A blog of my time spent in Vietnam working for Bao Nhan Dan.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Arrival in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh came into view as we eased around a bend in the river. It looked from the water front pretty well developed, with lots of building work taking place. On closer inspection it looked as though it was another luxury development rather than anything of immediate use to the Cambodians. In contrast to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, there appears to be little, if any home development or improvements under way. Cambodians live in large appartment blocks, but although crumbling on the outside they appear pretty sturdy, and many of them sport flower pots and creepers. The people are taller, darker, broader and generally more stocky than Vietnamese and wear predominately western style clothes. Country folk making a living in town wear distinctive red and white checked scarves either on their heads or as sarongs. Compared to Vietnam there's far fewer bicycles, with cars being so much more common. Tourists and locals alike seem to use tuk-tuks - three wheeled motorbikes with rudimentary covered back section. A suprising number of people speak English. The locals seemed to exceed the Vietnamese in their abilities to carry objects on their heads while walking, and facemasks are a rarity - although I've already noticed a lot of the city women possess lighter coloured skin. I'm also pretty sure there's some really rough parts to the city, as some of the streets within but a few minutes walk of the trendy waterfront remain unpaved.

Check the last line on the keyring for our hotel room

Another distinctive difference between Vietnam and Cambodia seems to be the type of tourist who visits the country. Along with the family friendly tour groups and young backpackers, there's a more seedy group of older western men and it wasn't that suprising, I suppose to find condoms on sale in our hotel lobby and a full page advert in the Phnom Penh tourist guide stating that having sex with children is a criminal offence. Another issue is the large numbers of beggars and child vendors, which dwarfs anything you're likely to see in Vietnam.
After spending a quiet afternoon in the On the Corner cafe looking out across the Mekong, we took in the sights and sounds of Phnom Penh eventually settling into the Foreign Correspondant's Club on the riverside. Set in an old colonial building over three floors it proved the perfect place to watch the sun set over the towering stupas of the nearby temples.
We returned to our hotel to try and catch up with our email. A minutes later, people began returning from their evenings out in Phnom Penh; and what a sordid and seedy bunch they were too. An old derelict of a man with a face Albert Steptoe would have been ashamed of was accompanied by a respectable looking Khmer woman who looked young enough to be his grand daughter; a spindly, bespectacled sunken jawed Frenchman with a barbie doll, and a most unpleasant mittel-european with sweat stained vest, bleached receeding hair, fumigating the lobby with the stench of stale beer, with teenage woman in tow. We retired to bed in a depressed state of mind.

We had agreed to meet up with the driver who had collected us from the quay the day previously. Doan would meet us at 10am. We headed down to reception to have breakfast, which was pretty good until the derelict European we had seen the night before sat at a table within earshot. He a grabbed a mobile phone from his pocket and began speaking loudly about how he wanted a young woman, demanding from the person at the end of the line 'how old is she?' At that point our breakfast took on a rather rancid taste and we quickly left to join our driver.

The Killing Fields

It proved to be an emotionally grinding morning as our first stop was the killing fields just outside of Phnom Penh. The journey was really strange as this site of national signficance was found at the bottom of a rutted and flooded road, a depressed looking village dotted with highly secure compounded houses and grazing cows, sitting in scrub and ill tended fields, the Killing Fields only companion.
The Killing Fields themselves are mind numbing in their brutality. You stare across a pocked landscape comprised of brush and water filled holes. A truly depressing scene, it's as if life struggles even now to gain a foothold.
A spired monument dominates the site, comprised of perspex boxes full of human skulls, teeth missing, crushed jawbones, splintered eyesockets, cracked craniums. The only labels are descriptions of gender and age.
You begin walking along paths between excavated mass graves, past a tree used to batter babies to death. Here even nature can be found guilty, as we are shown how the serrated edges of a palm leaf were used to cut people's throats and wrists. Bamboo poles, hammers and hoes were used to murder people, men, women, children, even babies with no discernable point. Beyond the flooded graves hie undisturbed patches of land, even now still waiting to reveal their bodies. Worse yet, as you walk along designated paths you start noticing coiled pieces of cloth, knotted scarves, wisps of a blindfold, strands of rope used to bind somebody's hands, then a shard of bone here and there, your eyes become accustomed and you realise the pebbles are human teeth, the roots, more bones, the entire area an open cemetry.
Our car journey back to Phnom Penh through the blighted landscape is a quiet one, as having returned from the Killing Fields now were to visit S-21.

S-21 was probably where most of the victims in the Killing Fields originated from. S-21 used to be a school until the Khmer Rouge took it over and turned it into an interrogation and torture centre. Just as with the Killing Fields, this complex - Tuol Sleng (whose name in Khmer can be translated as poisonous hill or place on a hill to keep those who bear or supply guilt) - can be found tucked away off the main roads, down a muddy track in the Phnom Penh suburbs. It was originally a primary school, but from 1976 it became Security Office 21, enclosed in two walls of corrugated iron sheets and electrified barbed wire. The Khmer Rouge used children aged between 10 and 15 to act as wardens who became increasingly vicious in their treatment of prisoners.
It is estimated that over 15,000 people died in S-21 alone, including an estimated 2,000 children. When the Vietnamese liberated the city in 1979 the prison was empty, the guards had fled and all that remained were 14 corpses who had been murdered in their cells.
The most emotionally powerful part of the complex was the rooms containing photographs of the prisoners powerfully counterposed by the pictures of their guards gazing back at them from across the same hall.
Finally we entered a room with the now bizarre images of the Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh on April 17th 1975 with trucks driving down Monivong Boulevard with cheering crowds greeting them. A week later and the KR were forcibly expelling the city's inhabitants to the countryside. Other pictures show Phnom Penh deserted with street after street of houses with their roofs ripped off. Another picture shows trees and grass growing on major roadways.
As we finished our tour, our guide talked about the Khmer Rouge escape from Phnom Penh on January 7th 1979, as the Vietnamese army swept them from power. Unfortunately this proved too late for her husband who died somewhere in the country on January 22nd 1979.
A truly harrowing morning.
Now we sit in a cafe on the riverfront and ponder why did it happen? What was the point? How was it possible to have been among those cheering crowds on Monivong Boulevard in 1975 and not have an inkling as to what was to come? A genocidal, secret leadership with an enigmatic leader in Pol Pot had already begun purging more moderate elements within the Khmer Rouge, a road that eventually would lead to the execution of ordinary Cambodians on the basis of 'Cambodians with Vietnamese minds'.
Perhaps this horrific history explains why Cambodia is the way it is today. The sleazy, murky sie of life in Phnom Penh, the paralysis of the state with two prime ministers, one pro-western, the other pro-Vietnamese, the digusting backing of the Khmer Rouge by the Chinese and US, a society trying to ignore the past, yet unable to see the future. This history runs deep in the Cambodian psyche, the Thais and the Vietnamese are still to this day resented by the Cambodians; the Thais for the invasion of Ankhor Wat, the Vietnamese for the Cham invasions of the 14th century and the later absorbtion of the Mekong Delta. Some still accuse the Vietnamese of having their own agenda when it comes to Cambodia, but while the west turned a blind eye to genocide, no other country in the world had the nerve to do something about it. When the Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, their tanks were covered in garlands of flowers by a greatful population.


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