As our bus pulled into Phnom Penh, tuk-tuk drivers clambered over each other, forming a scrum as they competed for our business. It was like being a movie star on the red carpet, with paparazzi shouting your name and trying to get your attention..only less glamorous.
"You want tuk-tuk?" shout the men. "Mine has air-con," jokes another, pointing to his vehicle. As all tuk-tuk's are just basic open-air carriages attached to a motorbike they all inadvertently benefit from a cooling system I guess.
Searching out the least dodgy-looking tuk-tuk driver, we select one with a round, warm face and climb in. The reason we chose so carefully was because once you've taken a tuk-tuk, it's hard to shake off the driver, who will cling to you long after the journey is complete, a bit like a bull mastif with a stick. You literally have to prise their salivating jaws from you in order to disembark, so eager are they to be your driver for the duration of your stay. Having been driven around several unsavoury guesthouses (even though they were in the Lonely Planet), he finally suggested a budget hotel that he knew. Having inspected the umpteenth room and agreed a price with the manager, I went back to the tuk-tuk to retrieve our bags and Liam, who was animatedly doing a deal with Mr Tuk-tuk for 3 days' chauffeuring around Phnom Penh and the surrounding countryside.
Agreeing to pick us up at 9am the next morning, Sambath drove off into the sunset, happy now he could feed his family for another few days.
The next morning we went downstairs to find a cheap place for breakfast to find Sambath waiting patiently for us outside, 30 minutes before the agreed pick-up time. As these drivers tend to congregate around hotel entrances, he had been worried that we may go off with another driver. I wondered if he'd been there all night...
We knew that Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor had shown the awe-inspiring beauty of Cambodia, but also that the country had a sad and tragic history, which we would be presented with in Phnom Penh...
After stopping at the riverside for breakfast, the first place we had arranged to visit was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly the S21 Prison. Now this may sound a somewhat morbid choice of venues but we were assured that to really understand Cambodia and it's people we must first learn about it's bloody past.
During the late 1960's Cambodia was sucked into the Vietnam War. The US began secretly carpet-bombing Cambodia and shortly after the 1970 coup, American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country to root out Vietnamese communist forces. The country plunged into Civil War, ending only after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
The Khmer Rouge, led by the evil Pol Pot,then implemented one of the bloodiest revolutions the world had ever seen. Within hours of taking over they had begun to systematically round people up, particularly those who were educated or wore spectacles. Once Tuol Svay Prey high school, Pol Pot turned this instead into the infamous S-21 prison, where over 20,000 were taken, tortured and dumped in mass graves between 1975-79. Only 7 people survived.
Walking through the silent corridoors it was possible to imagine it as a school, that is until we stepped into one of the rooms. Instead of desks and chairs, there was a single rusty metal bed, leg irons and a small metal bucket. On the wall was black-and-white photograph of the same room and furniture, only in the picture there is a horrifically dismemebered body on the bed, pools of blood underneath. When the prison was finally discovered after the fall of the Khmer rouge in 1979 (soldiers were led there by the smell of decomposing bodies), this was the exact scene that greeted them. Our tour guide took us through many rooms like this, each with a few items of torture or a bed and a picture on the wall depicting what was found in each room. To prove that the items in the room were authentic, she pointed out a dent in one of the beds which was the same in the photo. It was extremely distressing to pass through these rooms and see what had happened 30 years ago on the exact spot that we were standing.
These poor victims had been plucked freom their homes, for no better reason than the fact that they were educated and that Pol Pot wanted to "start again" as Year Zero, with "fresh" citizens, the abolishment of money and a peasant-dominated cooperative.
At this very high school now called S-21, thousands of people were tortured, with an average of 100 innocent people dying every day. Those who died during torture were buried in mass graves inside the prison grounds. Those who survived were driven in the dead of night to Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where they were executed and dumped into mass graves.
We were shown various torture devices used for pulling out people's fingernails, dunking people underwater, stretching limbs, electrocution, boxes for containing scorpions used to sting victims into false confessions...
