Phnom Penh . . .

The Silver Pagoda in The King’s Palace Phnom Penh

We flew from Vientiane to Phnom Penh with Vietnam Airlines. Both The Man and I were a little anxious. It’s our ages I think and remembering the flying reputation Vietnam had in the past (very old Russian transport planes), but, it was a brilliant flight. The aeroplane was very modern, the flight attendants pleasant and smiling, the women elegant and the men smart and pleasing. I sound like an old lady but honestly they were so lovely and attentive. I’m not a great flyer but they made me feel quite relaxed. The flight was short, only an hour and five minutes but they still managed to serve us an in flight meal which was not at all bad; a meat roll, fruit, cup of tea etc.,

Arrival at Phnom Penh airport went much smoother that I could have thought. We managed to get some dollars from Bangkok airport so the immigration was quicker than Luang Prabang. It was more organised in any case. We filled in the little immigration document on board the plane, waited in line for them to check everything. They took our passports at one window and they were passed along for us to pay and collect. A line of officials all sitting down behind a long glass barrier. They worked like a conveyor belt handing the passports from one to the next until they arrived at the end of the line. It took less than five minutes I think. It was a big relief after the kerfuffle at Laos.

I had booked a taxi through to collect us and I wasn’t too sure if it was going to work but. . . there by the exit was a man with a sign saying Ninette Hartley in bold letters. A miracle. The place was very busy but our driver helped us through arrivals and we were soon in an air conditioned car heading for the centre of Phnom Penh. Just to mention here that booking through meant that the car was paid for from my card and we didn’t have to mess about looking for cash. I think Geoff gave the driver a tip anyway.

I have absolutely no idea what I expected Phnom Penh to offer me. The drive from the airport took us through the suburbs and into the city. The landscape was very flat. No hills or mountains. The streets were busy with heavy traffic; the usual million mopeds carrying more than two people but at least they were wearing helmets this time. There were more shop fronts and fewer street sellers. The area of the city which is for the government and embassy buildings etc., had wide boulevard type roads with flower beds, grass and walkways. Most buildings sat behind attractive high walls and iron gates. It didn’t feel like a communist country, although what I expect that to be I’m not really sure.

A few shots of Phnom Penh. The Mekong River in the middle.

Our hotel entrance was just one door set in a high wall. There was a man in a wooden booth with glass windows checking to see who was entering . As we went through the door we were transported from a busy, street into a complete oasis. We had to walk past the swimming pool to get to the hotel lobby and it was just like walking through a clearing in the jungle. The hotel restaurant where breakfast could be taken was right beside this pool. What a delight it was. We upgraded to a bigger room, a suite in fact, as we were to have three nights at this lovely place and honestly, it was so cheap considering we were in a city. Later on the next day we would be very glad we had done this.

Photos of the Pavilion Hotel Phnom Penh

We decided to visit one of the 300 Killing Fields just outside the city, and S21-Tuol Sleng Prison in the city centre, on one morning. We knew it was going to be difficult and emotional and Geoff wasn’t sure I would be able to handle both on the same day but I agreed with him that it would be better this way. So we booked a taxi to take us out to Choeng Ek (The Killing Field closest to Phnom Penh), wait for us and then bring us back to S-21. He waited for us there too before returning us to our hotel.

I don’t know how much to write about our visit to the Killing Fields and S-21. I made a note in my journal and I’ll copy some of it here:

*CONTENT WARNING, the following might upset some readers.

I found it disturbing, unbelievable and very sad. Man’s inhumanity to man at its very worst. Cambodian against Cambodian. Awful. I was especially affected by ‘The Killing Tree’. This is the infamous tree where Khmer Rouge Soldiers smashed the heads of young infants and babies against the trunk, holding them by their legs, in front of their mothers, and then throwing them into the pit. The mothers, mostly naked, were killed and thrown in after them. This whole scenario is so appalling I found it hard to take in. It is beyond my comprehension how any person could behave in this way. In my journal I wrote: unbelievable, SAD , awful, horrid, terrifying, cruel, inhuman. Beyond anything I can imagine.

