Day 231, Thur, Dec. 21, 2000 –Very loud morning with traffic and talking on the non-private verandah outside our window. It was a sunny day - the floods of yesterday miraculously dried up near our hotel. After breakfast we walked to the palace, but apparently the flood waters were still inside the gates so they wouldn’t let us in. The moto driver who followed us from the hotel caught up to us so we asked for a ride to the prison museum. Driving a moto appears to be the occupation of choice (or necessity) for most teenage boys. Our drivers wore button-down shirts and baseball caps and spoke pretty good English. The majority of Cambodians have no personal memory of the war, as they are children - born after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and “liberated” the country from the Khmer Rouge. The moto ride went past the Vietnamese friendship memorial, now derided by many Cambodians because their neighbors overstayed their welcome and didn’t leave the country for good until 1990. In those 11 years, Cambodia was pretty much “Eastern bloc”, experiencing many communist economic experiments along with their Vietnamese sponsors. After this, Cambodia played host to the largest and most expensive UN mission ever, including 15,000 peacekeepers, diplomats and administrators. Then came the election of 1993, the lifting of the US-led economic embargo in 1994, a coup in 1997, and another election in 1998. Throughout this time, the Khmer Rouge continued its guerilla warfare against Cambodians (and tourists). An internal power struggle finally unseated Pol Pot after he executed one of his rivals and 15 of their family members. He was put on a sham trial by his former colleagues and supposedly died in custody in 1998 (although many people still do not believe it). The Khmer Rouge faded militarily (thanks to amnesties), and changed to a political force headed by the current minister Hun Sen. With a history like this, Cambodian politics continue to be impossible to follow. Last year, there was even a half-baked coup attempt launched by the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, an organization led by accountants in Long Beach, California. Of course, the common people are the ones suffering – trying to scrape out an existence in the confusing, cloudy, middle ground where old military bureaucrats try out free market reforms and another civil war could break out at any time.
We continued past green parks, fountains full of swimming children, monks in saffron robes and umbrellas, and various monuments to political events. The city has more character than we imagined – coming out of its shadowy history, but still showing crumbling French colonial buildings. In 1975, the French embassy was the site of the harrowing scenes recounted in “The Killing Fields” when the Khmer Rouge ignored diplomatic immunity and demanded the French to hand over all Cambodians taking refuge in the embassy. The French are now back, with businessmen and educators rather than soldiers and diplomats. Further from the river, the flood nearly covered the tires of our motos and stalled out a few others. The road to the museum was washed out as well, so we continued to the central market. The vast, yellow spaceship-sized market is nicknamed “the city of gold” due to all the jewelry sellers inside. Of course we were more interested in the rambling, crowded rows of narrow stalls outside the building. Everything from house wares to clothes, books, electronics, and hardware. It was like a combination Target, Costco and Wal-Mart. The vendors were mostly women – the young with floppy fishing hats and the old favoring the traditional cloth wrapped around the head. The food stalls were incredible – not just the standard fruits and vegetables and fish, but the more savory aspects of Cambodian cuisine like blackened baby chicks, grub worms and our personal favorite Asian delicacy – flattened dried squid you can smell at 100 meters. They also had cockroaches the size of mice. The latter looked deep-fried without batter, but we weren’t quite ready to give them a try.
We went to a bank to change dollars, but they don’t give local currency (Reals) – Naomi got directions from the guard while he casually pointed his AK-47 at her head. The other bank gave us 156,000 Reals for 40 US dollars. As in Turkey and India, we could tell the state of a country’s economy by the bucketful of bills required to pay for a cup of coffee. We returned to our hotel for lunch, sitting next to a couple of 20-something Americans with teenage working girls, then walked to a Wat near the hotel where we were accosted by a guy in a wheelchair. The palace was still closed, so we went to the National Museum next door, with its incredible collection of sculpture, bronze and pottery from the Khmer Empires. An immaculately decked out wedding party was taking photos inside the graceful red terracotta building. Good thing they were out by sunset, because at that time the largest building-based bat population in the world comes out of hiding places in the roof and starts to drop corrosive guano. Outside the museum, like most attractions in town, a group of beggars and amputees waits for tourists. We give some to crippled older men, but not the kids.
We caught a moto ride with Tan, who
hangs out at the hotel. He has the
requisite baseball cap, a gold tooth, and a pet frog, which Jamie held during
the ride. He gave us a ride to Wat
Phnom, the namesake Wat of the city, where Naomi played with an elephant and
Jamie played hacky sack with some kids. Here
they play with a shuttlecock rather than a beanbag.
