Cambodia 003 – The Killing Fields
Tuesday, February 13, 8:00 a.m. Phnom Penh
I’ve gone for the western experience this morning. I think I needed it. So instead of a local place, I went to the Garden Center Cafe that I think I mentioned before. I went looking for it yesterday as well, but it turns out it was closed on Monday. Anyway, I’m not really awake yet this morning, so I don’t know if I’ll make any sense.
I left off my story yesterday at the restaurant on Monireth Boulevard. The waitress had just brought me my bowl of yellow noodles. I asked her what they were called, thinking I could begin my lessons in Khmer, but as many times as she said it, I couldn’t reproduce the sounds. I’ve had this same experience with every attempt to learn a word. I see their lips move and I hear the sound, but I can’t make any sense out of it. I can’t even hear the sounds let alone reproduce them. I sound like an idiot trying. It’s like teaching someone to say “book” and they say “elephant” back. I’m that far off. I don’t even know how to get close because I haven’t heard the sounds to begin with. It’s very strange. I had a waiter the other day try and teach me how to say things like water and tea and rice, but none of it made any sense to me. I have the same experience with English words. The word one hears most often is, of course, dollar. But most of the time, I don’t hear the word “dollar.” I hear “lack.” I can’t imagine why. At first I thought a lack was a quantity of the local currency, but no, they were saying dollar.
I think breakfast is always the hardest meal for westerners to get used to overseas. We’re accustomed to the blandest of the bland, like cereal or scrambled eggs and toast and coffee – meals that rightfully horrify most other people. I don’t know yet what a standard breakfast is here, but as far as I can make out, it is no different from lunch or dinner. You have the basic set of food for all three meals without much variation. And that ends up being a little challenging for westerners. I ended up really enjoying that bowl of noodles. It’s the kind of meal I can enjoy for breakfast. It’s a bit challenging, but once you get eating, you can see it is a much better meal than pancakes. The breakfast I had my first morning was too much for me though. That was my chicken and rice and big soup meal.
The waitress at the restaurant on Monireth spoke with me in English. And it was good English. She spoke in full sentences and they were grammatically correct sentences. I’ve been very impressed, in fact, with the amount of English spoken here. It seems to come to them naturally. I have to strain from time to time to follow the thread of what a person is saying, but you can tell that there is sound English underneath the sometimes strong accent. Penna, at the Shining Star, had to struggle sometimes, but that was because she hadn’t really spoken English in 4 years. I could tell that there was a very solid foundation of English underneath what she was saying. I don’t know if the English spoken here is better than the English spoken in Taiwan, but I would say that it is more widespread here. Many more of the people in the service industry speak it. Whenever I walk into a shop in Taipei, I am hesitant to try out English. I always approach it like I’m dismantling an atomic bomb. The assumption is always that the person won’t speak English. Here, I’m already just walking into places and using English right away. At the Internet cafe, at the hotel check-in counter, at ticket booths, at camera stores, at bike shops, and at restaurants. Of course, the average person on the street can’t be assumed to speak English. The boy who sold me a coconut didn’t speak English. I approached some construction workers yesterday and they didn’t speak English. Women in markets likely don’t speak English. But everywhere where the person might be expected to have to deal with customers, you can safely assume that they do speak English. I’ve even found English out in the countryside among farmers and laborers.
This restaurant on Monireth was similar to all the places I’ve eaten in. They have round tables that can seat four or five people. The chairs are plastic things that are expected to last only a short time and then get thrown away. In the middle of the table is an assortment of condiments and other things. There is sometimes a square plastic box with a lid containing cutlery. The waitress or waiter will bring a cup of boiling hot water and then take some cutlery from out of this box and put it into the boiling water. I don’t know if this is done to sterilize the cutlery or to simply warm it up. Either way, it’s a nice touch. With whatever you order, you also get a tea cup, some sauces in a little dish, and often a side dish of a kind of salad. Most people attack all the sauces and stir it into their noodles to spice it up. I don’t.
I was hoping that someone from a neighboring table would strike up a conversation. I was in the mood for a chat. But even though my bike and the NEO prompted the usual amount of chatter and curiosity, no one came over and I didn’t manage to catch anyone’s eye and invite them over.
