Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - The Capital

The Arrival
After our long and cold boat ride down Tonle Sap Lake and then through the Tonle Sap River, we finally arrived at the second of three stops on this whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia, Phnom Penh. The arrival was notable only in its confusion. A group of about 30 Americans travelling together quickly commandeered the baggage compartment and started to take out their luggage. They did not allow the Cambodian boat crew to do their job of unloading the bags and passing them on to their respective owners for a small tip which I assume is a substantial part of their earnings. I assume they just wanted to keep an eye on their stuff, but the other hundred people on the boat had no way to get their luggage. We made our way topside and found our guide, pointed out our bags and he sent in some porters to get them before heading out to our car. Right from the start, I could tell that this guide would be great. He's only been doing the job for a few months, having recently graduated from University, and still has that spark that was missing in our previous guide. After a quick stop at our hotel to check in, he took us to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) which serves up some pretty good food for lunch. This was our view over the river from our table, very tropical. After lunch, our guide told us there was a little change in our schedule, and that we would be visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 that afternoon instead of the following day, a decision which turned out to a very good thing for us.

The Reign of the Khmer Rouge
Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng, S-21, these words will reverberate through my head forever. The Khmer Rouge were\are an extreme leftist group led by Pol Pot who fought against the established government of Cambodia in the late 60s and 70s. After years of insurgency supported mainly by China and Vietnam and with the Cambodian government destabilized by the US-led war in neighbouring Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in March of 1975. The horrific events which followed Pol Pot's seizure of power can only be described as madness.

Within days of seizing power, the Khmer Rouge put into effect their master plan which called for social engineering on a scale never before seen. It essentially called for the transformation of Cambodia into an agrarian, communist nation, with an industry limited to government needs (food and guns) and little else. Under the guise of protecting the civilian population from impending attack, they ordered that all cities be evacuated. Residents were told to bring along only 3 days of supplies as they would soon return home. Their true goal was a massive relocation of the population from the urban centers into the countryside. Without adequate food or water, the entire urban population of Cambodia was forced to march incredible distances in the following months, leading to countless deaths. This was only the beginning of Pol Pot's reign of destruction. In order to consolidate power and eliminate any resistance, he instituted a purge of all who would oppose him. Former government officials, teachers, social activists and other intellectuals were systematically rounded up, tortured for information and exterminated in centers such as the ones we visited in Phnom Penh.

***A quick disclaimer here, the following commentary and photos are graphic.***
Our first visit was to Choeung Ek, one of many extermination centers used by the Khmer Rouge. These are the infamous "Killing Fields" where people were brought from prisons such as S-21 which we visited later that afternoon. Two types of prisoners were brought here. The first group were those who had already admitted, after being subjected to torture, their crimes against the revolutionary movement of the Khmer Rouge. These people were led directly to the nearest mass grave and murdered using some of the different means available to the guards here. In some cases, a took of some kind was used, in many cases, a simple heavy stick. The second group, having not yet admitted their crimes under torture, were taken to the interrogation center nearby where they were given one last shot at confessing before being killed.

As one enters the grounds of the Genocidal Centre, as it is now called, you are faced with this large memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is in the shape of a stupa, commonly used in Buddhism to house important items such as the remains of the deceased.

In this case, the stupa holds the skulls of some 8000 victims of the Khmer Rouge, disinterred from the nearby mass graves. On the skull in the forefront, we can clearly see that death was caused by blunt force trauma to the head, most likely through the use of a long heavy stick wielded by the executioner. Beating people to death was cheaper than shooting them you see, and frighteningly this is one of the lesser horrors of which we learned on this day. You can also see the upper age limit of this shelf of skulls on the sign, 20 years old.

Here you can see a marker for the mass graves which were excavated, giving up 8985 victims. There are still 43 untouched graves here, left as they were found. In some of the photos we saw, the blindfolds were still in place over the skulls of the victims when they were dug up. In others, the rope which held prisoners together as they were led to the graves and killed was still intact in the open graves found here after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

These are some of the mass graves, now slowly being filled in by the rains. This whole area used to be a cemetery for Chinese settlers in the region. When the Khmer Rouge moved in, they destroyed the gravestones and turned this place of remembrance into an evil, violent place.

