My entry into the Kingdom of Cambodia was my first experience getting a visa on arrival and it was easy-peasy. I filled out a simple application form, paid US$30, waited 2 minutes and got my passport back with my new visa stuck inside it. Then I headed to the immigration desk (why must immigration officers be so dour?), where the officer stamped my passport, handed me a flier for a new condo development that was currently selling units (ahhhmm, what?) and I was out of there. As usual, I had emailed ahead to my hotel to arrange my airport pickup and the driver was waiting for me, so I was out of the airport very quickly.
Phnom Penh immediately reminded me of some parts of Jakarta in a few ways, specifically, the motor bikes, the loose traffic rules, the sidewalk shops, and the garbage on the sides of the roads. There was nothing pretty or inviting about it. In one 2 hour flight, I had left behind the cleanliness and sophistication of Singapore and was squarely back in the third world.
Let’s pause for a quick side note: Southeast Asians carry any and everything on their bikes and they modify bikes into all kinds of new modes of transportation. They attach sidecars and carts and buggies to bikes to make tuk-tuks and becaks and all manner of other things. But what took the cake for me on my first day in Phnom Penh was when I saw a man getting ready to ride out of a store parking lot carrying a brand new washing machine on the back of his bike. I don’t mean to say he was carrying it in a cart attached to his bike. I mean he had it strapped to the seat behind him like it was his wife. Only in Southeast Asia.
As we drove through the streets of the capital city, I saw signs written Khmer, the language of Cambodia; this was my first direct encounter with a language that isn’t based on the Latin alphabet and I couldn’t even begin to Google translate it. To me, it looked like pretty calligraphy.
I checked into my hotel and decided to relax for the evening. I had a lot planned for the next 2 days in the city so I didn’t feel like I needed to run out and start seeing things that night.
The next morning, Wednesday, my tour operator picked me up from my hotel and I joined a bus full of tourists to go see S21 Prison and the Killing Fields. Those 4 hours schooled me on Cambodia’s tragic recent history in a way that Wikipedia or a book never could have. These places were where I learned about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
As I stood in a torture chamber at Tuol Sleng (S21) that used to be a high school classroom before the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country, and as I looked at a bed to which prisoners were strapped and horrifically tortured for days, weeks or months until they confessed to all sorts of things that they didn’t do, I had to resist the urge to double over in pain. In this prison, women were tortured by putting centipedes in their vaginas and into cuts on their breasts. People were strung up by their arms on a beam then lowered head-first into a barrel of faeces. Waterboarding was a common occurrence (apparently, America didn’t invent that particular form of torture during the Iraq war). The intention wasn’t to kill people at the prison; the intention was to torture them until they confessed to being against the Khmer Rouge, until they falsely gave up names of their families and neighbours who had conspired against the regime, just to stop the pain.
No, these people weren’t meant to be killed at S21, although several accidentally died there when the torture became too much. Uh uh, these people were taken elsewhere to be murdered. They were taken to Cheoung Ek, about 20 minutes’ drive away from Tuol Sleng.
Cheoung Ek is the site of 1 of the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields; prisoners from S21 were taken there to be summarily executed and thrown into mass graves. There I saw the tree against which the heads of babies and toddlers were bashed by Khmer Rouge guards, right in front of their mothers, before their bodies were tossed into a mass grave; then their mothers were clubbed in the head or chopped to death with a machete and shoved in after them. I saw thousands of human skulls recovered from the numerous mass graves discovered at this site. I had to stop 2 or 3 times to compose myself, lest I burst out wailing and scare the other tourists.
During those terrible 3 years, 8 months and 20 days that the Khmer Rouge had its grip on the country, people who wore glasses were murdered because they were considered to be intellectual and therefore a danger to the regime (if I living in Cambodia at that time, I would surely have been killed). The population was starved and enslaved. No man, woman or child was spared from the brutality, and a quarter of all Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge or simply dropped dead from starvation; that’s almost 3 million people. This all happened at the hands of their own countrymen. It was my first up close view of genocide and I was horrified beyond words.
By the time I got back to my hotel, my heart ached for this country that had endured so much at the hands of its own people. I felt heavy with grief and sadness.
When early evening rolled around, it was time for my next Cambodian experience. A tuk-tuk picked me up at my hotel to drop me off for a dinner cruise up the Mekong River. The driver also picked up a couple from another hotel, an overly chatty Malaysian ex-seaman called Carlos and his long-suffering Filipino girlfriend, Tina. Before they got in the tuk-tuk, the driver and I made a deal for the next day – he would pick me up from my hotel and ferry me around to the places I planned to go and I would pay him US$10 for the day.
The Mekong is 1 of the longest rivers in Asia, traversing 6 countries (Carlos the chatty Malaysian ex-seaman originally told me this; he learned it from the National Geographic channel). It starts in Tibet, runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, and in Vietnam it empties into the South China Sea. As we cruised down the river, I vaguely listened to Carlos chatting away while I watched the city go by on either side and ferries carrying cars, bikes and people from 1 side of the river to the other.
I spent the evening listening to traditional Khmer music and eating delicious food. It was just what I needed after the horrors of the morning. As I watched the 2 musicians, I found myself overcome with tourist guilt. Here I was living a life of comfort, touring their country and staying in nice hotels, while they played a dinner cruise to have enough money to feed their families. I tipped them nicely when the cruise was over, partly because of my tourist guilt but mostly because they did a good job and were so pleasant.
After having learned a little about the country’s murderous recent history, I so wanted to ask my tuk-tuk driver and the 2 musicians about their family’s own experience but it seemed crass somehow, so I didn’t. I found myself battling this feeling every now and then for the rest of my stay in Cambodia.
Back at the hotel, I settled in for the night, thinking about my day. It had been a good but difficult one. Still, I looked forward to the next day, when I planned to learn more about Cambodia’s more distant past.