I stayed there a long time after my noodles were done. I had also ordered coffee and I ordered another cup afterwards. The coffee cost 1,500 riel and it was far better than the coffee that I’m drinking here at the Garden Center Cafe. I have to say that this place, other than the setting, has been a huge disappointment. Perhaps it is just the meal I ordered. I do have the knack of ordering the worst thing on the menu. They had a set breakfast for one person for $6.50 that included coffee and juice and fruit and toast and eggs and a bunch of other stuff. But I didn’t want to deal with a complicated meal. So I ordered just hash browns, bacon and scrambled eggs plus coffee. The coffee is weak and tasteless, though piping hot. The scrambled eggs looked like they’d been made from re-hydrated egg powder. The hash browns were two patties of mashed and soggy potatoes. The bacon was okay, but it looked pretty sad and lonely on this giant white plate. There was no attempt to add any flavor to anything. The potatoes were just that, potatoes. No spicing or onions or anything. The eggs were also just eggs. I said above that westerners like their breakfast bland, but this was bland taken to the extreme. I often wonder what a waitress in a place like this thinks of the westerners who come in here. They must think we’re either very weird or very stupid. Who would pay $5 or $6 for a liquefied potato and two eggs when you could get a delicious meal made of fresh ingredients out there at a normal place for a quarter of the price? Perhaps the dinner menu is better.
I’ve also been pleased that these little Cambodian restaurants all have useable bathrooms. They’re not spotless palaces or anything, but everything one needs is there and they are not disgustingly dirty. It does take a bit of an effort to use them, though.
I used the bathroom at this restaurant long after my meal was done. I’d sat there for quite a while typing on the NEO, when suddenly they started stacking up the chairs and moving the tables. I guess they did a brisk business for breakfast and then shut down until the lunch rush. I took that as my cue to leave and I packed up and asked them about a bathroom. They took me through the kitchen in the back and pointed out the bathroom. The kitchen was pleasingly rustic with two big fires burning in large holes in the counter. Everything was black with soot and rather grungy, but you didn’t get the feeling that it was really dirty in a bad way. Three women were hunched on the floor chopping up vegetables and meat and throwing them into big plastic bowls.
The door to the bathroom was just past the women and consisted of a thin piece of wood. There was a small latch on the inside to close it. The toilet itself was a regular sit-down toilet but with no lid of any kind. It was up on a raised platform which allowed the pipes to flow down to the ground. On the other side of the small room was a huge water container. It was about three feet deep and maybe five feet square. It was about half full of water and there were two big plastic pitchers floating in the water. This was the water you used to flush the toilet. I was pleased to note, as I had noted at the bathroom at the other restaurant, that it wasn’t overrun with cockroaches and spiders. No one had scrubbed the place down with bleach recently, but at least bugs and spiders had not been allowed to take over and that’s all I really ask.
Using the facilities was not exactly an easy process, however. The whole operation is based on that giant tank of water and therefore the place was soaking wet. There was no dry place anywhere to put anything, so you had to be careful as you maneuvered around. Plus, it was an enclosed little room and a bit hot. The gymnastics I had to go through to use the facilities and not get soaking wet meant that I became drenched with sweat. By the time I stepped out, I was soaking wet. The women must have wondered if I’d gone for a swim in there. I was happy though. This trip so far hasn’t been nearly as challenging or rustic as my trips to Guinea or Ethiopia, but I’ve felt my life being reduced a little bit to the basics. I need shelter, food and water, and a bathroom. When those three things are available without making your life a misery, then things are pretty good. Of course I’m in the capital city and not cycling through the countryside. Things could easily change out there.
Speaking of cycling through the countryside, I must say that my views of what to do on this trip are going through some changes. From the comforts of Taipei, I was trying to pick out very difficult and interesting routes to follow in Cambodia. I imagined that I would have to go to the remotest of places to get that sense of adventure and interest. But now that I’m here, I’m finding that there is lots of interest right around me even in Phnom Penh. Now I’m less concerned about going to very remote areas. I can stick to the main routes and get my enjoyment everywhere. I’m also more concerned about the bike. I saw a bit of what the country roads of Cambodia have to offer yesterday, and I have zero confidence in taking this bike too far afield.
After I used the bathroom, it was time to hit the road. I loaded up my bike and set off feeling much better than before. I was glad to have that good meal inside me. I had thought I could go to Choeung Ek without breakfast and eat later. But I felt much better having eaten and having written for a bit and gotten my bearings. It slowed me down mentally and I didn’t have to rush.
Monireth Boulevard was much busier than I had expected. The road was jammed with traffic and I had to thread my way through it very carefully. It was also lined with shops and I kept my eyes open for any shops that might come in handy later on – camera shops, bike shops, camping shops, anything at all.
