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Contiki Big Indochina Adventure – Days 11 & 12: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The past two days in Cambodia were very eye opening. We arrived into the airport of the capital city, Phnom Penh, in the early afternoon, paid our $35 USD visa fee and immediately boarded our coach to head to one of the most sobering sights I’ve ever seen. Before I jump into what we saw, I’d like to provide a bit of context to better help.

Cambodia has a very, very dark recent history. Before the Vietnam War, Cambodia had a history of being neutral, but the King chose to support the Vietcong in North Vietnam. As we learned about the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, part of the trail continued into Cambodia. The United States decided to bomb parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to try to cripple the Vietcong’s effort to supply their resistance in South Vietnam. In bombing parts of the trail, anti-American sentiment grew to the point where Pol Pot, a person that had spent a lot of time in communist China, started to go around to local farmers and the uneducated workers to gain support for a communist movement in Cambodia. Eventually, he was able to seize power in the 1970’s.

During the time period from 1975 to 1979, the regime of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, was responsible for killing more than 3 million innocent Cambodians. It was literally a “if you don’t join our movement, you will be killed” mentality. At first, the Khmer Rouge targeted the educated people because they were most likely to revolt.  80% of all doctors, teachers and other people were killed. Then, Pol Pot forced families to separate into different parts of the country to work the farms so they could pay a debt back to China. Parents were separated from their children.  Husbands and wives were separated. Even siblings were separated. This was done to in an effort to maintain control. Then, Pol Pot tried to wipe out anyone that may be a threat to his regime. The Khmer Rouge would brainwash children from the age of 10-17 into joining the cause and working as guards in various prisons. At these prisons, interrogations would take place.  Some questions were as simple as asking “Are you a teacher?” or as insane as asking if someone was a CIA agent.  The interrogators would not take no for an answer. They would even interrogate children to find out if anyone in their lives may have spoken bad about the Khmer Rouge regime. Once you answered yes to one of their questions or told them what they wanted to hear, you would be killed. If you didn’t say what they wanted to hear, you would be tortured until you said yes. Nobody left the prisons a free man.  The regime was finally ended when the Vietnamese liberated the Cambodians from Pol Pot on January 7, 1979. It is now a day of mourning and celebration.

Our first stop of the day was to visit the largest Killing Field in Cambodia. It was in a secluded place, actually an old Chinese cemetery, because they did not want the locals to know about what was taking place. Once someone confessed while being interrogated, they were blindfolded and taken to the Killing Field in a truck. They would line them up on their knees around a pit and hit them in the head to kill them. If they didn’t die, they’d be hit until they were dead. Women’s bodies were found naked because they were raped before they were murdered. Children were beaten against a tree until they died. Some children were thrown into the air and were impaled by spikes when they landed. It was disgusting. Over 20,000 people were murdered at that specific field.

Out of respect for the victims, people leave bracelets at some of the memorials.

While walking around the Killing Fields, you can still spot bones, teeth and rags of clothing that surface every time it rains. They are just there as a reminder of a horrible, disgusting time in recent history. As we walked around, there were signs that identified mass graves and locations where brutal things took place.

There was a large structure at the Killing Fields filled with skulls and other bones that were found during the excavation of the site.

After the disturbing tour, we boarded our bus and headed to the infamous S-21 Prison which is where the 20,000 people that were murdered at the Killing Field we visited spent their final days, weeks or months. The prison was a converted High School and had 4 blocks.

Block A was for the upper class and educated people – there was one person to a cell which was about 10′ by 20′ and their legs were shackled to a bed. There was a box for them to use for going to the bathroom as the only time they were allowed out of the cell was when they were interrogated.

Block B was the booking block. It was filled with mugshot of adults and children that were brought to the prison. Some children were smiling because they had no idea what was going on. Each prisoner had a number which was affixed to their shirt.

Block C was the prison for ordinary people. Each cell was 6′ by 3′ and had no bed. People slept on the floor and used a box for the toilet. Twice a week, the guards took a hose and used it to clean people through the windows. Not everyone got wet or clean. Again, the only time prisoners left their cell was when they were interrogated. All prisoners were fed a bland, watery rice twice a day. Normally, it only has 2 grains of rice.

Block D was the interrogation block. This is where thousands of innocent people confessed to things they didn’t do simply to make the torture stop. Many of them thought that they would be freed once they confessed, but they were brought to the Killing Fields and murdered. Some of the more brutal types of torture that were used include cutting nails off people’s hands and feet with a pencil, cutting someone’s nipple off and putting a creature on the bleeding wound, water boarding, electrocution and hanging someone from their arms until they passed out then dipping them in foul water to wake them back up.

We had the privilege of meeting Mr. Chum Mey, one of only 11 survivors from the S-21 prison. He was a mechanic, so they kept him alive to fix things, but he was still tortured. He was hit and broke his finger and toe, electrocuted in the ear to the point where he went blind in one eye, and had his nails ripped off.  As he is now in the latter part of his life, I am happy I was able to hear his first hand account of what happened in that horrible prison.

It is hard to believe that such horrible events were taking place just 40 years ago and so close to the end of World War II, but, unfortunately, those atrocities are always taking place – the Rwandan Genocide and even look at Syria today.

After an emotional afternoon, we returned to our hotel to change for dinner at an amazing restaurant for a wonderful cause. The Friends Restaurant employs former street kids and shows them how to run a proper restaurant instead of selling things for minimal profit on the street. The food was excellent, too!  We even had the opportunity to try tarantulas – I tried, but couldn’t swallow it.

After dinner, we all went up to our hotel’s rooftop where we had a few drinks in the pool that overlooked the skyline of Phnom Penh. We didn’t want to go out because the city isn’t the safest city at night, but had an amazing time chatting with everyone. When the pool closed, about 8 of us crowded into a hotel room to play a few card games.

The following morning, we all had the opportunity to sleep in since our flight wasn’t until the late afternoon. At about 11:15 AM, we checked out of the hotel and headed to a store affiliated with the Friends Restaurant which has handmade items that former street kids make. The point of the store is to show them how to make a variety of products, not just the same product over and over. I bought a wallet made out of tires which has a few pockets designed for SIM cards and SIM card ejectors, a ChildSafe baggage tag which promotes education and a set of coasters made of hand rolled paper.

We then went back to the Friends Restaurant for lunch because it was so good the night before. I didn’t get tarantulas, though.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed a bakery that I’ve been to in Paris and New York, Eric Kayser, so I bought a box of macaroons for the group to share. They were out of this world. We then headed to the airport to catch a 40 minute flight to Siem Reap!

Phnom Penh was a very unique city. The level of poverty was something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before, but so many expats live in the city that there are nice restaurants and bakeries. It was quite a dynamic place.

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