After an enlivening 27 days in Siem Reap we bid our goodbyes to new friends and headed to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, for 3 nights. On arrival in this bigger, more feverish city, swarming with traffic, it felt as though we’d left a sleepy hollow. Sitting in amongst hoards of motos, cars and other tuk tuks all madly hooting and nudging centimetres forward at a time at a busy intersection during rush hour, or driving down the wrong side of a 3-lane road, with countless other vehicles speeding towards us, until our driver reached a point to enter the road he should have been on, was rather eye-popping, and made the pot-holed dirt roads we’d bumbled along around Siem Reap seem like Disneyland!
Phnom Penh has an enigmatic energy that simultaneously drew me in and repelled me. One moment I was marvelling at the street food vendors pushing carts along rugged streets lined with vibrant market stalls, and even managing to look past the chunks of raw meat and flies twirling above the beautifully laid out vegetables, until a hideous movement I couldn’t ignore drew my eye and I realised someone was literally skinning live frogs and throwing the animals, writhing in pain, onto a pile next to the veg. And that sums up travelling. It’s magical until it’s not. A place is romantic until you’re faced with real suffering you can do nothing about, and the image is imprinted on your mind, along with the knowledge that it will continue day after day after day. I don’t particularly like frogs. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel empathy for them as living beings with pain receptors.
And this was just the start of the darkness that came to veil the memories I created over these intense few days. We spent 2 mornings pulling heavy feet through museums set up on sites where thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide were tortured and killed. We began this historic journey at the end of people’s lives; the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Walking up a little path towards a white pagoda, standing tall against a picture perfect background of blue skies dotted with cotton wool cloud puffs, was surreal because of the beauty in a place where the voice from my audio guide was telling me that, as recently as 1975 to 1979, thousands of people were individually bludgeoned or poisoned or stabbed to death, while loud music blared to block out their screams. And then as I got closer I discovered that the pagoda was full of layer upon layer upon layer of human skulls and other bones. Eight thousand skulls (despite being just a small percentage of the millions of Khmer Rouge victims) is almost too much to fully process. Perhaps regularly seeing skulls in pop culture, and the leap the mind needs to do to picture a living person with hopes, dreams, fears and a strong sense of pain, enables us to walk round the pagoda, taking in the little coloured stickers and corresponding key revealing manner of death; the only thing known about each one. If we had to see the dead bodies, we’d look away, but yet we can look at the same death when faced with thousands of skulls and feel horrified, but still look. This very thing that allows our eyes to look, the facelessness of these people, is what makes this site even more desolate than you can initially conceive. These stacked-up skulls are someone’s brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, but those lucky enough to escape death during the barbaric reign of the Khmer Rouge can never fully find closure or any answers to the unknowns that must plague them. I felt guilty visiting this place as an outsider, a tourist simply learning about history, without a broken heart or spirit, now knowing that since 1 in 4 Cambodians died in this genocide, thousands of locals must have come to see what I saw, not knowing whether their loved one was dug up from one of the mass graves, left untouched and still revealing fragments from bone and clothes, nor which coloured sticker would reveal the final moments of this missing person’s life.
After obeying the voice in my ear (telling me to move on to the different grave sites and then past the tree against which babies heads were regularly bashed in), I left the killing fields unnerved, unable to wrap my head around what I had learned and not known the extent of until that day, despite how recently it had occurred and how much other human atrocities form part of school history lessons and general human awareness.
The next morning we visited the place these victims had been before their horrific demise; the S21 / Tuol Sleng Prison, now a Genocide Museum, which plays into the weirdly innate morbid intrigue we seem to have to know the depths of immorality fellow humans can succumb to. Here you wander round the former school building that became a detention and torturous interrogation centre, and if you found it difficult to picture the people the skulls at the Killing Fields came from, you’re helped out with graphic photos of each of the last victims found chained to a metal bed and brutally murdered by their fleeing torturers prior to the Vietnamese capturing the city and prison. The psychotic yet charismatic head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, indoctrinated his party, followers, and many young minds with his evil and paranoid mindset and vision for an independent Cambodia, made up of a country of rural agricultural workers, with no educated city dwellers, who he believed had been corrupted by western capitalist notions. He justified mass arrests and murders with twisted sayings like “better to arrest ten innocent people by mistake than free a single guilty party” and “better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake” and so anyone suspected of being anti-establishment, having ties to the west, or simply having soft hands, wearing glasses, or being able to speak English or French (key indicators that they were ‘corrupt’) were arrested, and anyone sent to this prison was brutally tortured until they broke and confessed to whatever allegations they’d been branded with, often also giving in to the push to implicate family members because they could take no more pain. From that point it wouldn’t be long before they were blindfolded, herded onto trucks and shipped off to the Killing Fields for a night of loud music.
Walking through the tiny prison cells that have been left as they were found, dotted with shackles, torture equipment, and the odd toilet box was gruelling. Even though our two year old tot obliviously wandered the grounds without an audio guide outlining the agony and humiliation inflicted on anyone and everyone, while us parents took turns dipping in and out of the horror rooms, I still felt rueful taking such an innocent soul, with no knowledge of the brutal behaviour humans are capable of, into a place where people had experienced and carried out some of the grossest of human atrocities.
This innocence also struck me, not only when faced with walls of photos of terrified victims, but with photos of the prison guards, who didn’t look older than teenagers. What a clever ploy to manipulate vulnerable young people to unquestionably despise a common enemy and sell their souls to an evil cause they could not escape from, once they knew the fate that would befall any suspected doubters. They carried out unthinkable acts, but were also victims of this tyrannical reign, and I couldn’t help but wonder at it’s ongoing impact, while families of those tortured and murdered move on, knowing what these museums have exposed, and while those that revealed their darkest selves move on, knowing not only what human beings are capable of, but what they themselves are capable of.
We couldn’t stay too long. We didn’t want to know it all. And we left the S21 Prison even more despairing than we’d left the Killing Fields, knowing now what a welcome relief murder must have been to the innocent people caught up in this paranoid and barbaric massacre.
With the depressive impact of these primary sightseeing activities, you’d think it would be hard to enjoy Phnom Penh. Somehow though, despite it’s bleak history, having been a place desperate people flocked to post the American-Vietnamese war, and then literally emptied when the Khmer Rouge marched in with revolutionary promises and shipped everyone to rural villages, before making it a site for mass torture and murder, it’s perseverance and vivacity is striking. People are living for the now; creating new history.
One evening we wandered along the riverside promenade in the centre of the city, and initially I felt vulnerable, thinking that somewhere with such a dark past would have opened the gateway to evil and bitterness, pain and poverty. But the more families we saw picnicking on the floor, teenagers rollerblading around us, and couples tucked under each other’s arms, the more the nervousness seeped away, and I could appreciate this renewed city life, and the lights from boats and modern buildings sparkling on the water.
And after a fantastic meal (having had an alluring pick of restaurant options), with the breeze in my face as our tuk tuk meandered past the Royal Palace, then past brand new sky scrapers, and then down narrow winding streets bursting with commerce, kids playing, and people sitting out on little stools, I thought that our time in Phnom Penh was akin to Christmas not being quite the same once Santa is revealed, when even knowing what you do doesn’t mean you can’t find magic and enjoyment thereafter.
On the wall in a restaurant near our apartment a saying stuck out (not only because it’s the chorus of one of our tot’s favourite songs), but because it befits this reborn city: “The best is yet to come”.