After being hassled by the Air Asia staff at the Bangkok airport, we finally came to a resolution. I handed them my printed airline ticket and proved that we did pay for the tickets. They claimed there was a system failure at the time of purchase and the charge never went through; therefore, we didn’t actually have seats on the flight that would soon be departing for Cambodia. I whipped out my credit card and paid for the tickets straight away at the airport counter. And, soon we were on our way to Phnom Penh.
Upon arriving, we did our normal routine check. Bags? check. New SIM card? Check. ATM? Check. Wait. Why did the ATM just spit out American Dollars? Oh, I get it. Because in Cambodia, their currency is in thousands so they also use American Dollars in addition to The Riel. And taxi? Check. A sigh of relief as we made our way to the hotel.
The hotel check-in proved to be just as un-successful as every other one. There is a water leak in our room so they would like to send us to their crappier sister hotel. Not again, but okay. We arrived at the crappier set up, got dinner in town and called it a night.
The next morning, we ventured to the S-21 museum. If you don’t know what this is, you should look it up. This massacre could be compared to what the Nazi’s did to the Jews. Except it was Cambodians against Cambodians. They were all Khmer and the destroyer, Pol Pot, was head of the Khmer Rouge. Admittedly, I knew very little about Cambodian history before coming here. How could I have been living in such a bubble? Am I really so ignorant to have not really known much about the Khmer Rouge. And, here I was, at the S-21 museum looking at photographs of tortured innocent individuals who had no hopes of leaving this prison alive. The photographs were appalling and left many dried tears on my face. From 1975 to 1979, 3 million innocent people died because of 4 men. It was a tragedy that has (as I have recently come to find out) undoubtedly shattered the entire nation and has also sent numerous chills down my spine.
After having toured the prison, I found myself aimlessly wandering around the grassy fields and straight to the stall of the last S-21 prison survivor. A 78 year old artist by the name of Bou Meng. He was spared only because he could paint whatever the Khmer Rouge deemed necessary. He was witnessed to women being tormented, children being smacked against the trunks of a tree only to die and men being tortured, abused and beaten. He is now deaf and toothless as a result of numerous beatings. He had a biography written about him and he was selling copies of this book. As I purchased the book, he looked me straight in the eye and started crying, which brought many tears to my eyes. He signed the book and I gave him a side hug and could only imagine the horrid images that will haunt him forever. All because of one individual with one strong vision. I couldn’t help but think of my visit to Dachau, Germany as I left the prison camp.
The next day didn’t prove to be much better as we organized a day trip to The Killing Fields where the S-21 prisoners were brought to be executed. There we actually witnessed teeth, bone fragments and clothes still on the fields. Every few months, new bones and clothes suface to the land only to be collected by the personnel working there. Then they are stored in a glass container for tourists to gawk at. It is almost as though the ghosts of these civilians haunt the fields as a reminder to never forget the evil that happened for those years. Each night on a speaker, loud music would be played. At the time, the prisoners didn’t know that this music was played to disguise the loud yells of hundreds of people dying in a mass execution. Pol Pot’s vision was simple. He wanted all intellectuals dead and he thought it was better to kill an innocent than to spare a spy. He also thought it was worthwhile to kill the roots and seeds of an intellectual (the wives and babies) so that they could never seek revenge on him. He was a sick man indeed.
This ended our time in Phnom Penh (we did explore the city and the street markets as well but that seems irrelevant to my newly discovered history of Khmer Rouge).
I left with an uneasy feeling as we boarded the rickety bus to Siem Reap. And I also made a mental note to buy a copy of Survival of the Killing Fields as soon as we got to our next hostel.