Inside the wats, the monks continue the worship and teaching that has
characterized their comeback after “Pol Pot time” :
All monks must cease wearing robes. Angkar will take no responsibility if this order is not carried out. The monks are not any wiser than you, the only wise man is the man who knows how to grow rice. Whether or not you say your prayers makes no difference to how the rice grows. You must drive this religion out of you, or else you are enemies of Angkar.
Day 232, Fri, Dec. 22, 2000 – One of the most depressing days of our journey as we get an up close look at the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. We start by hiring a friend of the hotel for the 45-minute ride through terrible roads and potholes still full of the downpour from two nights ago. The peace and tranquility of the beautiful green rice fields studded with palms and banana plants gives no hint at the things that happened here and the “genocidal museum” down a wet dirt road. The Choeung Ek site is somber, with a few cripples and children begging at the entrance and quiet tourists milling about. We hired a guide, Chhouk, who had been working here for 30 years, nearly from the very beginning when the Killing Fields were first discovered and excavated. He even slept here to guard it from any remnant Khmer Rouge guerillas who may not want the truth revealed. As a memorial, they have constructed a terrible, macabre stupa filled with the 8,968 human skulls discovered here. The skulls are separated by sex, age, and race – and he pointed out the holes, cracks and slices in them from blows with bamboo sticks, knives, rifle butts and clubs. Bullets were only used in extreme cases since they were too expensive. The children’s skulls were smashed to pieces from being whacked against a tree. They even had a “European” skull section, with some jawbones showing where all the teeth had been knocked out during their “interrogation”. The effect is overwhelming – a mass of human suffering not unlike the displays at Auschwitz, but the actual skulls haunt the imagination much more than the clothes, eyeglasses and suitcases of the Nazi’s victims. Some photos of the initial excavation work and some of the key players in the horror were on display. The statistics are amazing - 129 mass graves, of which 86 have been excavated. We took a stroll through green fields pockmarked with shallow water-filled divots from 3 to 10 meters across. It was very hot, sunny, and green with butterflies of all colors flitting around us – Chhouk said some people believe the butterflies represent the spirits of those murdered here. All along the footpath, scraps of clothing, shards of bone, and bullet casings litter underfoot. Chhouk knelt to scratch the surface and picked out a small tooth - he said he still finds things every day. One would think that after 21 years, everything would have been collected, picked apart and put on display, but the ground keeps spitting up bits of evidence to ensure the case will continue to be made against the murderers. We saw the grave where 166 headless victims were found and the tree with the bloodstains where the heads of babies were smashed. In the nook of another tree is a small shrine of teeth, buttons and bones found by tourists – some people kneel and pray here.
Even after all his time here, Chhouk is genuinely moved by his job; his desire to educate people borne of his own experience. He was 15 when his mother and father (a teacher) were killed and he went off to the fields with the other Phnom Penh residents. His older sister died some time later. He said at first, mostly tourists came, but now he gets many Cambodians, although he was reluctant to talk politics, especially since the current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was once aligned with Pol Pot. The time until his liberation was repeated in the same mantra we heard from Vithouy – three years, eight months and twenty days.
“Everyone should learn about this genocide and Pol Pot by seeing with their own eyes. I think the Cambodian people and the international community needs to punish Khmer for the war. I think if Khmer Rouge still in government or ministers, maybe they fight again. I hope international organizations support the Cambodian government for development for future time. Education and information is very important.”
We paid Chhouk much more than he asked for the tour and picked up some small things at the souvenir shop.
The afternoon was spent at an even more depressing and harrowing site, the former high school turned prison center called S-21 (Special 21). Its name, Toul Sleng also means hill of the poison tree in Khmer. It was here that 30,000 victims – men, women and children of all walks of life - came to be interrogated and tortured prior to being sent to the killing fields. Walking past the minefield victims standing calmly with their hands out, the barbed wire fence is the only hint that the gray 3-story buildings surrounding a palm-studded courtyard was used for such sinister purposes. From a distance, the courtyard is peaceful, but as we approach, we see the gravestones in the green grass and the barbed wire lining all three floors of the school to dissuade suicide jumpers. We are beginning to realize that anyone we meet over 25 was personally affected (and many of those under 25 were orphaned or had one parent growing up). Our guide, Sath, lost family and worked the fields from the age of 14. He showed us the rooms where the last 14 victims were found by the Vietnamese troops. The metal torture beds are still where they found them along with blood stains and photographs of each victim. It was these 14 who are buried in the courtyard. At liberation, there were just 7 prisoners left alive in the 1-meter by 3-meter brick cells built in the classrooms of the school. Sath showed us the old gymnastics bars, which were used for hanging prisoners and dunking them in large vases full of toilet water until they confessed. On the wall is a list of the “rules” prisoners needed to follow at all times.
