: ( 4.9 )
Oct 01, 2003 04:51
sightseeing, alot to learn-history
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.