Monday, 1 November 2010

Out of Vietnam and into Phnom Penh

A few of the 17,000 inmates who passed through Tuol Sleng Prison, S-21.
1.7 million were killed in the 4 years under the Khmer Rouge

Formerly a high school, it was turned into a prison for the torture and interrogation of anyone - men, women, children - even vaguely subversive to the Khmer Rouge regime

With the atrocities occurring only 2 generations ago it is important to preserve the memories of the worst acts of Pol Pot and his regime so it can't happen again, at least in Cambodia

One of the prison's security orders

One of the 4 buildings is completely encased in barbed wire to prevent escape or suicide

Some cells are large - these are where the bodies of the final 14 victims were found in 1979

A former teenage worker at the prison - many ended up as prisoners themselves, or faced an exiled life when the regime fell and the truth of what they had been a part of was revealed

Some classrooms were divided up into individual cells not big enough to lay down in

Internal walls were knocked through

As with Vietnam and the war, everyone you meet is linked to this past somehow, but normality is fully resumed

Nothing like the small of meat hanging in 40 degree heat

Nothing goes to waste

Like Saigon, ancient architecture exists alongside the modern

Choeung Ek - The Killing Fields. Teeth and bones litter the entire area

The skulls and bones of around 5,000 of the nearly 9,000 killed here have been exhumed from mass graves and are on display in an 11-tier Buddhist stupa. Some feel uncomfortable taking photos but the government and the people want the realities to be known

After 2 months in Vietnam we caught a boat from the deck of our hotel in Chau Doc in the south-west of Vietnam, up the Mekong and in to our first experience of Cambodia, the infamous Phnom Penh. A city known across the world, where it is even known at all, for drugs, prostitution, paedophilia, genocide, and friendliness.

Outside of the main backpacker area, where you struggle to walk a metre without offers ranging from marijuana to opium, acid to women, there is little evidence of this. The city is prosperous considering its past, and there is a lot of money in the country - though expectedly it seems to be in the hands of the Lexus-driving few. Government buildings and banks make up the best on the skyline, a common thread in this part of the world.
Tourism is playing a big part in keeping the momentum of the country's recovery and the people are very friendly; far more engaging than in Vietnam, and happy to chat, though still with the aim of getting an extra dollar or two. The development isn't all good, however - the Lakeside area I am staying is scheduled for 'redevelopment', which means the forced eviction of its residents for the building of something fancier. Over lunch on Sunday I awkwardly sat and watched the owners of the restaurant I was in selling off and packing up their chairs and tables, plants and photos, in preparation.

The currency is US$, with the 'cents' being Khmer Riel. At just over 4000 to the dollar it takes a bit of thinking about when checking change. Life isn't easy and a lot of the tuk tuk and cyclo drivers live in and on their bikes - walking the streets at night you see fans of hammocks spanning from trees to tuk tuks as they sleep beside the road.

I've spent a week in the city so far. It was once the jewel of French Indochina and some facets of that remain - the vibe that was at first intimidating and unknowing has vanished, and aside from the murky underworld that is occasionally evident (old grey-haired white man with barely legal Cambodian girl, foreign corporate takeovers of the country's past, power in uniform and the subservience they demand) it's a nice place to be. Ban Ki-Moon and Hilary Clinton have been in town over the past few days, the UN here to talk about the ongoing Khmer Rouge trials and the US affirming their relationship with the country. The UN would like to extend the trials to bring to account lower ranking officials of the regime, but with the current Prime Minister being an ex-official himself and some of his allies potentially being the ones facing the dock, he'd prefer them to stop at the 4 individuals under Pol Pot who are scheduled for trial, and the one, Duch, who has just been sentenced to 19 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity. I think the UN see the power in the symbolism of bringing more people to account, but with so many involved maybe moving on is preferable.

On another not insignificant note, after 52 days with Georgie we've decided to go our separate ways, for the sake of both our sanity and our friendship, so, Whitesnake interlude here... here I go again on my own. She will have company for the remainder of her trip, however, so no need to worry about me leaving her alone in Cambodia! After leaving home and riding as far as Istanbul on my own I've not spent a single night alone since the end of April, so getting to sleep on the first night was a strange experience. Thanks to Kris, Courtney, Sonia, Romy, and last night Ed and Philip, the incredibly cool and camp teenagers of Phnom Penh and their amazing street dancing, some wine and a few beers, and the hours spent on Skype with a very special lady in Beijing, all is well with the world. This trip has always been about finding out what I want from life, and, in life as in science, a negative result is still a good result.

Now I'm off to collect my passport with its newly acquired Thai visa (i.e. my ticket to sit on yet more beautiful beaches) before 2 big days' riding to Siem Reap tomorrow - 320km in 2 days will test my legs, but it's all flat...


  1. No matter how painful it is, we have to face the history. It warns human being not make the misery happen again and reminds people the happiness they have right now.
    Life is full of suprises. You never know it is good or bad suprise. It is said when one door is closed, another door will open for you. All you can do is just "ride ahead".
    No fears, no hesitation and no doubt.When you appreciate what life bestow you, you will get a good surprise.

  2. cheers for happy camp teenage!

  3. Great reading Kris...wish I'd had this in prison!!! Might have kept my mind off some of the craziness around me. Been along time since Iran, but back to india in 4 days time adn hope we can hook up again sometime.. Your trip looks and sounds awesome..... Don't worry about the split....Time heals all wounds and if it's right, it will be right later as well....Peace bro...