On the ground of the Killing Fields, pieces of clothing left over from the victims still litter the ground... do their bones.

I think the most disturbing image I am left with is of what happened at this one spot. When the Khmer Rouge arrested someone, they more often than not took along their entire family. Wives, husbands, parents and yes, children were taken away to prisons throughout Cambodia. Located next to a grave where dozens of children's bodies were found is a large tree which has an odd pattern in its bark at about shoulder level, caused by something being repeatedly struck in the same place. It was explained to us how the guards, in an effort to be economical, would hold children by their feet and swing them into this tree in order to smash their skulls and cause their death before discarding their remains in the open pit nearby. One can only imagine the feelings this gruesome act must have brought up in the child's parents if they were still alive and nearby. As in any horrific killing such as this, the question comes up. How could anyone be so evil? In the case of the Khmer Rouge, they did a very good job at selecting and training their killers. Taking children from their homes at a young age, often as young as 10, they were desensitized to death over a period of time, for example by being forced to torture and kill animals. Once they began their jobs, each guard was placed in a team with the orders to immediately kill their partner should they hesitate to fulfil their task. It is hard to imagine killers between the ages of 10-15, but these are the people who were used by the Khmer Rouge to carry out their death sentences. Nothing more than children, brainwashed into becoming instruments of evil.

To say this first stop on our visit to Phnom Penh was sobering would be an understatement. Our second stop would be even more horrifying.

Before the Khmer Rouge took power and emptied the cities, Tuol Sleng was a place like many others, a school where children went and played and spent their days learning about the world around them. Once Pol Pot and his minions took power, they code-named this place Security Prison 21, or S-21 for short, and turned it into a place of unspeakable horrors. Classrooms which once served to educate young minds, were used to house and torture people.

For almost 4 years, prisoners were brought to this interrogation center, the total number is not known but thought to be anywhere from 15 to 20,000. The irony here is that many of the prisoners brought here were former Khmer Rouge leaders, soldiers or supporters who fell victim to the intense paranoia which eventually caused the group to cannibalize itself. When the Vietnamese forces entered Phnom Penh in 1979, they found an empty city, vacated long ago by its population and more recently by the top cadre of the Khmer Rouge. They eventually stumbled on this secret prison and found only seven survivors. The final 14 people to die in S-21 were brutally killed by the remaining prison workers as the Vietnamese troops closed in on the city, they were interred here, under the trees in the courtyard of the former school.

This is the cell of one of the last 14 to die here. The photograph on the wall shows the prisoner's tortured body lying on the bed as it was found by the Vietnamese who liberated S-21. This prisoner was housed in the VIP unit of the prison, which is why he had a bed, a window and an ammunition can in which to relieve himself. Even though he was shackled to the bed, which had no mattress and he could not see outside, he lived in relative luxury when you compare this to the cramped conditions in other sections of the prison. Some high level members of the Khmer Rouge government spent their last few days in these cells, including some of Pol Pot's ministers who had dared to question his methods.

The prisoners housed and interrogated in S-21 had it pretty hard. Nobody knew it would be your turn in the interrogation room where everything from electricity and water torture would be used against you to have you give up your presumed accomplices. Since most of the prisoners here were innocent, they had no names to give up, but names they give up regardless under the incessant threat of more and more pain. Family, friends, neighbours, co-workers, mere acquaintances... these were the building blocks for vast "networks" of rebels that the Khmer Rouge uncovered through these interrogations. Other prisoners took matters into their own hands and committed suicide by jumping from some of the upper tiers of the prison.

Life here was governed by a set of rules with dire consequences if you took one wrong step or did something as simple as not ask a guard before changing positions in your cell. And as rule number 6 states, you must not cry when receiving lashes or electrical shocks.

This frame, once used during Phys Ed classes at the school, was turned into an instrument of torture on which prisoners were hung, stretched and abused in other ways. One particular cruel torture method was to hang the prisoner upside down and slowly lower him into these large vats into which were emptied the human waste collected from the prisoners' cells. If you were lucky, it was only filled with water on the day they chose to bring you out into the courtyard for your dose of fresh air.

In some of the rooms of the former prison turned museum, dozens of pictures stand testament to the evil of this place. The bureaucracy of the Khmer Rouge was such that prison officials had to carefully document each prisoner's incarceration. As you can see here, some were quite young.

