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Piss Poor Phnom Penh
Rating : ( 4.9 )

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Oct 01, 2003 04:51

Pros: sightseeing, alot to learn-history
Cons: poor and dirty city

After fully experiencing Cambodia's glorious past through the temples of Angkor, we left for the capital city of Phnom Penh, where we learned more about its more recent tragic history. Initially we truly disliked Phnom Penh, as it is a very poor and dirty city and full of beggars, but obviously we grew to like it as we stayed for a week. Phnom Penh is almost a relatively new city, as it was completely evacuated for 4 years in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge entered town and forced everyone out. It seems like it is just beginning to recover. For those of you who don't know, the Khmer Rouge was a militia movement that came into power, supported by the U.S., in 1975. It was led by a French-educated Cambodian named Pol Pot, who upon evacuating Phnom Penh declared the day the beginning of "Year Zero", which would commence a massive restructuring of Cambodian society into a agriculturally self-sufficient nation. Pol Pot set off to accomplish this by forcing all citizens into the countryside to work in the fields and executing anyone who seemed remotely intellignet, e.g. Buddhist monks or anyone who wore eyeglasses. It is estimated that during Pol Pot's regime, at least 2 million or 1/5 of the Cambodian population was exterminated or died of malnutrition. Some historians say it is closer to 3 million. As this happened the whole world closed its eyes, in fact, the only reason it was stopped was because the Khmer Rouge became daring enough to start attacking Vietnam and Vietnam retaliated around 1978. After Vietnam placed a new government in Phnom Penh, the U.S. placed a trade embargo on Cambodia having supported the Khmer Rouge as the official government. This made it even more difficult for the economy and society to recover. Attacks by the Khmer Rouge lasted until 1998, when Pol Pot died.

The first horrific Khmer Rouge attrocity we visited (via dirbike, as the city roads are so bad they double as small canals when it rains), was S-21, a former high school called Toul Sleng. The Khmer Rouge converted this high school into its interrogation/torture center. Over 40,000 people entered this prison alive, were tortured and killed. The lucky victims of the Khmer Rouge were executed on the spot; the unlucky ones ended up here. When visiting you are free to wander among the former classrooms, which are still full of the tiny prisoners' cells, pictures of victims and torture, and the torture contraptions themselves. The playground pull up bars had been converted into people-hanging instruments. They would hang people by their feet and dunk their heads into vats of sewage water. Just like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge fully photographed and documented the life history of each and every victim leading up to their torture and death. Many of these photographs line the walls. That is the most emotionally difficult part to see, coming face to face with men, women and children who you know underwent more pain than we could ever imagine or dream of. Here you can experience how truly recent the events really were. Within each cell, you can see the greasy fingerprints around the windows and the bars of the doors. You can also smell the stench of torture and detainment, and in some places you can even see blood.

The next place we visited was the Killing Fields, a location outside of the city where thousands and thousands of bodies were buried after execution, most of the time by clubbing, sometimes by gunshot. Many of the main graves have been excavated, and at each massive hole in the ground there is a sign telling how many bodies were found in the particular hole. There is also a glass monument (about 60 feet tall), full of outwardly facing skulls.

After experiencing all of this sorrow and pain, we needed something to release our own anger and pain, so we headed out to the Happy Club shooting range. Here it is possible to shoot a rocket launcher ($200), throw a hand grenade, shoot anti-aircraft machine guns, and numerous handguns. We opted for the AK-47, and each got 15 bullets. We each did a few in single shot mode, and then used the rest for fully automatic. It was pretty cool. We kept our target sheet that we shot at for a souvenir.

We must say something about the Cambodian people. After all that they have been through (not only the Khmer Rouge episode, but they were also the victims of a secret war perpetrated by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, during which they were given the gift of the most landmines per square mile of anyplace in the world), you would think this would be a sad, and potentially hostile, place to visit. But honestly, the Cambodians, despite their overwhelming poverty, are some of the friendliest, most beautiful people we have ever come in contact with. They always have a smile waiting. Whenever we drive around on a dirtbike or in a car, every child we see either gets visibly excited and smiles and waves, or a wondrous, curious look spreads across their face. It is the same for most adults, too. We love Cambodia.