one last hurrah in asia...
This, my friends, will be my very last post from Asia (even though I'm not there anymore). That's right, I've moved on to Mexico. And with another continent comes another blog. Check it: http://awsnapmexico.travellerspoint.com Familiar, eh?
For my last trip, I decided to continue through Cambodia, past Siem Reap and onto Phnom Penh. It seemed appropriate; I generally enjoyed Cambodia and felt an excitement about it that I hadn't felt about a country in a long time. So we hopped on the bus where we were the only foreigners, and in about 5 hours made it to the capital. I had bought a plane ticket to Bangkok for $100 and was all set to go.
Phnom Penh is a hustling, bustling city, with motos honking and vendors haggling; there is no stopping to think, there is only living in the moment. I loved it; in some ways, it reminded me of HCMC, but since I hadn't been traveling for a month, I could appreciate it more. We of course went to a hostel recommended by Lonely Planet right on Lake Boeng Kak. The price was right, so we dropped our bags and went to sit on the beautiful lake and watch the sunset with a couple of BeerLaos.
The second day we got right into the profound sadness that still surrounds much of Cambodia: we went to the Killing Fields outside of the city, at Choeung Ek. During the late 70's, the Khmer Rouge Communist regime, led by the dictator Pol Pot, killed some 200,000 Khmer people (some estimates put the toll up to the millions) for suspected connections with former governments, or any foreign person in any regard. They were taken to death camps such as these and tortured and eventually executed.
Choeung Ek is surprisingly a peaceful place today. Most of the old buildings have been torn down, with only signs written in Khmer and English to remind visitors. There is a commemorative stupa that holds the bones, skulls and clothes of the people who were killed there. The mass graves are now empty of course, having been disinterred over the years since the Khmer Rouge fell. The site was once an orchard and has regained some of that serenity. There is a school close by and you can hear the children playing during recess.
The commemorative stupa, where a sign asks visitors to take a moment a silence for the men, women, and children who were killed there.
The now-empty mass graves.
One of the signs in Khmer, marking a spot where a building once stood.
One of the trees around the grounds.
Around the grounds, agriculture goes on.
When we left the Killing Fields, we thought it only proper to visit Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, a former high school that was used as a prison camp by the Khmer Rouge. Here, the "dissidents" (from other countries as well) were photographed and forced to write their life stories. They were imprisoned for potentially planning a coup against Pol Pot, or for merely being friends or family of these "dissidents." Forbidden to talk, they were held in individual cells as well as mass cells, shackled to the floor and not allowed to move. There were very strict rules and at the slightest hint of disobedience, prisoners were beaten. It is estimated that 17,000 prisoners were held there and out of those, only 12 survived.
Today, it is preserved almost exactly as it was found and is the "Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum."
It was extremely overwhelming to first go to Choeung Ek and then Tuol Sleng.
The first thing you see when walking around is these tombs.
One of the individual holding cells.
The gallows, where prisoners were held upside down to torture information out of them.
There are several rooms with boards full of pictures of the victims. The most heartbreaking were the ones who smiled for their pictures.
These are busts of Pol Pot, preserved next to shackles.
Visitors are encouraged to maintain the proper respect by not laughing or smiling.
Many of the big rooms (once classrooms) were crudely sectioned off into individual cells, using wood or concrete as walls.
Hastily-made corridors between rooms.
There was barbed wire everywhere.
It's impossible to walk these hallways and not feel the overwhelming sense of injustice and sorrow that Cambodians still carry with them today. It is important, however, to remember what happened (just as with any great tragedy of mankind) and to help the people mourn their loss.
Cambodia is a beautiful country and it's important to always keep in mind what the people have gone through in the past 30 years. To be understanding, empathetic, and always considerate is important while traveling through any country; I believe it is especially appreciated by a country that has suffered so much and yet goes on.
And on that note, I conclude my Asia blog...