Victims were also stabbed, hit, the list of horrific acts goes on.You get the picture. Classrooms were converted into tiny cells, or left as they were but with 20 people shackled together with leg irons. We were shown a blackboard, once innocently used by teachers, now used by Khmer Rouge soldiers to write a list of rules for prisoners. For some reason that was one of the things that disturbed me the most - seeing the rules written in chalk in curly, girly writing, orders such as "do not speak, remain totally silent, do no move unless ordered to do so..." The writing looked childlike, and in the next room we found out why...
On the walls were pictures taken by the Khmer Rouge of hundreds of their victims before they were killed, numbers tagged to their clothes for identification. The terror these poor people were feeling showed in the mugshots, many of them children or teenagers, some were even holding their babies, who were also executed in cold blood. Then the guide pointed out the soldiers who had carried out the killings...children themselves, many of them under 18 years old. It soon became apparent that many of those perpetrating such atrocities were also victims themselves - children who had been forced to join the regime as soldiers, or who had joined voluntarily, not knowing what disgusting tasks would be required of them.
As the sunlight reflected the bars on the windows onto the glass frames containing these tragic portraits, it gave an eerie, ghostly quality that made me want to escape the confines of this haunting place.
Out in the sunshine, I was glad to leave this disturbing memorial, amazed that such horrendous acts could have taken place so recently, during my lifetime. It was shocking to think that all this was going on here, whilst I was being bounced on someone's knee and gurgling innocently on the other side of the world. I said as much to Liam, who gently reminded me that such atrocities are STILL going on today, only this time in Zimbabwe..
Our history lesson not over yet, our driver continued on to Choeung Ek, the "killing fields", where excavations in 1980 uncovered around 17,000 bodies of those held at the nearby S-21.
There is a huge white memorial called a "stupa", which has glass windows and contains the skulls of 9000 victims. A truly unforgettable sight. Other bones are encased underneath, and there are piles and piles of the victims' clothes.
The fields themselves are dotted with 129 huge grassy craters, mass graves which have now been excavated. Hundreds of people were found in each one, many headless,or grouped by sex or age. The victims were made to crouch, were shot or beaten about the head,then rolled directly into the mass graves.
We walked silently amongst the huge ditches, both noticing something at the exact same time...the areas where the bodies had been were now host to hundreds of beautiful butterflies, all fluttering in and around the grave sites. Thinking this must just be a lush area where there are naturally lots of butterflies we looked around us. The other side of the fields and the surrounding areas where there were no graves had hardly any butterflies. They definitely appeared to be clustered only in the direct area of the graves. Perhaps it was merely a coincidence, but it was both a beautiful and haunting sight nontheless...
The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown in 1979, but not before they had tortured and killed around 3 million Cambodian people, one fifth of the entire population.
In the newspapers here there are details of the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders, due to start next month, 30 years after the killings took place. Unfortunately, several key defendants have already died, including the evil Pol Pot, who escaped justice when he died in 1998.
And so ends my history lesson.
Before heading back to the hostel for a stiff drink (medicinal of course to help with the shock of what we'd seen), our driver suggested we visit the shooting range. I was conspicuous as the only female for miles around, as testosterone-fuelled guys fired live rounds at the targets. Liam opted to fire an AK-47, so I hovered nearby as the official photographer. I'd hardly had time to switch the camera on before Liam was firing away, trigger-happy as he discharged the entire 30 bullets he'd paid 40 dollars for in about 20 seconds. That was 2 night's accommodation.The staff at the range thrust the menu back to Liam, offering him a choice of M-16's, rocket launchers and other such monsters available for a hefty fee. "For an extra charge you can shoot a chicken or even a cow, " we were told gleefully. "No, I'm not in the mood to kill anything, funnily enough..."
It had been a stressful, sad day, but left me admiring the Cambodians even more - these strong people who have suffered so much yet are still one of the friendliest, most good-humoured nationalities we'd met on this whole trip.