The most unnerving and incredible part of the museum are the rooms full of thousands of photographs taken of the prisoners, both before and after their death. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge did a fantastic and morbid job of documenting their own atrocities. The victims in the photos all had numbers on their chest and most had their hands tied behind their backs. Some faces were proud or defiant, but others were already beaten and bruised. Terrified eyes stare right through us – all ages of women and men (including some monks). The hardest to look at are the children - boys and girls whose terrified eyes indicate their fear but did they have any idea what would happen to them? One beautiful little boy wore a heavy black chain around is neck for the last photo of his laugh. One series shows a man and his five children, proof of the Khmer Rouge policy to “not only cut the diseased grass, but pull up the roots as well”. Towards the end, the prison would devour its own, as Khmer Rouge guards and informers would turn on each other in mass paranoia. What is perhaps most difficult to comprehend is how these atrocities could be done TO Cambodians BY Cambodians. The Nazis had a twisted logic that Jews were ethnically inferior, and the Rwandans believed in “tribal” inferiority; but this was purely a hatred and mass hysteria based on economic and social class – more akin to the French Revolution and the politics of the guillotine.
We had to get some air before continuing to the rooms displaying paintings made by one of the 7 liberated prisoners. Apparently, the last seven were only kept alive because they served some useful purpose to the Khmer Rouge – for example as sculptors and painters. The paintings on display show the “interrogations” in process in lurid color. There were also photos and a metal bust of “Blood Brother Number One” himself – Pol Pot. Sath does not believe he is really dead. He said “some people escape US bombs, but nobody escape Pol Pot”.
“In Cambodia everything is
important because we start with nothing in 1979.
We need health, education, and money.
The salary of the government is low.
Like me, I have $11 per month”
We returned to the hotel and watched the sunset from our
balcony, watching the boats
on the river, cripples, kids, and musicians along the flag-lined boulevard
– there was a very calm, provincial feel – a little melancholy, but nothing
like what we saw today. The most
amazing thing we've experienced in Cambodia is the vast contrast between the
gentleness and calm personalities of the people we've met and the history of violence
this country has seen - from the time of the Khmer empire conquests to "Pol
Pot time". Like most visitors, we cannot reconcile the disparity.
For dinner, we walked to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, the center of expat and journalist life in the city. We picked up a special year-end issue of the Phnom Penh Post that included a depressing summary of the biggest stories of the year – including illegal exports of timber, a British headmaster convicted of debauchery, a “party pagoda” in Pailin where monks did more than study and meditate, seven East European prostitutes held captive at the Best Western Hotel, and a “babies for sale” orphanage where Westerners paid US$11,500 but the parents received US$100. We hope it’s just journalistic bias on the part of the newspaper, but there were no stories about factory openings, business expansion, school performance, or non-profit successes. The restaurant had a vast interior, pool table, famous historical photos on the walls and a verandah facing the river. Of course all customers were Western. One of the photos showed the jubilation of residents climbing all over a Khmer Rouge truck as it entered Phnom Penh. They were celebrating the end to the civil war, but they had no idea what would follow.
Day 233, Sat, Dec. 23, 2000 – More bad news today when we got a chance to watch CNN. A suicide bomber in Gaza (although we’re not sure if he earned his “martyr” points since he didn’t kill anyone), Milosevic is back in Serbia, Estrada is on the way out of Manila due to using a fake name and a US$3 million check for a house for his mistress, Fujimori is now in Japan fighting extradition back to Peru, and some tourists have been killed at the Red Fort in Delhi.
