After a few days in Siem Reap, Melissa, Kerensa, and I were ready to see the busier city of Phnom Penh. Our Siem Reap driver took us to a bus depot where we boarded a Giant Ibis bus. If you are ever traveling across Asia and want a great, affordable means of travel, Giant Ibis is the way to go. The bus we were on boasted wifi–although coverage was not always great–comfortable seats and outlet plugs. For a country that doesn’t even have electricity in many homes, the bus…was unexpected in the most pleasant of ways. Giant Ibis’s Phnom Penh site manager, Nou Sokhien, would also prove to be most invaluable in the next leg of our journey.
Pictures Taken En Route to Phnom Penh
Our arrival in Phnom Penh was pretty nondescript. We arrived at the bus terminal and were again picked up by a tour guide and driver. They took us along the shore of the Tonle Sap River to our hotel, the King Grand Boutique Hotel. Kerensa’s room was ready as soon as we got to the hotel, so we headed up to her room where we were taught how to use the fancy door locks. Of all of the hotels on our trip, I think the King Grand was one of my favorites. (Tangent here…I would normally save this until the end of the blog post, but this post gets a tad heavy and this incident is so trivial in comparison. The King Grand was spectacular except for one server, who took entirely too long to give us change from our bill at the rooftop bar. After waiting for nearly an hour, we went down to the lobby to find him goofing around with hotel guests. Don’t eat dinner on the rooftop there and you’ll be fine. Most of the staff was incredible, the rooms were nice, and the location was top notch.)
After taking a respite to settle into our rooms, we found that the hotel was an incredibly short, convenient walk away from the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda (officially the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). We wandered to the palace, paid a small entrance fee and poked around. There was some (royal, I’m assuming?) event taking place in the Hor Samritvimean, so a few of the palace buildings were off limits to both foot traffic and photography. But that didn’t stop us from meandering about the stupas and enjoying the palace grounds that seemed complete with large pictures of His Majesty, Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia.
After touring the palace, we met up with Diana, another teacher from Chengdu. We ate at Friends the Restaurant and spent a little time investigating their adjacent store. Most of the proceeds go to charity, so you have to shop, right? We also made plans to visit the killing fields and genocide museum the next morning…
I felt a long pause was in order there and I took a pause when writing this entry too, not really sure how to write about such a heavy day.
Before going to Cambodia and Vietnam, I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War and even less of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. I always associated the USA with fighting–albeit perhaps sometimes blunderingly–on the side of right, opposing evil. But rarely is history so black and white. I’m no scholar on the matter, so if the topic of the Vietnam War and Reign of the Khmer Rouge really speaks to you, please investigate it further. What I’m writing is only the history of the time as I have learned it from being in Cambodia, taking tours, listening to interviews, and talking to Cambodians.
The Khmer Rouge took power of Phnom Penh easily. Cambodians in the 1970s were tired of being bombed by American fighter jets, a causality of the war with Vietnam. The citizens of Phnom Penh welcomed the Khmer Rouge with open arms in 1975, thinking the tide of violence would recede.
In less than 24 hours, the people of Phnom Penh knew they had misjudged the Khmer Rouge. Citizens of Phnom Penh were expelled from the city, forced to work and dwell in the countryside. But that would be nothing compared to the horrors that were to follow. For the next 4 years, until 1979 when the North Vietnamese Army drove the Khmer Rouge from power, the regime purged Cambodia of all the indecent people opposed to their idea of a classless, agrarian society. Such indecent people included doctors, professors, and foreigners. These people were rounded up and taken to prisons like the Tuol Sleng Prison that we toured. Here, prisoners were tortured until they gave up names of others who were against the Khmer Rouge’s regime. These newly named people were then picked up and tortured themselves. Even a number of Khmer Rouge soldiers actually wound up being tortured and killed at prisons like Tuol Sleng. Out of the 17000-20000 people who made their way through Tuol Sleng, only 7 to 12 are reported to have survived.
When the Khmer Rouge ran out of room for bodies in Tuol Sleng, they sent people to killing fields, like Choeung Ek, located 15 km (9 miles) south of Phnom Penh. There, people were made to dig mass graves for themselves. Then Khmer Rouge soldiers hit them with shovels until they were dead. Infants were swung against a tree, dying instantly from the trauma, and were then tossed into a pile of corpses.
The entire day was dreary and depressing, but I appreciated it as one might a trip to Auschwitz, an area, preserved from the flow of time, showing humanity at its worst that we might strive to become humanity at its best. Still, thoughts give me pause. After being shut down in 1979, Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek were both turned into profound tourist stops in the 1980s. In 10 years or so, are there going to be similar monuments in Syria and Sudan? And who will play the role of the North Vietnamese Army, driving harsh regimes from the land?