After breakfast at the hotel in Battambang we walked across the road to the bus station for our mini-bus to Phnom Penh. The journey was meant to take us 6 hours however, as is becoming standard for bus travel in South East Asia, it was closer to 7.5 hours. Travel days are quickly becoming our least favourite days of travelling, nobody ever tells you how much actual travelling you have to do whilst you travel!
We were thrilled when the bus finally pulled in to Phnom Penh, and we took a Grab taxi to take us to Vacation Boutique Hotel, our home for the next 4 nights. After checking in we relaxed in the room for a couple hours before taking the long walk down to reception to get some dinner at the hotel restaurant.
The next morning we enjoyed a bit of a long lie and headed out to explore. First stop was Yeay Penh (Lady Penh) Statue.
Lady Penh was a wealthy lady who lived on the outskirts of a village located in present day Phnom Penh. During a flood of the Mekong River a hollow tree floated up to her lawn and, in the tree, there were four bronze Buddha statues. She took this as a sign that Buddha wanted a new home, so she built a temple for Buddha, Wat Phnom. It stands 27m above ground and is the tallest, religious structure in the city.
We enjoyed wandering around the outskirts of the temple however we didn't venture in as there was lots of young kids vying to look after our shoes as we went in, for a fee (or a tip if you will) of course. Now we should say here, we have no issues paying into the local economy whatsoever however, neither of us feel comfortable giving money to children who should be in school, the more they make, the more likely their parents will keep them out of school. (In the photo above you can see the boy in orange asking for his tip).
Beginning to feel a little peckish we set off towards Daughters of Cambodia for lunch. Daughters do incredible work to support victims of sex trafficking to leave the trade for good. The victims are taught real life skills to enable them to provide for themselves and their families. On the ground floor, there is a shop which sells crafts, handmade by some of the women, there is a cafe upstairs serving food made by some of the women and finally there is a spa, also upstairs. We had a delicious lunch then Katy followed up with a lovely manicure whilst Craig had a coffee.
After Daughters we headed back to our hotel to relax followed by dinner at We Cheers, a lovely family run Khmer restaurant just along the road from our hotel. We then finally got round to starting the next season of Sex Education on Netflix and binge watched for the rest of the night before crashing out.
The following morning we were up fairly early and, after an easy negotiation with a remork driver, we set off out for the day. Given Cambodia's very sad history we did not want to come and enjoy all the good the country has to offer without educating ourselves on its dark recent history. We were prepared for a very emotional and harrowing day as we were going to visit some of the sites where the Khmer Rouge interrogated, tortured and executed people.
The next part describes our experience at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (otherwise known as the Killing Fields) and it isn't the most pleasant of experiences, and makes for a difficult read, but one we feel is important to share.
Please keep that in mind before reading on.
If you wish to skip, scroll to just after the 2nd slideshow.
Our first stop was to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former secondary school renamed to Security Prison 21 (S-21), and it is one of at least 150 torture and execution centres throughout Cambodia. It is thought that between 12,000 - 20,000 people were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured here between 1975-1979. Once the prisoners had signed a forced confession (usually false) of crimes against Angkar (the ruling body of the Khmer Rouge) they were sent to be executed. Of those thousands of people who came through S-21, only 15 are known to have survived. The 15 all had skills that were discovered during interrogation that the Khmer Rouge could use. A painter was spared to paint pictures of Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot while another was spared as he could mend typewriters.
We took the audio tour and were guided by the voice of a man who had lived during the Khmer Rouge era, and started at building A. These were the interrogation and torture rooms, the prisoners were shackled to an iron bed by their wrists and ankles and subjected to whatever torture the Khmer Rouge chose. When Phnom Penh was liberated in 1979 by Cambodian-Vietnamese combined forces, 14 bodies, barely recognisable as human, were found in these rooms, still shackled to the beds (1st photo). Each room also had a grisly photo of room as it was found, including the body. As a memorial, 14 white coffins lay in front of building A.