The traffic eventually hit a bottleneck at a narrow bridge. All the lanes of traffic had to condense down into one and that created chaos. I found myself jammed into the middle of traffic. At one point, a school van was right beside me and all the children were at the window laughing and having fun as they made the foreigner say “hello” over and over again. I have to say that the children here, in addition to everything else, have been a wonderful surprise. They are polite and friendly and not annoying in any way. They seem involved in their own world and the introduction of a foreigner into their midst doesn’t turn them into raving lunatics as happens in so many countries. They love to shout “hello” and that is fine because they do it with such friendliness. Their parents love to hear them use some English and they often grab the littlest kids and wave their arms for them and encourage them to say hello. That kind of thing can easily be an annoyance, but I’m not finding it to be at all. I feel rather welcomed by all this attention. I can’t say enough about how friendly the people are here. They seem gentle and kindhearted.
It took a long time, but eventually Monireth started to open up and the traffic started to thin out. I came to the fork that I was expecting and I took the road that went to the left. After that, the road started to get rough. There were a lot of loose sharp stones and I was very concerned about my tires. I don’t know if the tourist traffic to Choeung Ek has anything to do with it, but the road was getting a major overhaul. It was being dug up and sewer lines were being put in. That made it even more challenging as it wasn’t exactly organized construction. There was lots of loose sand and dirt everywhere and construction equipment and the traffic became a mess. I often had to get off my bike and push it along because the sand and dirt was too deep. I managed to amuse myself by taking some pictures along the way. They aren’t very personal pictures though. I’m taking pictures of buildings and objects rather than people. This is partially because I’m still using the wide angle lens and it isn’t good for taking portraits. It’s also because I’m still in a city and it’s more awkward to take pictures of people.
Very early into this trip to the Killing Fields, I started to see other foreigners. I had been expecting that and thought it would be weird, but I kind of enjoyed it. Most were young backpacker types and they were either riding in twos and threes and fours in those three-wheeler taxis (like a tuk-tuk), or singly on the backs of scooters, which I believe they call motos. Occasionally, some older tourists would go by in air-conditioned comfort in cars or large groups of them in tour buses. Choeung Ek is one of the attractions that everyone goes to see, so I imagine this steady stream of foreigners happens every single day. I didn’t feel exactly smug on my bike, but I did feel very glad to have it. I have very low tolerance for dealing with transportation people, and I would hate having to negotiate a price with these moto drivers for every single trip like this. I also loved being able to stop anywhere and do anything I wanted. I stopped at a huge recycling center and watched the activity for a while. I also stopped at a big scrap metal yard and took a couple of pictures.
The most interesting experience, though, was some time I spent at a bridge. I love the bridges that cross the rivers because it opens up the city a little bit and you can see the backs of houses built on stilts over the riverbanks. I can’t help but take a picture every time I cross a bridge.
In this case, there was a small bridge going over the river down and to the left. But on the right there was a new bridge under construction. I went up to the bridge and to take a picture and look around. I tried to chat with a young fellow that was smoothing some cement, but he didn’t speak any English. He had no problem with my taking his picture though. Having done a bit of manual labor in my life, I feel great sympathy for anyone who does work like that, particularly under a hot sun. I can’t imagine what this fellow’s life is like. When I did my stints of manual labor, it was always a temporary thing, something I was doing between doing other things and I knew it would end in a few months. I can’t imagine what it feels like for your life to be this manual labor and not be able to see doing anything else, ever. Not that manual labor itself is so terrible. I’ve known lots of men who worked for a living building houses, pouring cement, and that kind of thing. But they got well-paid for it and the day was filled with all kinds of pleasure and comforts in between the hard work. The work that this fellow in Cambodia was doing was more akin to my tree-planting experience – just pure back-breaking work under a hot sun with no real comforts at the end of the day.
After I took that picture, another man came up to talk to me. He was a little bit better dressed than the laborers and he spoke some English. I spoke with him for perhaps a half an hour. I asked him about the men doing the cement work and he said that they made 6,000 riel a day. Facts and figures like that really become touchstones for me, especially when they come from people who really know what they’re talking about. When you read about poor countries, they always say something about how people there live on X amount of dollars a day. And you’re supposed to feel something for them. But those things are always so abstract. Seeing that guy working in the hot sun and then speaking to the guy who pays his wage who tells me that he makes 6,000 riel a day, has a big impact. He told me later that the daily wage for those men was actually 10,000 riel a day, but 4,000 was held back to pay for materials and went for their breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which I guess the construction company supplied. So his take-home pay at the end of the day was 6,000 riels. That’s $1.50 US. It’s hard to imagine. I wish I had a way to become a fly on the wall and follow this guy after work. What can his life be like? Where could he live on that kind of money? What kind of pleasures does he look forward to? I have to imagine he is a normal kind of man and has the normal dreams of getting married and having children and a house. But how can any of that happen with a wage like that with little likelihood of ever making more? And what must he think when he is surrounded by so much wealth? And by that I don’t mean just me and the other tourists, though that thought certainly crossed my mind as it always did in Ethiopia. In preparing for this trip, I threw around money like it was scrap paper. My flight here was more than a year’s salary for him. In Taipei, I’ll hop into a taxi to work without blinking an eye, yet that NT$110 is more than three days wages for him.