To prove to their superiors that they were doing a good job, they often took pictures of prisoners after their torture or their death to compare with their "before" pictures. In the photo of the prisoner slightly to the left of center, you can clearly see foam coming from his nose, indicating he was poisoned. Near the top left on the second row from the top, you see the photo of a prisoner who managed to escape his fate by jumping to his death.

All of this in what was once a peaceful setting. Unbelievable.

This particular building was covered in a barbed wire mesh, a measure brought in to stop prisoners from jumping from the top floors. So convinced were the interrogators of their prisoners' guilt that they saw a suicide as a failure to gain valuable information for the revolution. Through the mesh, you can see the crude marking on the walls used to hang the numbered keys which unlocked the shackles of the prisoners inside.

The final tally of the Khmer Rouge's impact on the nation is between 1 and 3 million dead, which equals a quarter to a third of Cambodia's population at the time. Cambodia's infrastructure and industry was decimated in their drive to create an agrarian utopia and the resulting guerrilla war against the eventual Vietnamese invaders turned large sections of the country into minefields which are still claiming lives and limbs to this day. And all of this in the shadow of the Vietnamese war, with little to no action from the international community. Horrendous. Tuol Sleng once housed a map of Cambodia made from the bones of a few of the Khmer Rouge victims. The map was taken down in 2002 in respect for the victims and a photograph now hangs in it's place with the remains stored in a cabinet nearby. This is a grim reminder of what happens when extremism takes over, and people stand by and do not act.

This visit was overwhelming. Shortly beyond the halfway point of the visit to S-21, I had heard enough and was reacting physically to what I was hearing from our guide, and just wanted to leave. The visit to these horrible places was a solemn, quiet and also an important one. This is a part of history, our history. These atrocities were committed less than 30 years ago, and atrocities such as these are still happening today, though we like to close our eyes to these things. I found it very interesting to talk about these things in depth with our guide as we drove to and from these places. The resilience of the Cambodian people is phenomenal and I am certain they will rebound from these difficult times as so many peoples have done before them. Discussing this very subject with my dear friend Sean over MSN Messenger this morning, he brought up the "Indian Rubber Ball Principle". He eloquently compared the human race to a rubber ball, saying that the harder you throw it, the higher it bounces back, a wonderful characteristic of our species. In the case of Cambodia, I believe this is quite fitting, and that they are in the process of rebounding quite nicely.

Following our long day of travelling and genocide education, we retired to our hotel and dined on room service before enjoying our first full night of rest in 4 days.

The Bright Side of Phnom Penh
The decision on the part of our guide to begin our tour with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge instead of ending it that way was quite ingenious. On our 5th and final day, we got to see thebeautiful side to Phnom Penh and learn about Cambodia's rich cultural heritage. A much better note on which to leave this country after falling in love with it and its people, no?

Our first stop was a visit to the Royal Palace, which sits in the centre of Phnom Penh along the Tonle Sap river. This is still the active residence of the king, though his living area is separate from the touristy stuff. The throne room and other areas are sometimes off limits to tourists when certain ceremonies are held or when a visiting dignitary drops in on the king for some coffee. The current king of Cambodia, his Highness Norodom Sihamoni was on a trip to France during our visit, so we didn't run into him on a jog through his palace or anything. This is the main building inside the palace walls, the Throne Hall which is used when heads of state visit. The styling of the entire palace is copied from that of the Thai Royal Palace, though the Cambodian version is slightly smaller.

What palace is complete without grandiose gardens, and of course an army of groundskeepers.

This building, on the edge of the palace grounds is called the Moonlight Pavilion, since there are no walls and the moon light can thus enter. It has been used to hold banquets and other events, but also is used for the king to address his people. Since large crowds usually gather, they can gather outside the palace walls, and the king can address them from the height of this pavilion. Possibly a good idea to keep the teeming masses outside of your house if you need to announce some bad news.

This building was\is used as a library and also includes a convenient little balcony off to the right from where the king would mount his elephant when going off to hunt or to war.

