Charming Kampochea: the dark years

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We travel by bus across the border into the Kingdom of Cambodia, known as Kamphochea by the Cambodian (Khmer) people. There are subtle differences here compared to neighbouring Vietnam … the roads are quieter and less developed, the land is flatter, drier and vast paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Cambodia is a country of around 16 million and 80% of its people are farmers. The central plains are known as its rice bowel and it exports rice to more than 60 counties around the world. There are no more Non-Bai Tho (conical) hats and I can see fragments of southern India in the faces of the people and in its ancient temples. The charming bow with hands together for hello, goodbye and thank you, is back! Our new guide tells us that around 95% are Buddhists in the country, but in the past great Khmer empire, formally known as Funan had one of the oldest regional Hindu cultures and was a significant maritime trading partner in the Indosphere.

Our first destination is Phnom Penh or ‘Penom Ping’ as our guide likes to say. We head out on a tuk-tuk tour of the city before dusk settles, and a real surprise awaits. Although this is a much smaller city than those, we visited in Vietnam there is lots of development here. It is an interesting blend of the old and the new. In the heart of the city an Angkorian style tower, signifies Cambodia’s Independence from the French in 1953. On the other side of this imposing tower sits the equally impressive Norodom Sihanouk Memorial, a 4.5-meter bronze statue housed under a 27-meter-high stupa of gold and white of the beloved former King. Modern neon lights shine out around these monuments making this park quite a spectacle. Next, we visit the street food market and there are some similarities with its neighbouring country, Laos. This time its BBQed rat, not dried, deep fried tarantula and snake, chicken feet and heads and frogs’ legs and snails by the plenty. Our guide advices us against eating this food which has often been cooked days before and left out on the stalls until sold. Our delicate western digestion would need some toughening up before we could avoid several hours on the toilet! We pass the flower market full of amazing smells and exotic flowers and the fruit and vegetable market: we try some Rambutans and Longan fruit, and sniff the infamous tasty but stinky durian, which is often banned in hotels. I feel there is a buzz about this city and that things are changing here fast…., it would be interesting to visit again in a few years.

This city has a dark past and the next day we visit the Killing fields and the Genocide Museum, which was initially a high school and was transformed into a prison camp in the city during the Pol Pot regime from 1975-1979. As a child in the 70s I remember nothing of this tragedy, but I do remember the discovery of mass graves in the early 80s of what we now call the Killing fields. When Pol Pot came into power in 1975 which he declared as ‘year zero’, everyone was evacuated from the cities and forced them to live in the countryside, to work and live as communal farmers. He abolished education and health care and people were allowed only a few personal possessions. Communal kitchens fed the masses on very little. The ‘lucky’ people were forced to work long gruelling hours in the fields, but 1.7 million were rounded up, tortured and met their final death in the killing fields. Pol Pot embarked on a brutal campaign of social cleansing and anyone who had worked for the previous government/army and the educated middle class; doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, foreigners and even those wearing glasses, were sought out and eliminated in order to create a pure self-sufficient peasant society. This is not a visit I have been looking forward to and to be confronted with the dark side of what humans are capable of, is harrowing and fills me with sadness. A monument to the 20,000 men, women, children and babies who were systematically murdered by the Khmer Rouge soldiers at this killing field just a few miles outside the city, sits in the centre. The white stupor contains 9,000 skulls of the victims. I can’t bring myself to go in, but slowly walk round trying to comprehend what has happened here and paying my respect to the victims. Did they know that they were coming here to die? How could the soldiers beat their own people to death? We learn that the soldiers were often very young and threatened with torture and death of both themselves and their families if they didn’t do their job. One of the mass graves we visit at the field contains the bodies of hundreds of soldiers, murdered by their own comrades. Despite the great sadness here, it is peaceful, and visitors are quiet and reflective. The birds are singing and the chatter from the local children playing at a school nearby drift across the scene…life goes on despite the horrors which happened here.

Next, we visit the Genocide museum where the prisoners were initially brought. They were photographed, weighed and measured before being systematically tortured until a confession was made. True or false, the soldiers didn’t care. If they didn’t get a confession from their prisoner, they too would be killed.  Prisoners usually stayed for 2-3 weeks where they were chained and blindfolded in individual tiny brick or wooden (for the women) cells with an ammunition box for a toilet. No one escaped from either the prison camp or the killing fields, although 7 men and 4 children who were still prisoners at the time of the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 survived to tell their stories of their time in Tuol Sleng prison. Two of the men who survived, now 87 and 79 visit the museum regularly to talk to visitors about their experience. I buy a book from one of them, Chum Mey, a mechanic who lived in the prison for months because he was useful to the regime, he repaired typewriters and sewing machines.

This has been a difficult day and I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for the Khmer people who were subjected to Pol Pot’s regime. The images from the killing fields and the prison camp will stay with me forever, and because I have been here, I feel that I too have a responsibility to share this story with others, in the hope that we can learn so that nothing like this can ever happen again. In the evening we meet Johns nephew and his partner who are living and working in Phnom Penh. We sip our drinks and watch the sun set over the skyscrapers and I push the images from today away for now but hope that the lessons from Cambodia’s darkest past will guide the future on mankind.

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