Kep, Kampot, Sihanoukville (Otres Beach), Phnom Penh
On crossing the border into Cambodia it quickly becomes apparent that there is a huge gulf in the prosperity of the two countries. The quality of he roads deteriorates and there is less traffic. The houses are more likely to be the traditional wooden type on stilts rather than the concrete boxes with ornate balconies which are becoming prevalent over much of SE Asia and are favoured by those who have the means to rebuild.
Whereas Vietnam was very clean the piles of rubble and rubbish in the streets of Cambodia testify to the poverty of many of its people. It is a truism that wherever one finds deprivation there will also be garbage. In many areas of Phnom Penh, for example, the stench of decaying refuse can be overpowering.
Despite this there are many positives and endearing aspects. One of these is the fondness Cambodia has for quirky statues, many of which can be seen at roundabouts. Some of these celebrate ordinary people such as the salt workers near Kampot...
while the reasoning behind others is a little more obscure. For example, the naked lady who looks out to sea in Kep is regularly draped in clothing to preserve her modesty by the more conservative members of the town, and just as regularly disrobed by those who are not so prudish.
In keeping with their statues Kep and Kampot were strange places. Kep existed entirely for the tourist trade - Cambodian and Vietnamese rather than western - and consisted of a small central bus station and a few restaurants near the man-made beach and very little else other than hotels and guest houses set back from the coast road. The town's only claim to fame seems to be the Crab Market and the large number of shanty type seafood restaurants that have sprung up beside it.
Kampot has a large number of expats, many of them men of middling years who seem to be on their own. This was unusual as they didn't seem to fit the normal profile of men with Asian wives and girlfriends or travellers, but then I read somewhere that the area has far more than its fair share of paedophiles. It became difficult not to look at these men and wonder about their motives for being there. I was glad to leave and and head for a couple of days on the beach new Sihanoukville. The great advantage of travelling in low season is that while the weather might be a bit on the damp side at times there are far less tourists around. This was certainly the case at Otres Beach where I had the place almost to myself. Bliss!
Rested (not that I really needed it) and refreshed I headed for the chaotic urban buzz that is Phnom Penh. More than anywhere I've been, one becomes aware of the struggle to make a living. Motorbike and tuk-tuk drivers constantly importune for custom and offer more dubious services. I had read that that the touts in Cambodia were a problem but have found that a smile and a polite, "No thank you," is almost always enough to repulse their attentions. Compared to their counterparts in India they are amateurs.
Phnom Penh cyclo drivers wait for custom
Phnom Penh architecture
Wednesday 30th September - Just how does one write about a day such as this. A million thoughts are running through my mind and my emotions are in turmoil. Tears keep springing to my eyes as I sit here and try to rationalise what I have seen and heard today. Today was my sixth day in Phnom Penh and subconsciously I think I've been putting off a visit to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison or S-21 as it was known. I knew I had to go there. But why? Was it to satisfy an unhealthy goulish curiousity? Undoubtedly, this was part of my motivation. Was it to indulge in the sickening 21st century phenonemon of wallowing in the grief of others and getting a kick out of believing it's our own (e.g. Princess Diana)? Grief tourism, I believe it's called. I sincerely hope not. Or was it part of a need to understand the lessons of history and in a very small way bear witness and gain a greater understanding of the past. I hope this was my main reason.
I arrived at the killing fields on the edge of Phnom Penh after a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride and was immediately struck by a sense of quiet peacefulness. Despite the number of visitors there were no voices to be heard and the only sounds were those of birds. At first, as I followed the recommended route and listened to the audio guide it was difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the horrors that had unfolded here less than 40 years ago. But as I listened in my earphones to the testimony of survivors, and sometimes the perpetrators, of unspeakable crimes, pictures began to form in my head. And then I found something that shook me. Lying next to the dirt path was what looked like a tooth. Surely not, I thought. I looked closer and there was no doubt. That's what it was. As I continued my tour it became clear that this was far from extraordinary. Every now and then I would see pieces of cloth and bone fragments that had somehow worked their way to the surface, escaping the mass graves into which thousands had been brutally committed. The reality of what had happened at this terrible place began to become clearer. Never more so than when I reached the "killing tree" and discovered that here babies had been swung by the legs and had their brains dashed out against its trunk before being cast into one of the many burial pits. And then there was the central stupa, a memorial to the dead, which houses the skulls and bones of many of the 20,000 victims that were murdered at this site alone. They are stacked rack above rack, many bearing the evidence of how their owners were bludgeoned to death.
The "Killing Tree" next to a burial pit
The depressions are excavated mass graves
Remnants of clothing emerge from the soil while the sign urges visitors to avoid treading on bones
A small fraction of the 8,000+ skulls in the memorial stupa, below
A few miles away and actually in Phnom Penh is Tuol Sleng prison which was also known as S-21. It was formerly a school built in 1962 and its four almost identical buildings could be described as a concrete monstrosity. How glibly we use such words, for true monstrosity is what happened within the almost featureless rooms which must once have echoed to the voices of eager and excited children. Here, thousands were imprisoned in intolerable conditions. Here, those suspected of disloyalty and treason to the regime, were whipped and beaten, electrocuted and had their toe and finger nails ripped out until they confessed their "crimes" against the revolution and implicated others. Only then were they sent by truck to the killing field down the road where their skulls would be smashed by an axe, a hoe, or a bamboo staff or metal pole and their lifeless bodies tipped into a pit with dozens of others.
Prison Block A - one of four similar blocks. The gallows in the foreground was used to hoist prisoners up by their wrists which were tied behind theit backs. If they lost consciousness they were revived by having their heads immersed in the water filled pots below and the process would continue.
Many of re former classrooms were divided into cells about 9 feet long by two and a half feet wide - no bed, just wooden walls and a concrete floor.
Later in the afternoon, just as I was about to leave, I came across a room in which a lecture was about to start. I decided to stay and after a few minutes wait an old man with a beautiful face walked to the front and began to speak, his words being trabslated into English through an interpreter. His name was Chum Mei and I watched and listened as he recounted his experiences of being tortured, of having his nails ripped out and electrodes stuck in his ears. He broke down in tears as he talked about his wife and four children who were arrested at the sametime as him and who he never saw again. But the most memorable thing he spoke about was how given different circumstances perhaps the roles could have been reversed and he could so easily have been the torturer rather than the victim.
And so, much as I grieve for the victims of these terrible acts I can't help thinking about the prepetrators. Not so much the ideologues like Pol Pot, Hitler and Stalin, but the ordinary men who actually did the killing for them. For surely the man who smashed the skulls of babies into a tree trunk near Phnom Penh is the same man who herded Jews into the gas chambers of Auschwitz, who callously shot Muslims at Srebrenica, who beheads innocent journalists and aid workers in Syria and Iraq. If so, just what is it that these ordinary men, probably men much like me, have in common? Is it an unquestioning belief in a dogma, a religion, a political system? Is it that they belive that theirs is the only "truth" and all those that fall outside it or fail to conform should be treated with intolerance?
Travelling through Asia I have often been moved by the beauty and simplicity of the many Buddhist temples and images i have seen and I am coming to believe that there is a truth, and that following this would make the world a far, far better place. While I don't think I could ever become a Buddhist - I can't believe in reincarnation or Nirvana - the Buddha's teaching that we should show compassion for all things is surely the one tenet that should guide us all.
And so I now find myself expanding a religious creed, something, which as a confirmed atheist, I never thought I would do. But days such as this make you re-examine and refine your own beliefs.