05.09.2015 - 05.09.2015
Well I'm finally ready to write up my visit to Phnom Penn. I'll start with the town itself before I tell you about my experiences surrounding the awful things that took place there.
I made the mistake of arriving without accommodation and after visiting about 6 different places and getting quoted ridiculous prices I finally settled for somewhere that was pretty minging. I later discovered, not for the first time on this trip that I was staying in the 'happy' mans part of town. That said, the location was central and I had some of my best times this trip whilst staying there. Including the legendary night at the drag club, courtesy of Kate of course. Food was good and company throughout was amazing (yes, I'm including you in there Kate).
Overall I liked the town and did think I could do with a bit longer there to properly see it all. A return visit I think.
Choeung Genocidal Centre, commonly referred to as The Killing Fields of Cambodia
I arranged a lift to the centre which is about 9 miles outside of Phnom Penn. My driver was nice chatty enough and we didn't really talk about where I was going. I deliberately didn't do any research before I went, wanting to keep a totally open mind. Of course I had some vague knowledge of what had happened but to be honest, before visiting Cambodia it wasn't really on my radar.
Upon entry, as part of the ticket price you receive a headset, which guides you around the site and talks you through the history, explains what has happened and what you are looking at. There is an option to skip parts, or to replay. For example at one section there are a series of survivor stories told by the individuals and you can choose to only listen to a selection. For me, I couldn't jump one section. I was compelled to listen to every single word once I'd started. I needed to rewind several times, as I tried to absorb exactly what I was hearing and had to sit with no narrative several times, just to adjust to the sheer volume of horror that was unfolding. The whole site with all the tourists is totally silent. Very surreal.
I'm not going to try and highlight, or explain any of it here. There is enough written for you to research yourself should you wish but of course to go here in person, should be a must if you ever have the opportunity. I will share one of the things that struck me that I wasn't aware of, which I think is important to know to set the context. That this particular, well known killing field was in fact one of thousands. The scale is difficult to reconcile I think.
Returning to my ride, I was clearly much quieter than I had been on the journey out. I asked my driver what he thought of the centre being set up as a commemorative centre and wasn't really expecting the answer he gave, although, I emphasised immediately when he responded. He said (and I'm obviously paraphrasing) he hated it. He loved his country and didn't want it to be known for genocide. He wished it could remain in the past and not have to think or talk about it ever again as it was too difficult. His voice broke as he said this and I allowed a moment before moving back to more neutral topics. I knew tourism had increased in the area by 40% since the centre opened and naively had assumed everyone was happy.
My next visit of the day was to The Tuol Sleng Museum. I hadn't really heard about this museum and had assumed it would be like the war museum in Hanoi which was interesting and sad but this museum went to a whole new level.
It was originally Tuol Svay Pray High School until the Khmer Rouge took it over in 1976 and turned it into S-21 a torture, interrogation and execution centre. It is now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide and I was totally unprepared for how it would impact on me. In fact I had to leave after a while as I had reached saturation point with emotions for one day. Although people had told me beforehand how difficult The Killing Fields were no one had mentioned S-21 to me how utterly harrowing this place was. I left even quieter again.
Back in the car I said little, not able to even make idle chit chat. Then the most incredible moment of my whole trip so far unfolded. My driver, who clearly hadn't wanted to talk about the atrocities earlier, suddenly started, without any prompting from me, to tell me his experiences under the Khmer Rouge. He told it with some long pauses at points and he obviously found it difficult but for some reason had decided to share it with me.
He was only six at the time but clearly remembers them coming. He recalled his mother reassuring him that they would only be away for three days (he also had a elder brother). They had some sort of transport for some of the way (I'm not sure what type as that got lost in language barrier) but I think he said that they were made to leave it along the way. He saw his first ever dead person, one of many during that walk. He didn't elaborate on what happened during the period that they were away, simply saying it was a living hell and he was lucky that as a child he had been protected from some of it, simply because he didn't understand wholly what was happening. He lost one of his parents during that time and all his extended family.
He was clearly finding this part difficult to tell and moved forward to after the Khmer Rouge had lost power. He said it took several months before they eventually returned to Phnom Penn and found everything gone, literally. He remembers his parent (I don't know if it was his mother or father) crying, and was surprised as they hadn't cried for such a long time and he had thought at the time, they no longer had any tears.
He is now considered a successful person in his own right and has no evident injuries as a result of what happened. The psychological ones however, as you would expect, lay barely beneath the surface. He was quiet and dignified and I remain grateful that he choose to share with me in the way that he did.