And it isn’t just the money that foreigners have that seems so unjust. Cambodia has more than its share of money and rich people. I see lots of people in Phnom Penh driving around in brand new Mercedes and sports cars. There are lots of people shopping for luxury goods. Then there are all the people just driving around on their scooters. There are many, many thousands of them here. And they all cost hundreds of dollars. So there is a somewhat thriving economy. This cement worker, if he were so inclined, would have lots of people to hate, not just the foreigners he sees every day heading off to Choeung Ek for their personal experience of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
The man I spoke to at the bridge told me that he was an engineer. He was free with information and told me that he made $10 US a day. He also told me a lot of his family history. I told him that I was going to Choeung Ek and he instantly came out with all these opinions that I’d been reading about lately. I’d read before coming here that many young Cambodians don’t really believe the stories about the Khmer Rouge and what Cambodians did to other Cambodians. I can understand their reluctance. Without hard proof or seeing it with your own eyes, or experiencing it yourself, how can you believe it? Cambodians seem so genuinely nice, that it’s impossible to see them killing and torturing each other with such abandon. Yet, in a way I can also see it. They seem such nice people that I can understand them wanting to please other people. So if the Khmer Rouge were young enough and they were told by their leaders that this was the reality and that they were doing it for their country and that these people really were enemies, then I can see them torturing and killing and doing it with energy and gusto.
This engineer told me what he knew of Choeung Ek and the Khmer Rouge, and then he said that he really can’t believe that it happened. How can Cambodians kill other Cambodians? This was the sticking point for him. Cambodians have historically been at war with the Vietnamese and the Thais. He said that he can understand Cambodians killing them. But why would they kill each other? This made no sense him. He was genuinely upset by this, because as he explained, both his father and his uncle were in the Khmer Rouge and had killed many people. They had told him this. It was difficult to get the details of the story straight, since his English wasn’t that clear, but he tried to tell me their stories. His family lived in the countryside in a village when the Khmer Rouge started to get stronger. His father wanted to run away, but there was really nowhere to go. So he stayed behind and eventually the Khmer Rouge came knocking. It was either join them, or be killed and see his family killed. So he joined, and little by little he became a part of the organization. Whether he eventually came to believe in the Khmer Rouge communist ideas or was doing it simply out of self-preservation, he became an active member and personally killed a large number of people. His uncle didn’t have a family and he ran away to Vietnam. But while there, he began to miss his parents and his friends and he came back to Cambodia. Then the same thing happened to him. He was forced to join the Khmer Rouge and eventually became an active participant.
One of the interesting things about this whole conversation is that I didn’t ask about any of this. He simply came out with this whole story all on his own and it genuinely disturbed him. He had great pride in being Cambodian and this whole Khmer Rouge episode bothered him immensely. It simply didn’t fit in with his idea of himself or his country.
I guess this is a common reaction and it seems to manifest itself in two ways. On the one hand, people are reluctant to believe it happened and simply try to ignore it. I imagine that is one reason why the leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still around today and have not been imprisoned or even put on trial. On the other hand, there seems to be this rush to embrace the whole Khmer Rouge period – to not hide it – to actually go overboard in talking about how horrific and terrible it was. I get this impression from how the two biggest symbols of the Khmer Rouge era, the Choeung Ek killing fields and the Tuol Sleng prison are the country’s biggest tourist attractions next to Angkor Wat. And at those places, the language in the brochures and on the signs goes to great lengths to claim the Khmer Rouge killings as one of the greatest horrors in history. There are big signs that go on and on about how what the Khmer Rouge did was far worse than anything Hitler and the Nazis did. They seem to have gone out of their way to expose the killings and the torture in all its graphic detail. I think the idea here is to make it so extreme and exposed, that it becomes an aberration, a complete freak of history, a result of the insanity of a small group of people – Pol Pot and the other leaders – and therefore something that has nothing to do with Cambodia itself. By making it so extreme in historical terms, they are trying on some level to say that this did not come out of anything in the Cambodian people – that in effect it had nothing to do with them.