As you may not know, Cambodia became a protectorate of France way back in the day. The signing of the treaty was forced upon the king at the time, with France threatening Cambodia with their powerful navy. It ended up being something of a blessing for Cambodia as it halted the land grabs of Thailand and Vietnam and France even forced them to give back some of the land they'd taken. As with any colonization, there are good things which come along with the bad. Cambodia regained it's independence in 1953, when King Sihanouk declared independence. As a symbol of the close ties between the two nations, Napoleon the 3rd of France gifted this iron building to the King. It was built in France, then disassembled and rebuilt here inside the palace walls, kind of a Cambodian version of the Statue of Liberty.

Here we are just outside the king's private office (on the left), which is inaccessible to the public except for special occasions, such as when he donates food to the poor. You can just make out the 4 faces of on the Throne Hall's main tower, which look out over the kingdom in the 4 cardinal points.

One of the major attractions of the Royal Palace complex is the Silver Pagoda, or the Emerald Buddha Pagoda. There is a reason for its two names. No, the building itself is not made of silver, but the entire floor is. When the currency was changed from silver coins to paper currency, the king collected all of the silver turned in by the population and melted it down to make over 5000 tiles, each wighing 1 Kg, with which to cover the pagoda's floor. While the floor is now covered in carpets, you can still feel the tiles underneath our feet and some sections are uncovered for you to see. The second name is used by the locals in honor of the treasure housed inside this building. At the top of a large golden pedestal sits a statue of Buddha carved from emerald and decorated with thousands of diamonds, the largest of which weighs 25 carats. A sight to behold. Oddly enough, we spent the most time inside looking over a small display case of golden statues which depict the major stages of the life of Buddha, from his birth to his death. Our guide went on in intricate detail about the stories behind and the provenance of these statues. From what I understand, much of what was housed here was destroyed by Pol Pot in his attempt to create a fresh start for the nation, but thankfully a lot still remains.

Outside the Silver Pagoda sits a number of stupas honouring former kings or their parents/children who died during their reign. Quite a lovely setting.

Many people still come to pray to the former monarchs.

As we made our way out of the palace grounds and toured a traditional Cambodian home, we spotted this little guy hiding from the harsh sun in a little patch of shade. Kawaii!

After visiting the Royal Palace, we walked down the main street to the National Museum of Khmer Arts, which houses a fantastic collection of statues. It was interesting not only to see the progression of the artform from period to period in Khmer history, but also to see some of the original statues which once stood on the temples of Angkor which we had previously visited. On the way down, I spotted the Canadian Flag, flying high and as has been my custom when seeing my flag in a foreign land, I snapped a picture.

After touring the museum with an expert guide whom I could barely understand, we took a break for lunch before hitting both the Russian and the Central markets for some souvenirs. It was here that Yoshiko really learned to bargain and I was quite impressed with my little lady. She even walked away from some of the vendors who were trying to fleece her. I picked up a couple of carvings for myself, but nothing much. Since we still had plenty of time before our flight to Vietnam, our guide decided to take us to a place which was not included in the tour, and which turned out to be the highlight of our entire trip.

The Apsara Arts Association is a combination orphanage, cultural education center and community outreach program. It is a NGO funded by the Japanese Kasumisou Foundation, as well as others and it's main purpose is to bring kids in off the street while keeping the rich Cambodian dance culture alive. When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed into the main room, and got to have a peek at a practice dance session. Different groups of children and teenagers came out and had their run, supported by a small band playing traditional Khmer music. When some of the kids were having difficulty, an older member would stand with them and work out the steps and movements of these very graceful dances with them. These were some of the older people, entertaining us with a dance about a couple in a fishing village who is in the middle of courtship (the two holding baskets to the right of center) and they were quite good, very professional.

After a few numbers, we were taken by surprise when the kids all ran down from the stage and invited us to join them. I was reluctant at first, but was absolutely unable to say no to this cute little Cambodian girl who came and took my hand. Our guide grabbed my camera and managed to get a couple fo shots of us, for which I am eternally grateful. Here we are with her trying to teach me the moves to the dance, you can see Yoshiko out in the rear left with the hat on dancing along with her instructor.

After trying for quite some time to teach me, a more senior boy came in and using English (1, 2, 3, 4) tried in vain to get me going before the little girl came back and continued to be a partner to this horrible Canadian dancer.

