With the corrupt border crossing behind us, we motored up the Mekong River for a few more hours and came into Phnom Penh which is the capital of Cambodia. Like Vietnam, the city seemed a buzz with new construction – tower cranes construction new high rises, mostly fueled by cheap Chinese loans (in exchange for all of their mineral wealth most likely). What surprised be the most was the streets we wide and fairly cleaned and there was a real atmosphere in the streets and looked very much French colonial. While being an EXTREMELY poor country (second to Nepal), we saw many nice cars like Range Rovers (quite a few), Toyota Land Cruises, and nice new Mercedes. Not sure where this money is coming from, but you can guess with all of the NGOs in Cambodia, the people in charge have some nice digs for themselves…or it’s just the corrupt.
What many people do not know is Cambodia went through an absolutely terrible genocide in the 1970s, led by the Khmer Rouge. While Vietnam was in ruins (and much of Cambodia and Laos for that matter as well), a French educated, communist Cambodia named Pol Pot took control of the country by a military coup and ruled from 1975 to 1975. He changed the name of Cambodia to Kampuchea (some old maps still have this name) and like Hitler, he wanted to create a pure nation that is self sufficient. His goal was to turn the society into a 100% agriculture based economy – pretty much taking Cambodia back to the stone age. Two million people in cities like Phnom Penh were rounded up and forced to work in rice patties up to 16 hours a day with no pay. Those educated like doctors, layers, teachers, diplomats, and even those who had glasses, were rounded up and put into detention centers like S-21 Prison Sleng (more on this later) in Phnom Penh. Hundreds were killed by the day execution style by those Communist leaders in the Khmer Rouge. Modern research has located 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia. Various studies have estimated the death toll between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease. Incredibly sad and there are even Khmer Rouge leaders alive today awaiting trail by the United Nations for war crimes.
We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in downtown Phnom Penh. The museum is at the S-21 Prison where thousands of prisoners were kept and hundreds murdered each day. The “prison” originally started it’s life as a high school but during the Khmer Rouge, it was changed to a prison and detention center. Hundreds of people were kept in tiny rooms all shackled together. Showers consisted of them being sprayed with a hose once or twice a month! Prisoners (men and women) were interrogated in the most gruesome ways! Hung upside down and dunked in pots of human waste, finger nails pulled off, beat with barbed wire whips. All of these people did nothing either – the Communist rulers would punish all those who spoke out against the government and even those who didn’t would be imprisoned for such offences such a singing or painting.
Graves of the last 13 people killed at the prison
Very much like a high school
A classroom turned interrogation center
A holding cell
Barbed wire so prisoners could not jump
It was incredibly powerful and moving to walk around this prison-turned-museum. The museum tastefully depicted the atrocities that happened with no propaganda (like Vietnam). What was very haunting is the Khmer Rouge captors kept incredibly detailed records of each prisoner such a names, photographs, and execution date. All of the victims of this prison were on display and it was sad to see men and women (both young and old) and even small children – all of whom where executed here without reason.
Some of the many, many victims
Such a young boy…
To think something like this happened just 40 years ago is very sad, and it happened just 30 years after the Holocaust. You would think the world would prevent such actions from happening, but war is such a sad reality.
Another sight to visit in Phnom Penh is called the “Killing Fields” located about 20 kilometers outside of the city. Kathleen unfortunately came down with the flu in Phnom Penh, so we spent the next two days resting, but we are sad we missed it. The Killing Fields are where many prisons from S-21 were taken to be killed and dumped in mass graves. Each night, about 10 prisoners were selected and random and told they had a “special assignment” and were put on the back of a truck. Each night, those 10 would never return. To save bullets, the captors wouldn’t shot but just beat them to death with the blunt side of their guns and then dump the body in mass pits with hundreds of bodies. A grave was founded in the area that is estimated to contain 20,000 bodies! Trees around the Killing Fields have bullets still lodged in them where people were tied up and shot at point blank ranged.
Even to this day, people are still finding skulls and bones across the several acre big complex. We are sad we missed this, but seeing these stories really opened my eyes to the Khmer Rouge and the terrible things that happened there only 40 years ago. I highly recommend you read up on the topic further – I certainly did as it got me very much interested!
The Khmer Rouge was not toppled until the Vietnamese Army stormed Phnom Penh in 1979. Although members of the Khmer Rouge party still served in the government until the 1990s as “elected officials”. Cambodia is still a socialist/communist (whatever you want to call it) and instead of justice for those responsible, their actions are swept under the rug. Very amazing to see and learn about this first hand…