After speaking with this engineer, I said goodbye and continued on my way. A little farther, I saw a huge school compound that had a sign that said Universal Language Center. On impulse I turned my bike through the gates and went up to the head office. I was simply curious about the place and half wondered if foreigners worked there, and if so, how much they made. I spoke with a young man in the office. He was a teacher there and taught Khmer, not English. His English wasn’t that good, but he said that the school was for poorer students. Students paid $2 US a month and for that they got an hour of class every weekday. That seemed like a pretty good deal. That works out to around ten cents an hour. The man asked me if I was interested in teaching there, but a rough calculation told me that there was no way they could pay anything even approaching a reasonable wage.
After the school, the buildings of Phnom Penh started to drop away and the countryside opened up. It was, as my friend on the plane told me, brown, dry, and empty. The road out here was also under construction and at one point there was a detour down to the right past where they were building something. The road wasn’t so much a road as a flat part of a huge pile of sand. When I came up to it, there were three men standing there beside their motorcycle and looking at the rather rough “road.” Their motorcycle was attached to a long wooden wagon that had six large concrete tubes lashed to it. These were sections of the sewage and drainage system that was being installed. I had seen these guys earlier and could only shake my head in disbelief. The motorbike had a standard 125 cc engine and was so old that it could probably barely carry one person. Yet, here it was hooked up to what had to be a ton of concrete. The only way it could move at all was when two of the men ran beside the wagon and pushed it along. It was one of those loads that makes the average westerner just shake his head and stop and take a picture.
Yet, even these three lunatics stopped and thought a bit before attempting this treacherous bit of road. I could have gone ahead but I wanted to witness this, and I stopped for a minute. After some discussion, the guy on the motorbike started up the motor and moved carefully forward. The other two pushed gently from behind. It was a lost cause from the beginning. They had barely gone ten feet down the slope when one of the tires on the wagon sank down into the sand and the whole thing nearly tipped over. Now there was trouble. This ramp of sand was the only way past this bit of construction and all kinds of traffic started to pile up on both sides. Most of the traffic consisted of foreigners going to or coming from Choeung Ek. For them, and me, it was one of those wonderful experiences that can become a story, and they all piled out of their tuk-tuks and started snapping pictures with their digital cameras. The three guys tried to move the wagon on their own, but it was clear that it was too heavy. Now the tuk-tuk drivers started to join them. Nobody could move until this wagon was cleared, so everybody pitched in. I felt a bit of a fool, but I didn’t see any reason to just watch and I threw my back into it along with everyone else. Once we had about ten people, we managed to slowly move the wagon down the slope. I held my breath the whole way and was very careful to watch the load. I figured there was a better than even chance that the whole thing would tip over and I didn’t want that concrete landing on top of me. But they made it and now the road was free for the other people to try. It was a wonderful spectacle. One or two tuk-tuks tried to get up the slope with their passengers inside, but they quickly got stuck. There was no way they could make it. So all the foreigners got out of their tuk-tuks and walked up the slope and then waited for their drivers to catch up with them. It was lucky that one couple did, because their driver was less skilled than the others and his whole tuk-tuk spilled over on its side. Luckily it was pretty light and it was easy to right it and with some pushing and shoving, he too made it to the top.
It was my first encounter with foreigners other than at the airport, and I noticed with interest the number of European languages being spoken. That’s a weird thing about Canadians and Americans. We tend to imagine everyone as being from North America and it’s a bit of a surprise to suddenly find all these backpackers and tourist who look like you in every way and behave like you in every way to be speaking Italian and Spanish and Portuguese and German. Americans and Canadians are actually in the minority. I only spoke to one fellow. He was an older fellow from Wallaceburg and was the only person there traveling alone other than me. I guess that’s why we ended up chatting.
I had reached about 13 kilometers on my bike computer by this point, and I knew that Choeung Ek couldn’t be too far away. I cycled a little farther ahead and suddenly I was riding on nice smooth pavement. The road curved to the left and then went through a small village before arriving at the gates to Choeung Ek. I wasn’t in the mood to get there just yet, and I turned off the main road and went into the village. That’s one of the great advantages of being on a bike. You can do things like that and go wherever you want. I suppose even if I were on a tuk-tuk I could ask the driver to stop. But it’s unlikely I would, and I would hate walking around anyway.
