Not going to lie this post is pretty morbid…
We didn’t have the best start to Cambodia, I’ve managed to break my phone, we lost our passports for an hour at border control and then Rob lost the credit card in a cash machine. But at least we made it eh. As it was a Sunday the banks were closed and our cards fate remains unknown, looks like we’ll have to have a few cheap nights, hotel food and free pool table is our entertainment for the night!
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia but it doesn’t have the feel of the other cities we’ve been to, the buildings are run down and everywhere is dirty and smelly. But there’s a reason they’re trailing behind their neighbouring countries. Before travelling I was completely ignorant to Cambodia’s history, it’s not something we learnt about at school and I’ve never had any reason to learn about it so the museums we visited were a real eye opener. A bit of background about what we learnt; in 1975 America stopped dropping bombs on Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge came to power, they were headed by Pol Pot and had mad ideologies. They believed that the new people (those who lived in cities or had an education) were dangerous and they wanted to restore Cambodia to year zero. Three days after they’d come to power they had evacuated every city and sent everyone into the countryside to work in community labour camps. The members of the Khmer Rouge were mainly uneducated young peasants from the countryside who were groomed into their positions. If anyone was particularly clever, a teacher, a doctor, a professor, they would be sent to one of the many prisons across the country. In fact the prisons were mainly abandoned schools and churches which were deemed unnecessary in the Khmer Rouge scheme. The Tuol Sleng Prison that we visited was an old high school, it was a real harrowing place, of the 20,000 people who were sent to this prison only 12 survived. The classrooms were all transformed into tiny cells which still stood as we walked round, some even still had blood on the floor. All prisoners were tortured until they confessed to some involvement with the CIA or the Russian KGB but for many their actual crime could be something as simple as wearing glasses (a sign you could read and therefore of intelligence). If someone was accused of a crime their whole family would be sent to prison too, it didn’t matter about the age of the children, the Khmer Rouge motto was ‘to get rid of a weed you must take out the roots as well’.
The next day we visited the ‘Killing Fields’, this was a plot of land about 8 miles away from the city where the mass executions would take place. Once an adequate confession had been obtained the prisoners were sent here by the truck load. I won’t go into details but it was one of the most upsetting places I’ve been to, a lot of the bodies have been recovered now and are housed in a memorial but as you walk round there’s still bone fragments and clothing emerging from the ground.
During the four years the Khmer Rouge were in control it’s estimated that 3 million Cambodian people died out of a population of just 8 million. It wasn’t till the Vietnam troops invaded that the Khmer Rouge fled. But unbelievably they were allowed to re group at the Thai border and continue to operate. Because the new Cambodian government was set up by Vietnamese and due to the on going tension between America and Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge were still seen as the ruling party by the rest of the world. They continued to operate unscathed for the next 20 years even representing Cambodia at UN conferences. It’s only been in recent years that the Khmer Rouge have been held accountable for the devastation they caused, but even still only 4 people have gone to trial. Absolutely crazy that genocide of this scale could happen and then go on unpunished for so long. It was a very sobering few days for us.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in Phnom Penh, the city is moving on and has a bustling population and thriving market scene. We had a run along the river side in the morning and got involved with the locals doing their morning exercise. There’s also an Olympic Stadium in the city that unfortunately was never used for the Olympics because of the troubles in the country at the time but it’s now a hubbub of activity. We went early morning to use the running track and got talking to a guy who was coaching there. Turns out he’s a Cambodian athlete who represented his country at the London Olympics, pretty cool! He coached us round a lap of the track and then got us to add him on Facebook where he sent us a hundred pictures proving that he was an athlete and did indeed go to the Olympics! After a bit of sightseeing we headed back to the stadium so Rob can say he’s played ping pong at an Olympic Stadium, not as impressive as it sounds, there wasn’t even anywhere for our crowd to sit!
I managed to get my phone fixed for a costly $65 but there’s still no luck with our card, we’ve had to re jig a few things so we can come back to Phnom Penh after a week and see if we can get hold of it, this is the last time I trust Rob to go to an ATM on his own!