I wish I could bottle the excitement of travel. From the planning, to the countdown, to the last few hours before departure, it is a roller coaster of adrenaline and breathless anticipation. This was our first trip overseas and our first real venture into a world that was so far away from what we were used to, not just in distance, but in culture, language, even smell, and our spirits were definitely in overdrive. We were both feeling intensely exhilarated, anticipating the adventure that lay before us, yet wary apprehension teased at the edges of that excitement. We were twitchy, giggly, almost a bit panicky, like a six-year-old on Christmas Eve, eager about the prospect of presents in the morning but anxious about the potential of being on the naughty list.
As we descended over Phnom Penh at the end of a 22 hour journey across the world, I felt a flutter of butterflies in my stomach. Out the window we could see the short and colourful buildings of the capital city below us. Not a single skyscraper could be seen anywhere on the horizon.
Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world. About a third of its citizens live on less than a dollar a day. They have endured civil war, carpet bombing and Agent Orange bombing courtesy of the U.S., and a genocide as horrific as it gets at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. To this day, hundreds of people each year are killed or lose limbs to unexploded land mines, usually in the course of simple subsistence farming, crossing paths with a land mine while simply trying to feed their families and neighbours. As one can imagine, a lot of issues exist in a place with such a sad and recent history of marginalization.
Not having any checked baggage meant we were one of the first people in line at customs. Unfortunately, the customs officer was very short-tempered and rude, and apparently quite put off that we were not already familiar with the Cambodian immigration protocol of when exactly to pass him our passports and when to wait for him to ask for them, and what exact order the customs and visa papers should be in. I glanced at John who slipped me a “just shake it off” look. I smiled, thanked the officer, picked up the passports that he had tossed disdainfully in my direction and turned my attention to the start of a life-changing journey.
We departed the air conditioned airport and found ourselves instantly propelled headlong into the arms of a Third World country. The exit doors swung open and the stifling hot air hit us like a brick wall. It was 9 AM and already a sweltering 31°C. Sweat prickled our skin, marking the start of its commitment to consistently soaking our clothes. The air smelled smokey, a strong aroma of vehicle exhaust mixed with a trace of fire and barbecue coals.
We made our way through a small but loud throng of people crowding the entrance-way, a whirlwind of awaiting families, taxi and Tuk Tuk drivers holding up names written on cardboard, or calling out their services for hire, and our first introduction to the incessant calling of “took! took!” that trumpeted through the air of every city in Southeast Asia. I spotted our name on a placard being held by a short, smiling Cambodian man who shot into immediate action towards us as soon as I raised my hand and signaled to him that we were indeed Mr. and Mrs. Hachey. As he approached he was already peeling my heavy backpack off of me as he greeted us and guided us towards his air conditioned taxi. Within minutes we were leaving the airport behind along with our own world of privilege.
We were taken to our hotel, the Sangkum, about 2o minutes from the airport. The Sangkum hotel is almost unnoticeable as you approach, a small sign on a crowded street, an unassuming two story building blending in among all the unassuming buildings on the street. But as you pass through the entrance-way, you are delivered into a quaint inner sanctuary of dangling palm fronds, climbing bougainvillea, and a small but refreshing plunge pool. The hotel could easily be called boutique without sounding bougie.
We were greeted by the proprietor, a lovely French gentleman, who informed us that he already had a tuk tuk waiting for us to take us to see the sights. He checked us in, handed us a map, and told us to spend as much time as needed refreshing from our long day of travel. We dropped our bags in our quaint room, changed into cooler clothes, and set out for our first ever tuk tuk ride.
As we rode along, we had our first “pinch me” moment. I kept yelling at John, “WE. ARE. IN. A. TUK-TUK!!” Driving in a tuk tuk is a very cultural experience. We really enjoyed it as our preferred way to see the city and the sites, the warm wind blowing in our faces, the sound and smells of the city (not always good smells, but that’s part of the adventure!), and just the experience of actually being immersed in the culture instead of seeing it through a small car window. We were IN it, a part of it, our chugging tuk tuk bouncing and screeching down the road along with everyone else.