The village was very, very pleasant. The roads through it were dirt roads, but much smoother and nicer than the main roads with all the heavy traffic, noise, and dust. The people lived in fascinating little houses built on stilts. The stilts I saw everywhere seemed really weird, but then you only have to imagine what this place looks like in the rainy season. I imagine at that time, there is a lot of flooding, and they need their houses on stilts to keep them out of the water. I took a lot of pictures of these houses. They struck me as very comfortable and pleasant – almost like cottages. Because they were raised on stilts, there was a nice shady area underneath them and that gave people a nice place to hang out, sling a hammock, and pass the hottest part of the day. I cycled around to an endless chorus of “hello, hello, hello” and I shouted hello back and waved like a king on parade. At one point, a group of boys with a herd of cows stopped to talk to me. One boy spoke English and they asked me all kinds of questions. I wanted to take some portraits, but I didn’t have the 50 mm lens on and I didn’t feel like opening my bags and dumping all the stuff out. (Did I mention how much I despise these Ortlieb bags?)
After speaking with the boys, I rode out of the village and then went on towards Choeung Ek. Before I got to the gates, I had another amusing encounter. A tiny girl raced beside me and kept pointing at my water bottles and asking for water. She was a cute little thing and I stopped to chat. I wasn’t sure of exactly what she wanted, but I concluded that she wanted a drink of water. I took out a water bottle, unscrewed the top, and handed it to her. She promptly hugged the bottle to her chest and refused to give it back. I gave her a “come on now” kind of look and indicated that I wanted the bottle back. She shook her head and backed away. I knew that if I grabbed for it, she’d turn and run and that would be it. I tried to coax her for another minute, but she wouldn’t give it up. She kept smiling at me and hugging the bottle tighter and tighter. Eventually, she turned around and started to run down the road. I had no choice but to follow her. I wasn’t actually that worried about the bottle, but it was my bottle after all. Luckily, this little imp’s big sister appeared and grabbed her. She wrestled the bottle away and handed it back to me. I put the top on and then went to put it back in the rack on the bike. The little girl lunged for it and got a pretty good grip and refused to let go. She was a strong little thing. I think I would have lost the bottle again if the sister hadn’t intervened. Of course, I had the strength to wrench it away, but she was holding on so fiercely that I worried that I’d end up hurting her. We were in a deadlock until the sister pried the little girl loose.
With my bottle safely in its rack I pedaled away. I didn’t want to go right into Choeung Ek as yet and I turned down a road that went to the right. I ended up cycling down this dirt road for another ten kilometers or so and had a wonderful time. I wondered a little bit about the safety of doing so. I wasn’t worried about land mines or anything like that because this was still quite populated and people used this trail all the time. But I was out there all by myself and I don’t really know if there was a problem with armed robbery in Cambodia. I really don’t think there is, but I haven’t been here long enough to judge for myself how it feels out there.
In any event, I rode along for a long time. The road passed through little clusters of houses and they were the prettiest little places you can imagine. The land was, of course, brown, dry and empty, but I enjoyed it anyway. I can only imagine how beautiful this area is during the rainy season. All the fields were clearly rice paddies. They stretched to the horizon in all directions and in the rainy season they would be filled with water and green rice plants. That’s an odd thing about this kind of travel. You see a country in one month and imagine that’s what the country looks like. But really it’s just a temporary thing. You’d have to stay here a year and experience all the seasons to know what it is really like.
Only at one point did I feel a bit uncomfortable. I passed a little place that was like a village restaurant. A group of eight men were sitting in some shade and eating and drinking. They called out to me and I stopped for a chat. It was one of those awkward situations where the men had been drinking and were a bit boisterous. They wanted me to sit down and join them, but I wanted nothing to do with them. I’m a pretty good judge of these kinds of groups and know it’s best to avoid them. And if I joined them, I’d end up having to eat and drink what they were eating and drinking. It’s way too early in my trip to risk that kind of stomach trouble. I did my best to turn down their offers of food and drink without offending them, but it wasn’t easy. The drunkest of the bunch seemed to get a big angry. He was wearing only a tattered pair of shorts and he got to his feet and grimaced at me and made a fist. His friends seemed to be encouraging him and as far as I could make out were telling him that though I was taller, he could probably beat the crap out of me. It seemed best to get out of there, and I made a polite bow with my hands together as I’d seen some Cambodians do and I pedaled away.
I was very impressed with how easy it was to ride around this countryside and how pleasant it was. I started to think that with a bike, I didn’t really have to go to places like Kratie to have an interesting experience. Here I was just a few kilometers outside of Phnom Penh and I felt like I was in very remote country.
I really could have gone on and on, but I knew that every kilometer I rode would mean another kilometer to be ridden back. And by then, I would probably not be in such good shape or as energetic. So I turned around and rode back to Choeung Ek.