Today we finally got into the grounds of the royal palace. It is very green and shiny and appears to have been built yesterday although some areas are over 100 years old. Since Sihanouk’s return from exile in China in 1991, the palace living quarters are now closed to the public. It is here that he suffered the betrayal of the Khmer Rouge, when they turned on their initial supporter and killed 19 members of his family (including his favorite son and daughter) and held him under house arrest, after destroying much of the palace treasures. This must have been hell for the once enigmatic god-king and one of the most colorful leaders of the century (he once wrote, directed and starred in 9 movies). Sihanouk was reinstated as King in 1993 and has retained some reverence from the citizenry - mostly due to his ancestors and his role in Independence from France. Even his early support of the Khmer Rouge is seen as a forgivable mistake in judgment by some. His son is in politics, but there is rampant speculation what will happen when he is gone. We were allowed to view the throne hall where receptions were held (complete with a gold statue of Sihanouk), several of the wats, and a long painted mural of Ramayana battles. The highlight of the palace, however, is the beautiful Silver Pagoda - named for the 5,281 squares of silver (each weighing one kilo) that make up the floor of the temple. The unusual floor provides a nice coolness when you step inside after removing your shoes. Although they destroyed 60% of the interior, the Khmer Rouge claimed to preserve the pagoda as a symbol of the richness of the Khmer cultural heritage. Inside is an incredible collection of statues, jewelry, carvings, masks, furniture, puppets and gifts amassed by the royal family over the years. The wat is also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha due to the baccarat crystal Buddha high on a golden pedestal. In front of this stands a life-sized gold Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds and 9 kilos of gold. The collection is among the richest we have seen – amazing considering the past and current state of the country.
Outside, a group of children were putting on a dance performance, similar to the one we saw in Siem Reap, but a little more amateur and a lot more cute. From the palace we walked past a crowded soccer field to London Books, where we talked to the owner – an American guy who’s been here for years, after marrying a Khmer woman. He said there is very little hope for the future given the uncertainty in the government. The recent attempts at forming some sort of war crimes tribunal have been thwarted by those who may be found culpable and the people have very little power, other than international pressure and education. Steps are under way, but it will be a very delicate and potentially divisive program – even with the support of the UN and US Senator (and Vietnam War veteran and one-time presidential candidate) John Kerry.
From the bookstore, we walked to one of those Nuevo-chic French coffee houses with Angkor Wat etchings on the wall, and then took a moto back to the hotel. After dinner we decided to go to the infamous Heart of Darkness bar. It was stuffed with expats, most in their 20s, with no memory (or care) whatsoever about the past – just playing pool, watching videos and drinking with the local bar girls. We negotiated motos to another place, Sharky’s, although it was not far away. They say street crime is way down, but we weren’t taking any chances. We were glad we didn’t when we passed the gangs of teenagers, sleeping homeless folks and fairly dodge karaoke/massage bars along the way. Signs at Sharky’s said “No Weapons, No Drugs” and “Beware of Pick Pockets and Loose Women”. There was plenty of the former, as I was approached by three of four in the 5 minutes Naomi was in the ladies’ room. Around the bar was the standard group of pudgy western guys pawing young prostitutes. The girls seemed to be having a good time chatting and joking amongst themselves until their employers needed some reassuring attention. In some respects, this was more depressing than Patpong Road in Bangkok because all of the girls here were definitely trying to get sleeping jobs rather than just dancing around a pole in a bikini. We left after having a little run-in with a white guy who gave me a sly nod of recognition when he saw me with Naomi. By the time we got back to the hotel, we hade to wake the kids who were sleeping in the lobby with their mopeds to open the iron gates.
Day 234, Sun, Dec. 24, 2000 – This morning, we took a ride out to the “Russian Market”, a covered bazaar of sorts, specializing in pirated shirts, movies and music CDs. We bought a few things, but still could not find and DVDs about the war. We had a great Indian lunch, but we were the only ones in the restaurant all day. Back at the Hotel California, we met up again with Tan, the moto driver.
“What is most important is money for my family, especially my baby. So I work every day from 7 in the morning until 11 at night. I think for my baby, it will be better in the future because they stop fighting. So he go to school and get education. I want maybe one more baby because more than 2 is too much to feed. We want more tourists to come here because it is safe – no more political – there are many things to see.”
This was our last day – a much-too-short visit in such a complex land. We sat on the balcony trying to make sense of the senseless while watching the crowd on the promenade below - monks, musicians, balloon-sellers, crippled men in army fatigues, and a little kid wearing only a gold necklace. The moto traffic was heavy, including kids with Santa Clause hats and many families of five squishing together. One pair of sisters had Christmas hats, sunglasses and scarves for the fumes.
We posed for pictures with the friendly staff at the hotel before getting in a taxi to the airport. At the airport, we met Loy, a young guy working security, who wanted to practice his English. He is working two jobs to make enough money to continue his education. Loy’s other job is in the government anti-corruption division. He never shows up there, but he gets paid anyway.
If you would like to follow our adventure to Vietnam, please click here: Photojournal December 25 - January 1, 2001
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