Above are some photographs of the Killing Fields

The S-21 prison was originally a school, three stories built around three sides of a square courtyard. I saw many schools after this as we drove through the towns on our way up to Siem Reap and every time I was reminded of the awful atrocities that happened in the converted school in Phnom Penh. The S-21 prison was a cruel, horrendous place. Torturing innocent people until they confessed to something that wasn’t true and then they were taken out and killed. At first with bullets but in the end they were beaten to death or hacked with machetes. Classrooms were prison cells and some classrooms were divided into many small cells by building brick walls creating small, cramped cells about 6’x 3′. Four years this continued. 1975 until 1979, when the Vietnamese came into Cambodia and beat the Khmer Rouge into surrender. Between 14,000 and 17,000 people went into this prison and only twelve are believed to have survived. One survivor was there at the prison, Bou Meng, there is a book about his experience and we bought it from him as he sat behind a table in the courtyard at Tuol Sleng. I did do some reading about the history of Cambodia and when we came back home last week we watched again the film The Killing Fields. This time I understood it all so much better. Those young (very young) boys who made up. the Khmer Rouge army really had no choice. Brainwashed and in fear of their own lives, I guess they did what they had to do. But some of them did it with relish I think. Others did not.

A few photographs from S-21 Prison. Top includes photographs of some prisoners.

Centre top includes John Dewhurst and Kerry Hamill

Bottom is from left: The memorial, Bour Meng’s book, The courtyard today.

There were so many photographs showing tortured, and dead bodies with many stories behind the pictures. You can only take so much. One story touched me particularly hard and I expect that was because of losing my son Tosh when he was 27. There were three young foreigners John Dewhurst and Kerry Hamill and Stuart Glass. They were on a boat off the coast of Cambodia when attacked by a Khmer Rouge gunboat. Stuart Glass was shot on the boat and the other two were taken to S-21 prison and were killed after being tortured. They were around the same age as Tosh when they died. I cannot begin to imagine what their parents went through. It’s a dreadful story. You can read more about their story here and also a more detailed account of S-21.

I am sorry if this is not my usual kind of jolly blog but I felt I had to write about it even though it was not a good experience. We cannot hide from these things that have occurred in the world. They are complicated emotions that I feel; guilt, sadness, hopelessness, despair — but I’m not an activist and I am guilty of letting these things happen. I know it was something that Tosh felt strongly about, knowing these dreadful things are going on in the world but not actively doing anything about it. We are all guilty of standing back and letting things go by. I guess we fall back on, ‘what can I do about it?’

It was incredibly hot while we were there, 39 degrees for most of the time. When we got back to our hotel Geoff began to feel unwell. He’d lost his cap sometime during the morning and the heat obviously affected him. He was burning up although we’d not been ‘in the sun’ it was cloudy and the smoke was still hanging about. He just overheated rather dramatically. He went to bed and I kept putting wet flannels that I had cooled down in the freezer over his head. He slept for something like 17 hours and didn’t eat until breakfast the next day.

I swam in the pool and tried to take in all that we had seen, although it felt decadent and disrespectful to be just relaxing and doing nothing. We had paid our respects and I had thought deeply about the people and what happened from 1975-1979 in Cambodia.

The rest of the day I spent in our room. As I said at the beginning we’d upgraded to a suite so I was able to be in the sitting room while keeping and ear and eye on Geoff who was flat out in the bedroom. I read the book about Bou Meng. It was thought provoking and moving. I wondered how must it feel to be one of the only survivors out of thousands of prisoners. He survived because he was an artist and they were able to use him to paint portraits of prominent communist leaders and other posters for propaganda.

The next day, Geoff stayed out of the heat but I thought I should make the effort to go to the Royal Palace which was very close to our hotel. A very different experience from the day before. Such opulence, gold and comfort everywhere. I could only see 50% of the palace because it was the beginning of three days celebration for the Cambodian New Year and the king was practising something (sitting probably) in his throne room. In any case it was extremely boiling and I didn’t want to get struck down in the same way Geoff had. I went into the Silver Pagoda which is known as ‘The Temple of the Emerald-Crystal Buddha’ . No photographs allowed sadly. A few people were bowing and praying on the carpet below the buddha which was not that big but set high up on top of a gold plinth in the middle of the building. I walked around the grounds but for a very short time, always trying to keep in the shade. There was a model of Angkar Wat – we would be going there the next day. Finally I walked towards the exit where I found a magnificent model of king’s litter with soldiers and servants attending him. It was absolutely magnificent. Housed in an air conditioned room I spent some time there before walking back to our hotel.

My next post will be about Siem Reap and hopefully a jollier one. Cambodia is a beautiful country, we should not forget that and Phnom Penh must live with its history. Anyone over 50 is a little reluctant to talk about it.