Cambodia Part 7 – From the light to the darkness
Phnom Penh dazzles in the sunshine. It’s a spacious city, tree lined boulevards meeting large parks. It’s also surprisingly empty!. Has news of my arrival spread so quickly ?. Outside the Royal Palace complex the roads are devoid of traffic but no, it’s not me driving people away but the visit of the Panamanian Ambassador to the King!.
The palace complex is lovely. Spacious, beautifully maintained and, despite his majesty being in residence, they’ve still let the riff raff in!. It’s a very Khmer place, wonderfully decorated and stylish buildings, quite gaudy, designed to draw attention to themselves. The complex began construction in the mid 19th century when Cambodia moved its capital to Phnom Penh from Udong. Of its many fine buildings, Wat Prea Keo, the Silver Pagoda, is particularly grand. The pagoda was built in 1892 by King Norodom and was renovated extensively in 1962. It houses two priceless Buddha statues, one emerald and one solid gold which weighs in at a hefty 98kg. The pagodas floor is covered in silver tiles which are mainly hidden by carpet but a small section has been cut away to reveal what lies beneath. If you were expecting gleaming silver plates then prepare to be disappointed. If I hadn’t known it was silver I’d never have guessed from the accumulated grime of decades.
I note the Cambodian love of topiary as there are several carved bushes and shrubs to admire and there are also many fine murals to investigate in the complex. Once more I am struck by how wonderful Cambodia is, how peaceful.
Alas, for every light side there is a dark and we now turn to a particularly grim and harrowing time in Cambodia’s past.
Almost everyone has, I am sure, heard of the Killing Fields. So far there have been 340 such discovered containing over 20’000 graves. Pol Pots great ambition was to turn the country into a giant agricultural farm and to that end he decided, simply, to eradicate all the intellectuals whose skills he no longer required. I won’t bore you with the history of the conflict that followed his coup but the results were, on a human scale, outrageous and a stain on the history of the world.
Today, the Tuol Sleng genocide museum stands as a grim and silent testimony to those who perished. It is one of the most depressing and moving places I have ever visited and it leaves one haunted by the horror of what happened within its walls. To think that it was once a school only makes what happened here all the more shocking.
18’000 people including foreigners, were incarcerated and tortured here before being taken to the killing fields to be executed. The rooms contains the bed frames on which they were shackled, the ammunition boxes that doubled as latrines and images showing prisoners burnt alive and shot by the Khmer Rouge when they fled before the Vietnamese invasion. It is a horribly disturbing place.
There are a list of instructions that prisoners had to adhere to. A code of conduct to follow even when being tortured. It’s evil. Read them here and wonder how man can be so inhumane to man.
Block B was covered in barbed wire so as to prevent prisoners committing suicide. The KR wanted them to die but when they chose, not the prisoner. It really was a horrific regime that these words and images can do no justice to.
Inside another block rows and rows of photographs bear witness to the terrible loss of life. Vacant expressions gaze down on the visitor, nameless faces now lost in the passage of time. How many were truly intellectual ?. When, in a country where something so insignificant as wearing glasses got you marked out as such, what hood did anyone have ?.
I have rarely seen a group so devoid of energy and smiles. My travel companions just shook their heads. Dark clouds had descended on each of us and for some, just entering a building was too much. It was hard to grasp the enormity of what we had seen. I can only hope and pray we do not see it’s like again.
And that was Cambodia. Free from the weight of Tuol Sleng we went to a local market where I picked up a t-shirt, almost purchased a baby, marvelled at the worldwide phenomenon that was Angry Birds and then enjoyed a fine meal at the Foreign Correspondents Club on the riverside.
The next morning we traversed by boat down the calm wide waters of the Mekong to the customs station at the Vietnamese border. We were stamped out of Cambodia and into Vietnam, a more advanced and less relaxed country. Our time in Cambodia was over but it had left its mark. From mighty Angkor to the Killing Fields, from temples to torture, a truly memorable and wonderful country.