Posts Tagged ‘Chinese New Year’

The Misery Tour

Posted in Cambodia on February 14th, 2010 by Vagablonding – Be the first to comment

Sunday, February 14th, was Valentine’s day and the start of the Chinese New Year. On this day we went on an hour long cyclo tour of the city in the morning during which we stopped at the waterfront, a place I can’t remember the name of with a photo of the current king, and Wat Phnom, the city’s namesake. We also saw monkeys climbing along electric wires and children getting rides on an elephant in the park. The tour cost $3, plus a $1 tip, and the proceeds went to the Cyclo Center, a company that works to increase the income of the few cyclo drivers left in the city by providing them with weekly English classes and help for them and their families.

Mom and I grabbed a snack of pear and coconut ice cream ($2.80), new flipflops for me ($2.50) and vegetarian pizza ($3.40 for a small and very yummy pizza) for lunch at a nearby bakery before we met with our Intrepid group at 1:30pm for the misery tour.

I have to warn you, the following isn’t really for the faint of heart, but I think you should read on because it is important to know the dark history of this beautiful country.

Skulls - Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

First we went to the Tuol Sleng, or S-21, Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng was once a school, but it was turned into a prison by Pol Pot’s orders in 1975. By 1978 the prison had seen 5,765 prisoners (this number doesn’t include the children of the prisoners, estimated at around 20,000), all but 21 of whom were eventually killed in the Killing Fields. Of the last 21, 14 were brutally murdered in the prison before the S-21 personnel were forced to flee, and 7 managed to hide themselves in toilets and under steps to narrowly escape death. The bodies of the 14 were left by the S-21 personnel and discovered by the liberators later in a nasty state of decomposition. They were the last people to be tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng, and they are buried in 14 graves out front to honor this.

Tuol Sleng is made up of 4 buildings: A, B, C, and D. The first floor of building A was converted into a set of small rooms with glass windows to keep the screams in. The rooms were used by the Khmer Rouge to torture and interrogate prisoners to make them confess crimes they may or may not have committed, and also give intelligence to the Pol Pot regime. The rooms had metal beds and leg shackles where the prisoners were forced to stay when not being tortured.

Torture room - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Torture room - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Torture room - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Sometimes the prisoners were taken outside to a pole to be tortured and interrogated. The prisoner would have his hands tied behind his back and then tied to a rope which was slung over the tall horizontal pole. The prisoner would be hoisted up by his tied hands repeatedly until he lost consciousness, then taken down and dunked head first into filthy water to shock him back awake. The torture and interrogation would start again as soon as the prisoner was conscious.

Buildings B, C, and D were used to house prisoners. Some floors had cells made of brick, some had smaller cells made of wood, and some had larger rooms where many prisoners were held together, all wearing leg shackles.

Cells - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Cell - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

The prisoners were only allowed to “shower” once every two weeks. A shower was really just a guard coming in with a fire hose and spraying down the prisoner and his cell. The women prisoners were allowed to “shower” every 2 weeks as well, but only after being raped first. Prisoners flung themselves from the higher floors to commit suicide, but soon a fishnet pattern of barbed wire was installed on every floor to put a stop to that.

Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Today, the photos that were taken of the prisoners when they got to Tuol Sleng are on display inside some of the rooms.

Victims - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Victim - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Victims - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Victims - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Victim - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh

Most of the prisoners were taken to the nearby Killing Fields where they were executed and buried in mass graves. The men were bound, blindfolded, and forced onto their knees before being beaten to death with a metal bar and pushed into the graves. Many were not dead after the beating and ended up buried alive. The women were always raped before being murdered. To kill a baby a soldier would grab her by the legs and swing her like a bat into a tree to crush her skull. Soldiers poured lyme into the graves to suppress the smell before bringing in new victims. Truckloads of victims were brought to the Killing Fields every 2 weeks to be executed.

Graves - Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

Some of the mass graves have been excavated and the skulls of the victims put on display. But everywhere you walk in the Killing Fields you are stepping on and over pieces of bone and teeth. The rain washes the dirt away and exposes more all the time.

Bone - Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

Bone - Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

Bone - Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

The sign below says “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads”:

Mass grave - Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

Everyone that lives in Cambodia today has been affected by the massacre in some way. The guide that took us on the tour lost 5 siblings and his father. He was 6 years old when the terror started. Over 50% of Phnom Penh’s population of 2,000,000 is under the age of 18 because so many of the people who would be older now were murdered. More than 1,700,000 people were killed under Pol Pot, and over 1,000,000 more died of disease or went missing, bringing the total lives lost to about 3,000,000.

Now Cambodia is no longer a war torn country, but its problems are not over. Cambodia’s government is one of the most corrupt in the world, and the corruption is rampant on every level. Even children and their families must pay their teachers bribes or they will not pass their classes, no matter how smart they are. Degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re written on; money can buy any degree you want. Former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are now government officials. They make a lot of money being corrupt and you see them driving around town in brand new Lexus cars. Corruption is so deeply ingrained that there is little hope for change. Every child wants to grow up to be a policeman or a doctor because they see that this will make them rich from bribes.

