We woke up to another mediocre but quite filling breakfast care of our hotel and as we were finishing up our driver for our tour arrived to whisk us away. Today we were hoping to see Tuol Sleng, a former school that was turned into a jail where victims during the time of the Pol Pot regime were held and tortured and now it was the Genocide Museum. Then we would be seeing Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields). We were not really sure what to expect from either experience but travelling about taking in all that a country has to offer, both good and bad and we felt that these were experiences that would help us get under the skin of the country. Also, because it is not something from the dim and distant past and it is not something ‘close to home’ for us, just how would it actually affect us?
The journey to the museum through Phnom Penh was quite an eye opener in itself. People seemed to have two modes of transport here, the moped (or a variant of) or they drove very large brand new cars. This was not what we expected to see at all and not something we had picked up during our earlier walks about the capital. The city was very busy and in places the traffic almost at a standstill but our guide made good use of the various alleyways and shortcuts, including the novel use of petrol pump forecourts and this way we kept making progress towards our goal.
Upon reaching Tuol Sleng our travelling guide dropped us off so we went in and asked for a tour guide to take us around the facility in order that we may understand a bit better what had actually gone on there. The place was formerly a school that had been, during the Pol Pot regime’s takeover of the country, converted into a jail. In each of the former classrooms were photos of the former inmates or exhibits and paintings of torture. Some of the photos were taken when Pol Pot’s men had been overthrown and showed people killed in the process of being tortured and left when the guards fled and these photos were simply gruesome to see. However, for me it was more the photos of those people who had turned up and were photographed whilst being processed to then undergo torture, these people looked forlorn and lost. The eyes of these ‘inmates’ looked to have no hope, it all having been extinguished, these photos were the ones which I personally found the most harrowing. The eyes of these people simply seemed to be asking, imploring the question – why? We did not take any photos inside as it simply did not seem right for us to do so. As well as explaining about the various rooms and the stories behind what went on in them to the inmates, our lady guide also told us a bit about her own story. Her mother had fled with her and they had both walked all the way from Phnom Penh to Battambang taking three months which is a huge enough undertaking as it is but the roads they walked were littered with dead, many being the old, the infirm and children who could not cope with the mass exoduses that Pol Pot was enforcing. Pol Pot was an intellectual who took over the country and yet despised intellectuals in any form, it is incredible to consider that even the wearing of glasses could mean that a person could be thought to be of intellect and could end up in the jail. As she told her story it was quite an emotional experience for her and she shed tears as she reminisced.
She then took us to meet a couple of survivors of the camp, one guy, Bou Meng was an artist. The camp chiefs used his skills for propaganda posters and the like. The other man was a handyman called Chum Mey who could fix things so he too kept his life because he had another skill that the bosses could use. They were both selling books of their own personal recollections so it seemed right to buy one from each. They both were two really nice guys who seemed to understand just how lucky they were to be alive as so many others that they had had contact with in the jail had not survived. We then went to another classroom to watch a film about the two authors and a third man who had been a guard at the jail. The guard knew the gravity of what he had done and during the questioning in the documentary you could see he was truly frightened but it is difficult to tell whether or not he was truly apologetic for the part he had played.
We were then left by our guide to have a look around on our own a bit and it was just such an odd place, you could blink your eyes and it was all just a school again until you blinked again and took in the suicide nets placed so that the camp commandants were not cheated of their ‘sport’ of torture.
We left the museum and then met back up with our travelling guide who had been patiently waiting outside the museum for our return. Once ensconced aboard his transport we were off to Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields which was still quite a way from the town centre. At some points in the journey it seemed as though we were travelling through a building site or two but I may have misinterpreted the ‘character’ of the place!
We entered the ‘Fields’ and here for a bit on top of the admission fee you can hire one of the audio guides and once again I would recommend this, as it really does bring the place to life. However, do not be surprised here to see people actually breaking down in tears as they walk round the place. Most of us, I say ‘us’ as we were very much included, we were all walking about simply looking stunned. The stories on the audio guide make for some really compelling listening, coupled with the place itself and the feeling that there is an aura if you like, of death about it, made it quite an emotionally draining experience for us. The centrepiece of the place is a rather imposing large tower that contains various bones that were found on the field site. Lots of leg and arm bones but of course the most gruesome to see are the skulls, there is something about it all which is not right but so very apt if you can understand my meaning. But although the tower is the centre of the Fields and the main symbol there is a tree there which has a most horrific history as it is the one where the guards would take mother’s babies from them and whilst holding their little legs would beat each of them to death against the tree. We expected our trips today to challenge our senses but not quite in such a way as it did here at the Killing Fields.
After this we needed sustenance so stopped at a very nearby cafe and both had ourselves some very nice noodles before heading off back to our hotel. It is quite strange to recount it all now but we did not have the energy to do much for the rest of the day, the attractions that we had visited during the day had simply take that much out of us!