After a 6 hour bus journey, down a heavily pot-holed road, on a bus that severely lacked suspension, we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. There we spent two very sobering days, visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. When Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, they set about enforcing their interpretation of Agrarian Socialism on Cambodia, founded on Maoist ideology. This included deliberately destroying the national culture, history and identity to create a new state beginning in ‘Year Zero.’ A process of forced relocation moved the entire population out of the cities and into slave labour farming the land. Anyone who refused would be executed. Over the next 3 years, anybody considered a threat to the regime was systematically murdered and by 1978 between 20% and 30% of the population had died, either from overexertion as a result of forced labour, starvation, torture or genocide.
At the torture prison of Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge committed horrendous acts of torture on innocent people until they agreed to make false confessions. The vast majority of people tortured and killed were not criminals, or people who had defied the regime, but were instead educated people, teachers and doctors, who Pol Pot saw as a threat to his ideology. If we had lived in Cambodia during this period, as university graduates, we would have almost certainly been executed by the regime.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, are just one of over 300 locations across Cambodia, where mass genocide was committed. The execution methods used here were barbaric. Bullets were expensive, so instead the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned victims with farming tools, slit their throats to ensure they were dead and pushed the bodies into mass graves. Children were executed here too and were beaten to death against a tree. Today the site is a peaceful place and a national monument to the victims. As you walk around the site, you can see teeth, bones and rags of the victims clothing, which are still gradually emerging from the ground and you have to be careful not to step on fragments of bone. A pagoda houses nearly 9,000 skulls of victims killed at Choeung Ek. Many more remain buried. Whilst it is an extremely harrowing experience to visit such places, we think it is important for people to learn from the past to help prevent further atrocities in the future.
After two thoroughly depressing days, we spent some time exploring the rest of Phnom Penh, including the river front and the Royal Palace, which houses the impressive Silver Pagoda Complex and is the residence of the King. We also met up for some last minute late night drinks with Hannah and Matt, a couple we had met whilst travelling in Indonesia.
From Phnom Penh we took a bus to Kratie for a few days, a small town on the banks of the Mekong river. We took a boat across to the small Mekong Island of Koh Trong and hired bikes. We spent a day cycling around the island looking at the rural life and the fishing villages. The next day we went on a boat trip to look for the rare Irrawaddy River Dolphins. There are less than 100 left in Cambodia and Laos, but we were lucky to see about 30 of them! Whilst we were in Kratie, we also tried a local delicacy called Krolan; a delicious mix of sticky rice, coconut and beans, sealed in a bamboo tube, which you have to peel open to eat.
After visiting Kratie, we returned to Phnom Penh where we visited the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, which looks after Cambodian animals rescued from poachers, restaurants and fur farms etc. as well as injured animals, including an elephant with a prosthetic leg. The animals are well cared for by the Wildlife Alliance and we got to interact with lots of them. We were able to hand-feed otters and to stroke some gibbons. One gibbon kept reaching out her hand and grasping Kate’s hand and moving it towards her head as she wanted a head scratch! We spent the day being followed by a troop of Long Tailed Macaques, a few of whom decided to ride some of the Samba Deer as we walked through the deer enclosure!
From Phnom Penh we took a bus towards our next destination, Vietnam…