I guess back when the Khmer Rouge used this area as their killing ground, it was an orchard surrounded by rice fields. Then when the mass graves were discovered, people started to dig up the fields. They dug up about 8,000 bodies and then stopped. Then as the site became a tourist attraction and more money came in, they started to build. They built a tall memorial tower right in the middle. It’s a very odd structure in that it has perhaps ten wooden platforms built into it that rise to the very top. Every platform is covered in skulls sorted by age and sex. I say it’s odd, because obviously it was built to put the skulls on display, but you can only see the first two or three platforms. After that, you can’t see them.
They had also built a very strong fence around the entire area where the graves had been dug up. And along this fence they had built a system of dikes with sand bags. A sign explained that the annual floods did a lot of damage to the area, and they wanted to preserve it exactly the way it was.
The tourist experience of Choueng Ek is very simple. You arrive in your tuk-tuk or car and park in a parking area. Then you go over to small ticket booth and pay $2. For that you get a ticket and a small brochure. Then you walk through the gate and hand your ticket over to a man there. He offers you a guide. You say yes or no thanks, and that is the end of it. There were no hassles of any kind. One man missing a leg came up to me and asked for money. In Ethiopia, it was difficult to find a way to deal with beggars because there were simply so many of them. Here in Cambodia I’ve encountered only a few. One woman came up to me one time when I had stopped on my bike to look at my map. She had a baby in her arms and pointed to the baby as she asked for money. It was all very casual and I got out my wallet and gave her a thousand riel. She was happy with that and she encouraged the baby to grab my finger. This man at Choeung Ek was also very gentle and nice. He watched me lock up my bike before asking me for money. I gave him a thousand riel as well and he thanked me and moved away.
I wonder if Cambodians are simply gentle and self-effacing naturally, or have they simply not figured out yet how much money foreigners can sometimes fling about? I have seen some signs that they are learning. At Choeung Ek, two groups of children stood on the other side of the new fence. They encouraged everyone who passed by to take their picture in exchange for money. They were very insistent and talked about money for school, and they followed everyone around the fence line as far as they could possibly go.
It was much quieter at Choeung Ek than I had anticipated. Considering how many foreigners I had seen on the road in tuk-tuks, there seemed to be very few of them there. When I walked up to the tower and took off my sandals (as the sign told me to do) I was the only one there. I was worried that treating the deaths of all these thousands of people as a tourist attraction would feel awkward or even repellant, but it really didn’t. Perhaps it’s because I saw a documentary before I came here. I really felt like I knew something about the experience of these people, and all those hundreds and thousands of skulls all seemed like individual people to me. I felt I could see the faces and the lives behind them. With that feeling, I didn’t feel disrespectful taking out my camera and taking some pictures.
The tower had four sides, though the doors were only open on one side. I went in through the open doors and then squeezed my way past the pillars and made my way around all four sides. I ran out of film while in there and stopped to load another roll. Even then, I didn’t feel like I was behaving badly. Perhaps it also had something to do with what I said earlier, about how the Cambodians themselves seem eager to display this part of their history. I’m not sure how other foreigners might have felt. I was surprised how few people were taking pictures. It was interesting to see that no one had a film camera like mine. It’s interesting in that since I took my last trip anywhere, the world has changed and digital cameras have taken over completely. I saw just one man take out his camera and take a picture of the tower from a distance, but that was it. No one took pictures of the skulls or of the other displays.
The main display was under a small roof to the right of the tower. There were some pictures of some people who were killed at Choeung Ek, as well as large printed signs telling the history of the place. Again, I was very glad to have seen that documentary. Had I come here without that knowledge, I don’t think I would have understood the true significance of Choeung Ek. I took a picture of the printed sign largely because I was surprised at the nature of the language. It was here that I saw the language about the Khmer Rouge being far worse than Hitler and the Nazis. There was an eagerness about the wording to make everything as horrible as possible. I saw the same thing at Tuol Sleng, the torture prison, where I went later in the day.
There were certainly some gruesome aspects to the Choeung Ek experience. All the brochures and other write-ups emphasize that there are still many bodies in the graves and you can see bits of bone and cloth scattered here and there. One reads this so many times that you can’t help but look at the ground and see if you can spot bones. That’s the kind of awful voyeuristic tone that I was dreading. I did see one young backpacker actively searching. I guess it would have added to his Choeung Ek story. He was scanning the ground to left and right like an eagle hunting for prey. He would even stoop down and brush aside dirt and stones when he thought he saw something.
My trip back into Phnom Penh was fairly straightforward. I bought a bottle of water at Choeung Ek before I set off. The tuk-tuk drivers all shook their heads to see me getting the bike ready. Who would willingly pedal a bike under this hot sun? I had a burst of energy for some reason and I literally raced back into the city. I was pretty hot and sweaty when I arrived and I went up to my room to take a shower and lie down for a while. When the sun was lower in the sky, I got up and showered again and then went out on my bike to go to Tuol Sleng. I had thought I wouldn’t even bother going there, just as I had thought I wouldn’t bother with Choeung Ek, but my hotel is pretty much right beside it and I decided to go.
