Phnom Penh and S-21

22 Jan

21st January 2013

The bus to Phnom Penh from Battambang bus station was a pleasant surprise. At $5 for a five hour trip, your expectations are not that high, but the bus was smooth, quiet and the aircon worked. The driver was also reasonably careful and did not go for the mad overtaking that you sometimes see in Asia. We were actually the only westerners on the bus and the only ones who used the seatbelts! It seems that the hotels and guest houses tend to push another company that does the trip for $0.50 less. We booked the Capitol bus directly with the bus station (desk/table nearest the door). Really good.

Bus from Battambang to PP

The bus did stop quite a bit for drinks and food and to pick up the occasional extra person (dropping them off somewhere a bit further on), but it arrived on time.

As usual it was a bit of a scramble on arrival in Phnom Penh as the tuk tuk drivers push for your business. They all started at $5 to go to the hotel which was probably only ten minutes drive away. We finally settled at $2 which seemed expensive, but turned out to be the going rate for that sort of distance. We had them walk away when we said that we would only pay $2 for one trip. The city was busy and all the hotels were full and the pickings were rich.  We saw lots of people agreeing $5 and so the drivers are getting a bit spoiled. We want to be fair, but ‘don’t want our heads shaved’ as the locals say when you are ripped off.

Our plan was to visit the Tuoi Sleng ( S-21) which was a school that had been converted into a prison used to hold the Khmer Rouge prisoners  for torture, before being transferred to Choeung Ek  (one of the two or three hundred sites used to kill and dispose of the bodies of Pol Pot’s supposed enemies).

Pol Pot was educated in France, obviously from privileged background and his aim was to create his own twisted version of a perfect communist state. He banned currency, closed all borders to neighbouring countries with mine fields and expelled all urbanites to the countryside where they were forced to live off the land. Not only producing enough to live on, but he demanded an impossible threefold increase in rice production. This was sold/traded to the Chinese for weapons.  In order to achieve total control he set about exterminating anyone who he felt was a threat. That included anyone previously in power, educated people, people with soft hands and even people who wore glasses. These people were tortured until they signed confessions of crimes against the state, often implicating family and friends, who were in turn arrested. Although only really in control for around 3.5 years (1975 to 1978) up to 3 million of his own people were killed. This represented about 25% of the total population. He is quoted as saying that it is better to kill an innocent person than to let an enemy live ….

S-21 is a harrowing place to visit, but important as an introduction to the exhibits at the killing Fields.

We found a tuk tuk driver outside the hotel to take us to S-21. Phnom Penh is a busy place with motorbikes whizzing in every direction.

Tuk tuk Phnom Penh

The school building was a modern design, which brought home how recently this had happened to the poor Cambodians, barely recovered from the bombing that they suffered during the Vietnam war.

Tuol Sleng Museum

The first room we entered had a metal frame bed with leg irons to hold prisoners. These bigger rooms were used to hold and torture political prisoners from the previous regime. In this room there was still a body chained up when the liberation forces arrived.

Cell and torture room for senior politicians

Too late for this prisoner

The record keeping was meticulous, all prisoners were photographed on arrival and then photographed after torture. Signed confessions produced and filed.

Prisoners S-21

There were women, children and even babies. The photographs of the women included some with babies. The babies were killed in the most brutal manner.

Around 20,000 people came through this camp. Of them only 7 survived.

S-21 cells

After walking around S-21, two questions struck us. Firstly, how can humans treat each other so cruelly?  Secondly, how did the Cambodian people manage to pick themselves up after such a terrible series of events, and keep smiling?

The tuk tuk journey back was another opportunity to observe daily life. That was not so easy while driving Troopy! There are some advantages in not driving! This is something you don’t see in Exeter.

Monks shop too!

Tomorrow we visit the Killing Fields

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