Money lets you escape justice as well. For many years, some of the highest officials of the Khmer Rouge lived in total freedom, but some have recently been arrested and are now being held awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even so, these criminals live better in jail than 80% of Cambodia’s population lives free. They have nice clothes, huge cells, good food, television, radios, internet, etc. 80% of Cambodia’s people have none of these things.

Skulls - Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

It is absolutely mind blowing to experience the incredible good will and happy nature of the Cambodian people after all they have been through. I have never heard of a more resilient people, and you see examples of it here daily. I am amazed.

Phnom Penh: Colorful Cambodia’s Capital City

Posted in Cambodia on February 13th, 2010 by Vagablonding – 2 Comments

Mom and I landed in Phnom Penh late at night on Friday, February 12th, after many hours of flying. The immigration process was painless; the visa cost $20 and customs stamped a lot of stuff I couldn’t see and took my picture. Unfortunately the official taxi stand closes around 10pm so we had to hire a random taxi which cost $9. From the taxi I saw a guy getting the crap kicked out of him by two other guys on the side of the road. Ouch.

We stayed the night at the Town View Hotel where we had a room with two twin beds, air-con, hot water, mini-fridge, and tv for $17 a night. It was very nice.

On the morning of Saturday, February 13th, we went to the top floor of our hotel and enjoyed the view before walking to a restaurant for breakfast.

View from hotel - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Buildings - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

For breakfast we got bread and jam for $1, Chinese fried noddles with veggies for $1.50, coffee for $0.70, and free tea. It was yummy; the bread here is delicious thanks to the French influence.

Breakfast - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

After breakfast we decided to wander in an arbitrary direction and we ended up coming upon a market full of fruit, flowers, meat, fish, and tons of people buying their food for the day.

Vegetable stall in the market - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Meat stall in the market - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Fruit stall in the market - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Market - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In the market there were many beggars. I gave this lady a dollar because she let me take her photo.

Beggar in the market - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We stopped to look in wedding shop with lovely dresses and over the top tiaras inside. There we met the people who own the shop. The man knew perfect English because he escaped from Cambodia to Australia during the massacre. He told us about the places he had been in the US, and introduced us to his wife and daughter. They invited us in and gave us cold bottles of water and a banana. The wife and daughter are learning English. The wife was too shy to practice on us, but I chatted with the 13 year old daughter for a while and her English was quite good. I exchanged emails with her and told her she can write me and keep practicing her English.

On the way back to the hotel for a rest we passed a celebration for the Chinese New Year. Men and boys dressed in red played music while men in dragon costumes danced into the temple.

Chinese New Year celebration - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Chinese New Year celebration, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

There were lots of locals watching the celebration as well and when the kids saw me taking pictures they wanted me to take their pictures too.

Local kids - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Also I saw this sign near our hotel, I think it’s hilarious:

Rambo sign - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In the late morning we rested before checking out and taking a tuk-tuk ($3) to our new hotel, the Sokha Heng Guesthouse. The guesthouse is near the Royal Palace and the waterfront where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers meet, a much more touristy part of town. Our room has all the same amenities as the Town View Hotel. I don’t know how much it costs per night because it’s included in the trip cost of the Intrepid Travel tour we are about to start.

Family - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

After checking in, mom and I wandered down to the waterfront to get some lunch. When we passed a Lebanese restaurant called Le Cedre I knew I had to get a falafel sandwich ($3.50) because they’re tasty… and also to make Ryan jealous 😉 it was very good, but I think the ones in Costa Rica were just a tad better.

Me at the waterfront - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Flags - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

There were more Chinese New Year celebrations going on at the waterfront. People were burning incense, leaving flower offerings, and releasing little birds into the air over the river for good luck. We sat in the shaded grass and people watched until it was time to go back to the hotel for our Intrepid welcome meeting.

Fruit seller - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This guy wasn’t celebrating, just sitting on his motorcycle looking intense:

Man - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

For dinner we went out with our Intrepid group to a restaurant that employs orphaned kids, helps them learn English, and teaches them food service skills they can use to get jobs later in life. I was still full from lunch so I had a small plate of fries for $2 and an Angkor beer for $1. The kids that work there and also the beggar children know our group leader well. One little girl aged maybe 7 or 8 who was selling copied books started making fun of him saying ‘no way you don’t have a girlfriend!!!’ It was too cute. Not cute enough to get anyone to buy a book, though.

In the restaurant were THE most annoying tourists I have ever been around. This drunk middle aged fat Australian guy, along with his obscenely loud and equally pudgy daughter, was causing quite a scene when he very loudly and repeatedly asked the waiter if he could buy a marijuana cigarette from him and got douchy when told no. Apparently they are staying at our guesthouse because as I am typing this they are here in the lobby. His daughter is telling her brother about how he apparently crashed a bar playing music after leaving the restaurant, sat at the drum set and tried to play, then tripped over a stage light, broke it, and refused to pay for it, and finally got kicked out. Now he is eating a banana I just saw him pluck from the Buddhist shrine. What. An. ASS. I am trying to be all Dalai Lama and see this as just an opportunity to practice my patience but man is it hard.

Anyway, tomorrow we are going on a cyclo tour around the city in the morning. In the afternoon we are going on what our group leader has dubbed “the misery tour” where we will see evidence of Cambodia’s very dark and recent past at the Tuol Sleng torture centre and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.