I rode my bike the two or three blocks to Tuol Sleng. Again, I was struck by how ordinary it looks. Other than the barbed wire around the outside, it looks like any other school, which of course was what it was before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison. The truly terrible thing about the place is how visible the upper floors are. The main buildings are all three stories high and the rooms and the verandah that runs beside them are clearly visible from the streets and from the surrounding houses. Anyone from anywhere could look at the place. It makes me wonder if most of the prisoner transport activity took place at night.
I didn’t go in right away, but rode my bike around the walls. Then I parked my bike at the Bodhi Tree hotel and restaurant and crossed the street to go into Tuol Sleng. It was just as causal as Choeung Ek and the counter where you bought a ticket was twenty feet inside the gates. It cost $2 and then I was free to wander around. There were very few people and that made it a bit spooky. What made it practically surreal was the beauty of the place. It was, after all, a schoolyard and there were lots of large flowering trees. It was as pleasant a park as you can imagine – a real picnic spot.
I walked over to the left where there were some graves. I believe some of these were the people that were still strapped to their torture beds when the Vietnamese showed up in 1979 and defeated the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge killed these people and then fled just before the Vietnamese soldiers showed up at the gates to the prison. When the Vietnamese entered the place, the bodies were still there. Someone had a camera and took pictures and these are on display in each room.
I was very affected by the place, surprisingly so. Perhaps it was the simplicity of it. Many of the big horrors in the world are so big that you can’t grasp them. But here, the tiny details were recorded in photographs and that makes it all the more vivid. Plus, it’s the senselessness of it. The waste.
I sort of knew what to expect, but it still took me by surprise. On the left were a series of small classrooms. The rooms were completely empty except for a metal bed frame, some iron bars and shackles, an ammunition box used for urine, and a large photo on the wall showing the mutilated body that was found shackled to that bed. There was room after room like this and the horror of those photos is hard to describe.
In the building at the back, there was a display of the photographs that remained of the victims. The Khmer Rouge were very concerned with keeping records and that included taking a picture of every single person that was held at the prison and eventually tortured and killed. These pictures had been assembled and put on display on dozens of large boards like bulletin boards. I almost couldn’t take walking through there. All the people were staring straight at the camera and looked utterly lost. One or two photos like that can be dismissed from your mind, but hundreds upon hundreds of them is something else altogether. Many of them had obviously been beaten and had swollen eyes and cheeks and broken teeth. There were almost as many pictures of women as well as men and quite a few children as well. The Khmer Rouge exterminated entire families when they felt one person in that family was an enemy of the revolution.
The prison authorities didn’t stop with those pictures, however. They also documented the torture itself as well as the dead bodies that resulted. Large photographs showed the condition of the people when they finally succumbed to the torture and died.
Outside this building, there was a set of playground equipment. A large display told how what I believe was a swing set was used by the Khmer Rouge to hang people from their arms twisted behind their backs. They’d be hung there till they lost consciousness. Then they’d be brought down and their heads dunked into barrels of some pungent fertilizer to bring them back to consciousness. Then they’d be strung up to be tortured once more.
The whole point of this, according to the documentary I saw, was to extract confessions for the historical record. All these people were going to be killed, and the Khmer Rouge wanted documents showing that the killings were legitimate, that these were in fact enemies of the revolution. So they would torture them until they confessed to something – to anything – it didn’t matter what. This would be written down and then they would be put in a truck and taken out to Choeung Ek to be killed. They also asked for names of other people who were enemies of the revolution. These people, crazed with pain, would name everyone they could think of – all their friends and family members. Then the people they had named would be brought in, tortured and killed, and the process went on and on until a quarter to a third of the entire country’s population was dead. I think in total 3 million people died under the Khmer Rouge, either from starvation or execution.
All-in-all, with the cycling, the sun, and the places I visited, it was a draining day and after getting something to eat, I retired to my room fairly early. I didn’t sleep very well that night. I don’t think I slept much until early in the morning when the temperature finally dropped to a manageable level. I was in and out of the shower most of the night trying to cool down enough to sleep. I suppose I could have sprung for the extra $3 to get the remote for the air-conditioner, but I still preferred the heat.
Well, I’ve been typing away for a long time now. I came here to the Garden Center Cafe to have breakfast and it’s now lunchtime. That’s okay, though. My only plan for the day is to cycle around the downtown area by the river. There is still plenty of time to do that.