We soon arrived at our first stop, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the site of a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime during Pol Pot’s genocide from 1975 to 1979. If you don’t know about this genocide, you should read about it. This happened so recently, and the world did nothing to stop it. Of course there was no Twitter or Facebook at the time, and Pol Pot made sure to expel all foreigners and media to isolate the country from external eyes before starting his “purification”. It took the interference of Vietnam to end his genocide. Vietnam feared Pol Pot’s reign, and they invaded Cambodia and put a stop to it, but not before three million people had been killed and a nation of children and youth had been emotionally damaged by the terror and and violence that swept their nation, by the awful things they were forced to do, and by what his army had managed to encode in their brains with brainwashing.
All of this is a bit hard to read – it was even harder to be there, where these atrocities were committed – but it is important to know, so it doesn’t happen again. It is strange how Cambodia has handled it internally. The younger generation of Cambodians for a long time only knew of the Khmer Rouge what their parents or elders told them, because the government does not require that educators teach children about Khmer Rouge atrocities in the schools.
Tuol Sleng, the name given to the prison, translates to “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” and it was definitely a place of poison. During its use, the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.
The prison held a large amount of government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, monks, engineers, and anyone they thought were educated, such as anyone who wore glasses or had soft hands. These are the people, the entire intellectual elite of the country, that Pol Pot wanted killed. He also had their children killed, as he didn’t want anyone coming back to avenge their family. Pol Pot wanted to be rid of anyone who had the power or will to oppose him, so he could turn the remaining people into a brainwashed mass of loyal followers.
The victims here were shackled to long pieces of iron bar, crowded into the cells. They were starved, beaten and tortured with electric shocks and searing hot metal instruments, suffocated with plastic bags, had fingernails torn off, and were forced to eat human feces.
They also performed medical trials with “prisoners”, cutting out organs without any anesthetic and extracting all their blood through an IV until they died. Some they even skinned alive.
The monks were reading the sign. They sat in silent contemplation in that spot for a long time.
Strangely, the Khmer Rouge photographed the inmates and left a photographic archive. These 6000 portraits now adorn all the walls of a few rooms in one of the buildings. I did not take photos of them, as I was too moved at the time. I just felt like photographing that was not the right thing to do.
As we left the prison, a man with one arm was selling postcards for a dollar. I gave him a dollar, but told him to keep the postcards to sell to someone else. He was so pleased, with such a simple gesture. I was glad we had taken the advice of a friend and brought a fistful of American $1’s to hand out. I just wished I could do more.
Our tuk tuk driver was waiting, and we climbed back into the tuk tuk, much more somber than when we left it. Some of the wind had definitely gone out of our sails. Our next stop was the Killing Fields.
Most of the prisoners who were held captive at S-21 were taken to the Choeng Ek killing fields to be executed and buried in the mass graves that contain the remains of over 20,000 victims. Much of the remains have been exhumed, and thousands of skulls sit on ‘display’ as you enter, a reminder of the severe atrocities that went on here.
The entrance fee is $6 per person and includes an audio tour and equipment. As you walk around the site, the tour describes the genocide and all that happened here, almost in too much detail. They warn you that there are still bones and pieces of clothing coming to the surface, and we did see some.
This tree is the saddest spot. The audio tour describes exactly what happened here in much more detail than that sign in the photo provides. John turned the audio tour off at this point. He said he just couldn’t hear any more.
As we wandered around the grounds, I thought I would pick up more of a creepy, dark vibe. But all I felt was a sense of peace, like a reconciliation had occurred and the evil and repulsive violence that once populated this place has somehow been smudged. Like it had been forgiven, left behind and put in the past.
We went back to our hotel for a meal and a dip in the pool. We were very tired, being that back home we would be almost getting out of bed. We’d been up a good 30 hours straight by this time. We were leaving early morning for our flight to Siem Reap, but we decided to take a walk over to the market.
On the way we ran into these little guys:
That guy was just fascinated by the light!
In the market. These folks were enjoying fresh coconut water.
Everything was so cheap, but I only had so much room in my backpack, and it was already too heavy! I bought some light pants and shirts for myself and Kelsey, and some silver bracelets.
On the way back to our hotel we got lost. It’s hard to find your way when you have no tall buildings to measure your way against. Every street looks the same, with the same stores, vendors, and buildings. No one can speak English, so asking directions is futile. After a couple of hours of walking in circles and a little bit of arguing, we finally found our way back. Phew!
By this time it was about 8pm and our bodies were so tired we were losing function. I was tripping on things, dropping things, and getting giggly. Time for bed! Tomorrow we visit the ancient temples of the World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat.