambodia. As usual the children are waving happily from the riverside and in the afternoon they all go for a bath in the muddy water in this big river, together with their buffalos. We have chosen to go by slow boat, but it is really slow and we can recommend the fast one as one doesn’t need to go on the bus and the boat is faster. However, it costs an extra $4 *smile*!

We hire a TukTuk to Billabong Hotel that we found on Internet. It’s below budget and it’s a real HIT! It is an oasis in the middle of Phnom Penh. Here in Phnom Penh it’s calmer than the Vietnamese cities. No honk-honk all the time and the number of cars are much higher. We see a lot of Lexus SUV’s and other luxury cars (Big Mafia here!!) and at the same time we also conclude that there are much more fatigue here than in Vietnam. The hotel is so good so we will spend some time here during our stay in Phnom Penh. The food is great and inside the hotel we hear no; Motorbike, Mister! TukTuk, Madame? Where are you going, Very cheap, very cheap!

We made a deal with our Tuk Tuk driver from yesterday that he should come and pick us up at 10 AM and together we make up the plan for the day. First he takes us to “Killing Fields of Choeung Ek” and then to “Tuol Sleng”. The road out to Killing Fields is approx 20 kilometer and very bad, dusty and full of pot holes so we get very dirty but who cares. And bad roads are we used to – well compared to Highlands Highway in Papua New Guinea!? At Killing Fields we hire a guide and the information he gives us – even though we had read it before – is horrifying. He takes us around the mass graves and between the graves that are dug out we see old clothes and bones that come up every time there are heavy rains.

Of course we remember the pictures from TV and news papers from 1980 when the terrible truth started to be understood and communicated but it is pretty breathtaking to see it with our own eyes. And no one really understands why and how could Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge justify it.

In April 1975 the people of Cambodia thought they where liberated and that the war was over. They didn’t like the America supported government which where very corrupt and everyone in this region was affected by the Vietnam War so when the Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh everyone greeted them and cheered. The joy lasted 3 hours before the Khmer Rouge started to tell everyone that they had to leave Phnom Penh – NOW!!! They said the Americans where about to bomb Phnom Penh so everyone had to go out in the countryside for three days – but they lied!!!!

They started to kill all educated people, doctors, lawyer, politicians, student, teachers etc. Those wearing glasses and white collar workers where assumed to be intelligent so they where killed. Many where first sent to prison – in Phnom Penh to Tuol Sleng – where they where interrogated and tortured before they where sent to be killed. At the same time all boarders where closed and those foreigners that did not leave the country where also killed.

Pol Pots “idea” was that everyone should be the same and all work as farmers. No one where allowed to own anything, everyone had the same clothes and sandals, no one where allowed to study only work (very, very long days!). He took children as soldiers as they where easy to manipulate. During the period 1975 and 1979 more than 2 million Cambodians where killed and buried in over 400 different Killing Fields all over Cambodia – almost ¼ of the population!!

We have tear in our eyes when we leave Killing Fields of Choeung Ek but it is not because of the dumpy and very dusty road!

Scary evidence from the tragedy at Killing Fields. Click to enlarge! The Tuk Tuk driver takes us to “Khmer Rouge Security prison, S21” or Tuol Sleng where we rent a guide as well. The prison which where a former school is looking almost intact as it looked 1979 when Vietnam ”liberated” Cambodia and it must be one of the scariest places in the world. We have not been to Auswitsch so we can not compare. Pol Pot and his gang documented everything that took place in the prison.

Everyone detained where photographed as if they where criminals and on the walls there are thousands of photographs on the 20.000 people and many photographs on how they where tortured to death! Out of these approx 20.000 only 7 survived. They where painters and photographers. We also watch a movie and after that we ask the driver to take us to our hotel – we are not in a mood to look at pagodas. We stay in our “”oasis”” during that evening and discuss the day we have had.

We wake up with sun so we decide to spend a couple of hour reading by the swimming pool. We decides to extend our stay here in Phnom Penh a few more days and when its time for lunch we walk to Friends. Friends is a restaurant with orphans and street children that are educated how to work in restaurants and it’s a very popular place so it’s takes some minutes before we have a table. The food is delicious and as our tip is very high it will be one of the most expensive meals we have in Cambodia – but for a good purpose we think.

We head for The National Museum with it’s collection of Angkor statues and The Grand Palace with its Silver Pagoda. Very impressive places both of them. One religious figure is made of gold (90 kilo) and are decorated with 9.584 diamonds – the biggest is 25 carat. During our visit we get rain and we mean really HEAVY RAIN so it takes some time to get a Tuk Tuk. We head back to the hotel to do some internet work through the flooded streets

Thuderstorms are coming closer Grand Palace in Phnom Penh. Click to enlarge.We start our last day in Phnom Penh at the pool reading and then we walk along Tonle Sap River and visit Phnom Penh’s most famous Wat – Wat Phnom. Anders gets massage at Seeing Hands – blind Cambodians with very good feeling in their hands and Eva heads back to the hotel to finish a book she can recommend "First they killed my Father. A daughter of Cambodia remembers". Written by Loung Ung. In the evening we watch a movie about Pol Pot and his Angkor’s. It’s a small cinema and we see this good movie on a 1,5 x 2 meter screen and we are along in the saloon!

Well, we see evidence that the country still is very corrupt and there are still people working in the government that where part of the Khmer Rouge so we assume it will take a generation before the country matures. Cambodia is fascinating and has a frightening recent history and fascinating ancient history and we wished we would have had more time to spend on the countryside. Well, that will be part of our next trip!

Tomorrow morning we head for Siem Reap to explore Cambodia’s ancient history and to see Angkor Wat and the other temples for a couple of days before we head back to Bangkok.

Kisses from Your professional tourists – EvAnders