Soon, a week will have passed since we arrived in Cambodia… We have been to Phnom Penh, now we are in Siem Reap, 6km from the Khmer Angkor temples. Tomorrow, we’re going there again, and soon we will post our account, but today – more seriously. No food, no Maks, no beautiful landscapes… For those who want to find out more about Cambodia and its recent past…

Ok… so what do you know about Cambodia? Pol Pot? The Khmer Rouge? French colony? I used to know quite a lot about Cambodia. At the university, I took a semester course entitled “The Khmer Rouge Revolution” – very interesting lectures with a very interesting speaker, Adam Jelonek, then PhD, who by the way now is the ambassador of Poland in Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. I still remember the names of Pol Pot’s comrades, the slogans telling people to harvest “3 tonnes of rice from one hectare” and that the regime eliminated anyone who wore glasses. The plan was to create an egalitarian, agrarian society without the educated or the rich. When I get back to Poland, I think I will read the book that was our assigned reading again. Unfortunately, after 7-8 years many facts have escaped my memory… 🙂

Back to Cambodia and the times “before Pol Pot” – in 1887, the lands that today are Cambodia were incorporated into French Indochina. The French influence can still be seen, for example, in some of the avenues in Phnom Penh, the small croissants you can have for breakfast and the French people you see everywhere. Cambodia became an independent country in 1953 and in 1975 Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge took power. Violence, dictatorship, depopulation of cities… Two million inhabitants had to leave Phnom Penh in one day and find a new place to live in the country side… Famine, terror… That was Cambodia until 1979. And Khmer Rouge did not let go easily. Until 1999, they were involved in partisan fighting in the west.

The exact number of the regime’s victims is unknown – some sources say 1.2 million, others 1.7-2.3 million. It’s a lot, especially, taking into account that at that time Cambodia had around 7 million inhabitants.

Tuol Sleng, Czerwoni Khmerzy, Kambodża
victims of the Khmer Rouge – prisoners of Tuol Sleng, the regime’s main torture house

In 1993, Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. When it comes to sanctioning the perpetrators of the genocide by Khmer Rouge, not much is going on in Cambodia – the trials of some leaders are still under way, some of them have died already, some have Alzheimer’s or other old age-related diseases. Pol Pot died of a heart attack, in the jungle, where his troops were hiding. What’s interesting, there’s talk that the current prime minister of Cambodia is against trying the Khmer Rouge. He used to be a member of the movement himself, but in 1978 he fled to Vietnam and together with the Vietnamese military he ended Pol Pot’s reign. Now, however, he’s protecting his former comrades…

To experience the gruesome atmosphere of those years, you need to go to Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields…

The Genocide Museum in Tuol Sleng is definitely one of the most macabre places we’ve been to. In the 70s, under Pol Pot’s reign, the building that used to be a high school became the S-21 prison for detaining persons who were inconvenient for the regime, for various reasons. They were tortured and killed…

Kambodża, Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, Czerwoni Khmerzy
a cell with a toilet-box

Representatives of various social classes were held there, with particular emphasis on intellectuals, doctors, and lawyers. Whole families were held in Tuol Sleng, also women and small children, as well as foreigners (journalists) who happened to be in Phnom Penh when the revolution won.

In the museum, you will see the cells, torture instruments, collective rooms where many prisoners had to crowd together. The pictures of prisoners taken on a special chair right after they arrived in Tuol Sleng evoke terror… As you walk around the museum, you’re watched by a great number of terrified pairs of eyes. What can I say, it’s not a nice place, but it’s worth planning a visit to Tuol Sleng to learn about the country’s history. If you’re travelling with a child, it’s best to go into particular buildings one person at a time. Even if the child doesn’t understand those things yet, the pictures might scare them.

Maks took a peek inside one of the building together with Łukasz (the guide was rushing us). His comment illustrates perfectly the conditions in which prisoners were held. When he saw the tiny cells, 0.8 by 2 metres, divided by brick walls, he asked Łukasz: “Dad, did cows use to live here??” – the place reminded him of an enclosure for farm animals…

We won’t write about the details of what was going on inside Tuol Sleng – you can imagine, think of any other totalitarian prison. The scariest thing for me was that this place that used to be full of joy, laughter and youth (high school) for a few years became the largest torture house of the Khmer Rouge regime, a place where people were tortured and killed. When you walk through the square between the buildings, it’s difficult to take in the two contrasting images, especially when you see how “efficiently” Khmer Rouge adjusted the devices originally in place for students to work on physical strength to serve as torture instruments (photo below). Instead of developing muscle power, the Khmer Rouge used them to tie prisoners to them and drag them up and down until they lost consciousness. Then, they would put their heads into large flower pots with dirty water. That’s how the “guilty” where interrogated.

Tuol Sleng, Czerowni Khmerzy
one of the buildings and a torture instrument
Kambodża, Toul Slang, Phnom Penh
the buildings were covered a net of energized wire to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide by jumping out of the window

Most convicts spent from one month up to six months in the prison. From around 17 thousand prisoners only 7 persons survived. If they didn’t die there, they were taken to the so-called Killing Fields, 15 km from Phnom Penh and they were killed there. That’s where other victims of the regime were buried as well.

Tuol Sleng, Kambodża, Phnom Penh
not only adults, but also children were imprisoned and tortured

After the fairy tale Royal palace, the genocide museum definitely comes as a shock. But it’s worth visiting this place, especially since many elements remain exactly the same as in 1979. It’s also worth hiring a guide for USD 2-3, who will tell you everything about the prison and the tragic era…

After Tuol Sleng, the next stop on the gruesome tour are the Killing Fields (e.g. Choeung Ek), where people were killed and buried on a mass scale, also those from Tuol Sleng. Currently, in Choeung Ek, there is a tall, glazed stupa filled with skulls. We didn’t go there, because on our last day in Phnom Penh it was raining heavily, but visiting this place definitely gives you a broader perspective.

So? How’s your weekend mood? I’m sorry, but I wanted you to know, or remember, that Cambodia is not only about tuk-tuks, friendly people, fairy tale views on a cruise along Mekong, heat and old temples, but also about tragic history… Here’s just a few sentences from me. It’s worth remembering about this if you ever get here…

PS. Tomorrow/the day after tomorrow, I’ll be back with beautiful landscapes, delicious food and other Asian wonders, meanwhile, we’re off to Angkor Wat! 🙂