Phnom Penh - 7th September 2008 @ 4:11 am «   »

Location: Cambodia : Phnom Penh

No visit to Phnom Penh is complete without a visit to the well known Killing fields and the notorious S-21 prison, so we insisted on starting our one-and-only day in the capital by checking those off our to-do list.

Between 1975 and 1979 almost 2 million Cambodians died in a holocaust-like fashion as a result of the insane revolution implemented by the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of the ruthless leadership of Pol Pot (fitting name for such a pig!). Most of the country’s educated were relocated to the countryside and tortured to death or executed. Anyone who spoke a foreign language or even wore spectacles were captured and killed in Pot’s efforts to convert Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated, agricultural machine.

The cheapest option of getting out of town to the Killing Fields is a motorbike, so we flagged one down, both got on the back and made the 16km trip out of town with our driver. A memorial stupa has been erected in the middle of this relatively small area which contains a total of 129 mass graves, some of which are still untouched. The stupa itself holds a massive amount of human skulls which serves as a reminder of the crimes against humanity.

We walked around for a while taking in the somber atmosphere, but quickly made our way all around the enclosed areas. Because of a lack of government funding the site is in dire need of attention as most of the area is exposed to the elements and little attention is given to the upkeep of this extremely important monument. The dilapidated state makes one feel almost hard-done by even for the measly ‘$2’ entrance fee, but it’s a must-see never the less when in the area.

To our disgust we realised that getting a ride back to town was going to prove a little more difficult. All the bike and tuk-tuk drivers parked outside were waiting for the return of the tourists they had brought from town, and as our driver was long gone (having only arranged for a one-way drop off) we were stranded. Walking back to the main road in the hope of finding another willing bike-rider, an Irish couple, on the back of a tuk-tuk, stopped and kindly offered us a lift to town. As it happened they were also on their way to the S-21 museum.

Tuol Sleng, or ‘Security Prison 21’ (S-21) as it was called under Pol Pot’s regime, is a disused high school which got converted into the country’s largest centre for detention and torture in the mid-70s. At it’s peak the prison claimed a staggering average of 100 victims per day. Those who did not die during interrogation were sent to the Killing fields for execution.

Sobering prison mug-shots of victims and a lot of photos of tortured and mutilated bodies are on display. Some of the exhibits are very simple with only a single iron bed in the middle of a large room, paired with a gruesome photo on the wall of one of the victims chained to the same bed. Much like our lasting impression of Auschwitz, we were left with a dark view of man-kind’s ability to simply disregard life after experiencing all that the museum had to offer.

The Russian market was our next stop for the day, but we spent little time there as it proved to be quite commercialised (in a Western sense) and a little less interesting than some others we had recently visited. We got a comfy tuk-tuk ride to the Royal Palace after grabbing a quick lunch, but got a bit of a sting with the comparatively inflated entrance fees.

The Palace grounds are in fine condition and is in stark contrast to the dilapidated Killing Fields & S-21. Each building is laced with the finest gilding in gold & white and extravagantly decorated inside. It’s the official residence of the King and Queen so large parts are off-limits to the public, but there are loads of space to roam around. The Palace is a beautiful and calm place with many visiting Buddhist monks snapping photos of their favourite spots. We were lucky enough to meet up with Phillipe and Karine again – the French Canadian couple we met during our Mekong Delta tour (see photo below) – and this time remembered to exchange particulars.

Our timing was perfect, because just after arriving back at our hotel the rains started to come down. We only had one day in the capital so we had to pack in the sights, but they were all worth it and we thoroughly enjoyed the day. To close it off we had dinner at a little restaurant/bar on the river where loads of expats (all with serious tattoos) seemed to congregate. Openly smoking grass in restaurants seems to be completely acceptable here..

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For Killing Fields & S-21 click here.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

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