Building B and C were the holding buildings for those undergoing interrogation but had yet to confess, or those awaiting interrogation. They were separated into two different types of cells. The first set was the individual cells where prisoners (usually those going through interrogation) were shackled to the walls or the concrete floors, in isolation, waiting for their next torture session (sometimes 3 a day) (picture 3 & 4). The bigger cells had prisoners shackled to one another, almost as a chain gang, until it was their turn to be interrogated. Some of the rooms had been converted and now boards show photos found from files recovered here. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous files that recorded details about each prisoner such as their height, weight, crimes, confession and photograph. As you can imagine it was difficult to process seeing so many faces, far too many of teenagers and children, and understand their ultimate fate.
The final building housed some of the torture methods used, from water boarding, to bamboo cubs and gallows where prisoners were hung by their wrists until they pass out before being revived. The rooms are also filled with paintings, painted by 1 of the 15 survivors to help convey the atrocities that happened here and all over Cambodia. The final room had a golden stupa, a Buddhist memorial but also the skulls of bodies found here. The mass grave probably contained the first people to come through the doors of S21 before the numbers became too great and it was moved to a new location.
The museum itself was extremely emotional and I don't think either of us could really quite get our heads round the extent of what had happened. We were also encouraged to share the story of what happened here in the hopes humanity can learn from its actions, poignant perhaps as we mark the 75th anniversary of the holocaust.
We headed on to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (the Killing Fields), previously an area of orchard and Chinese cemetery, before the Khmer Rouge came to power and liberated Cambodia. Although its true purpose was never known during the Khmer Rouge era we now know over 17,000 people were executed here and thrown into mass graves, most were civilian. Again we were guided around by an audio guide which gave us a vivid insight into what happened here. There are 129 mass graves here and of those, 43 have never been touched. The area is not big, prisoners arrived on trucks, shackled and blindfolded, they were taken to the pit, executed (usually with a blunt instrument or tool as bullets were expensive) and discarded into their grave. The bodies were sprayed with DDT to eradicated the smell and then soil was put over them, waiting on the next trucks loads. Laterally, due to the higher number of executions, a holding hut was built however there are no original structures remaining on the site, only depressions in the land to mark where bodies once lay. The most heartbreaking moment is when the guide directs you to a tree (picture 4), covered in coloured bands linked together, where the soldiers would kill babies by beating them against it before throwing their bodies into the grave beside it. The babies and children were killed, in part, due to propaganda and, to ensure no one would ever seek revenge for the deaths of their family.
A stupa has also been raised here in remembrance (picture 7). Inside are the skulls and major limb bones of over 8,000 people who were exhumed from the mass graves in 1980. They are arranged over 17 levels and sorted according to age and gender. The ground still reveals clothing material (picture 3), bones and teeth from the ground every wet season and they are also recorded.
After the visiting the Killing Fields we headed back to the hotel, we were both feeling a little bit emotionally drained and so took a couple of hours to process what we had seen. For us it was eye opening to learn that the world was unaware of the atrocities that happened here for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days in the late 70's. The UN even recognised the Khmer Rouge as the official government while they were in exile in Thailand until 1993 (our lifetime) as they didn't trust the communist government the Vietnamese had installed.
We finished the day with a dinner at Romano's pizza and an early night.
The next morning we were woken to the sounds of the children at the music school across the road from our hotel practicing various different instruments which provided a nice juxtaposition to what we had seen children go through the day before and definite proof of the resilience of the country.
We enjoyed a lazy morning and were about to head down for breakfast when we were plunged into darkness. Another blackout! So kitchen closed, we wandered over to the nearest Starbucks for a quick breakfast then made our way to the cinema to see 1917 (Craig's choice, obviously!). And here begins the most ridiculous cinema experience we have ever had. We were escorted to our seats, talked through the variety of buttons to recline or raise our seats and footrests, given our pillows and blankets. They then took our orders for popcorn and drinks and swiftly returned with them along with a cleansing towel and a grapefruit welcome drink. All included in the price of our ticket!
We thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Katy cried (obviously!) and Craig loved the single shot filming. Having had the popcorn neither of us was feeling like lunch when we came out so headed back to the hotel to chill out for the remainder of the afternoon before popping back to the hotel restaurant for an early dinner. Packing done and we were in bed ready to head to Kampot in the morning (yes, Craig did stay up until 2am watching the rugby and yes, it's the hope that gets you).