After trying it for a bit longer, I gave up and moved to the sidelines, to the despair of my little partner. Being the sweet little girl that she is, she picked up a flower which had fallen during one of the previous shows and presented it to me before proceeding to give me a kiss and climb all over me. Yoshiko continued doing her thing on the stage, with the one or two remaining tourist\students.

While we were on the sidelines, I took some photos of the girls and watched their faces light up as I showed them the results on my camera's screen. In fact, I was so overwhelmed at the time that I'd totally forgotten to show them the pictures until my little partner turned my camera around and tried to tilt the LCD screen out herself. Here we are with our dance instructors.

This really is a fantastic place, and on our way out, we made a donation and signed the guest book. I find it fitting that the couple who run this place are survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Their profile lists them as "farmer during Khmer rough period" from 1975 to 1979, before they managed to rebuild their lives. This visit alone made me want to return to Cambodia, and I miss it dearly. It was a touching experience to say the least, and a fantastic way to end our visit to Cambodia. Our guide gets 4 thumbs up for his choice of venues and timing.

We then made our way to the airport, where our guide and driver proved they were worth the generous tip we gave them by remaining at the window outside until we disappeared behind security. The airport tax to leave Phnom Penh was a bit much at 35$ a piece, but I guess it's going to pay for the brand new facilities we were using, so no big deal. I was a bit disappointed in Vietnam Airlines when our departure time came and went with no notification to the waiting passengers. We all got a little antsy before a plane landed and was prepped for us after quite a bit of time had passed. While sitting around, Yoshiko and I befriended Raj, a Brit traveling through Southeast Asia with whom we ended up sharing our pre-arranged taxi in Vietnam. We eventually made our way on board and said our goodbyes to the fascinating place that is Cambodia.

I am left with a number of thoughts on this leg of the trip. First and foremost in my mind is the undeniable fact that it was the better half of our trip. I can't help but repeat how amazing the Cambodian people are, both in the service industry and just those on the street. Not once did I feel uncomfortable or fear for our safety. Not once did someone try to take advantage of us due to our status as tourists. To this day, Japan and China (the two most powerful nations in Asia) remain the only countries where I have been taken advantage of due to my status as a foreigner, despite having now visited two of the poorest nations in Asia. I think this says something, no?

Another of the thoughts which sticks out in my mind is the impact of Japan on the region. Japan is to Asia what the US is to the World; a leader, a model, something to aspire to. Japan is doing some great work in Cambodia, and I just found out it is Cambodia's largest donor. I have seen the results of Japan's money with my own eyes, when we drove on the Japanese-built road to Angkor Wat or passed under the Japanese-built bridge over the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. Thanks to money from Japan, small towns are more accessible, priceless temples are being restored and a new area is thriving on the far bank of the river thanks to the new bridge. By helping to build infrastructure, rebuild ruined temples, clear land mines, educate the people and by funding important organizations such as those mentioned above, Japan is fulfilling it's role as the leading economy in Asia, which is very nice to see after seeing how it has failed to do so many of those things properly here in Japan.

Well folks, that's enough for tonight. Very difficult blog post to write, but I'm glad I got through it. Writing about my experiences is one way for me to relive them and to remember them and this was certainly a trip I want to remember for the rest of my life. Tomorrow, Vietnam!

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Anonymous Cla said...

This post: i FEEL it so close to me, thank you Michael. And if you can find it, watch this documentary about cambodian genocide:

S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (there's the book by same author too)

Changing subject, here's a nice (simple and quick) tutorial to "make" old-style b/w pictures:


6:15 PM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

I never have seen it or researched much about it, but I certainly will now. I bought the book "First, They Killed My Father" while in Cambodia, and will definately stock up on this fascinating if horrifying time in Cambodian history.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Jean said...

I'm overwhelmed by your post... Did we ever live a sheltered life my good friend. Nicely done Mitch.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

Sheltered is right. We are lucky in Canada to be one of the few nations to have never known the horrors of war inside our borders.

4:30 AM  
Blogger tatiana said...

What an amazing post. I haven't been round to your site in a while & was perusing blogs tonight and boy, amd I glad I revisited yours!

Thank you for the (albeit horrific) history lesson and reminder of the atrocities that occured in our world. . . and for pointing out that they continue to be carried out.

Cambodia is one of the countries on my list..... your photos are amazing!! Thanks again for this.... glad you guys had such a great time!!!

9:29 PM  

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