Leaving Saigon early this morning, we took a bus to Phnom Penh. As soon as we entered the country it was easy to see the change in the people. Darker skin, a little lighter hair and everyone wears a smile. We took the afternoon off and just walked around and got a feel for the city. The city sits at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac, and Tonle Sap rivers. The main strip is Sisowat Quay which runs along the river and is lined with bars, restaurants and shops. It’s a wonderful walk day or night and is packed with people.
We headed down Sisowat and headed to the Foreign Correspondents Club to have snack to tide us over until dinner. We ended up sitting there for quite a while, just reading and eating the best french fries I’ve had since I left home. We also caught the sunset over the National Museum and Royal Palace off the back of the building.
The next morning, we headed to Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. The first stop was S-21 the former school turned into jail and torture chamber by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
We had a wonderful guide who’s parents and 5 off his siblings were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. It was fascinating to listen to his story and to him tell us of the horrors of Pol Pot and the prison. At one point, when one of our group asked a question, he told us that he would tell us when we got back on the bus. Later, he told us that people still don’t talk too openly about what happened since a lot of the members of the current government were also in the Khmer Rouge. The prime minister was a Khmer Captain and the King was in Pol Pot’s inner circle.
Next we drove out to the killing fields. It was about 30 minutes south of Phnom Penh. There is a memorial stupa that has been built to honor those killed here and it contains the bones, skulls and clothes of thousands of the victims.
It still isn’t known exactly how many people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. They have found hundreds of prisons, killing fields and mass graves, but who know how many more. Our guide told us sadistic stories of murder and torture and most were for incomprehensible and trivial reasons. The field is littered with craters from the excavations of the mass graves and the paths between them are littered with scraps of cloth and shards of bones. Apparently they show up after a hard rain.
It was a difficult thing to witness, but we took strength from our guide. After many years and lots of pain he seems to have come to an understanding and a peace about what happened. He has chosen to lie in today and try to give his wife and children a life devoid of that kind of terror and pain by speaking with Westerners and anyone else who will listen about it so that it will never happen again.