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Impressed by Tuol Sleng and Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Aside of all the beautiful attractions in Phnom Penh, a visit to Tuol Sleng prison and the nearby killing fields leaves a huge impression on us. These sites still show the cruelties of the Khmer Rouge regime only a few decades ago.

Cell in Tuol Sleng prison with bed and picture on the wall

We arrive by boat at the Cambodia border crossing on the Mekong river near Chau Doc. First some formalities to leave Vietnam, after which we get to fill in some forms to enter Cambodia. With these forms we pass the border, but that's just the beginning. With a speedboat we are led to a police post, where they take our passports into a building only to come back with stamps in them after an hour. Then, the boat brings us 100 meters further, for a luggage check. And after another 100 meters there is another checkpoint, but this one lets us through without checking.

At the Cambodian side, the boat goes with high speed over the Mekong river. The river is very wide here, but looking at the banks it's clear that less people live near the river, compared to Vietnam. Monks at a wat in Phnom PenhAfter a few hours, we transfer to a bus, from which we can see many more differences. The Cambodians live in wooden houses on poles. They differ in size, but are all in the same style. Even the ones built with leaves look classy.

Another striking aspect is the amount of temples, also known as wats. They are colorful, and built in a typical style. The approach to the temples to a wat is always preceded by an arch with a few mini towers in Angkor Wat style. Later we learn that people are rebuilding the temples everywhere, after they have been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

After a few hours bumping on the "highway", we arrive in Phnom Penh. At first sight, this is another big city with a large number of motorbikes on the streets. But, when we look closer, there are only a few main crowded roads with asphalt. In between are mazes of unpaved roads, relatively quiet and nice. On such a road we choose out hotel.

Tuol Sleng prison

Paintings of the Khmer rouge cruelties in Tuol Sleng prisonAfter a good nights rest, we pay a visit to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. Tuol Sleng used to be a school, but was transformed by the Khmer Rouge into S-21 prison, nowadays more known as Tuol Sleng prison. Although we have read about this place, we are impressed beyond words when we visit it.

The first building in the Tuol Sleng compound consists of the cells (former classrooms), with beds and pictures on the wall. The pictures show the dead people on the beds, just how they were found here after the liberation of the Khmer Rouge regime. The bodies are removed, but the rest of the rooms are left how they were found. Tears come to our eyes just looking at the scene.

The next building contains small 1-person cells and large cells in which many prisoners were kept. The last building contains many pictures and paintings of the cruelties and conditions during the Khmer Rouge regime. A lot of the information is in Khmer (Cambodian language) or French, but the images speak for themselves. The last piece of work is a composition of sculls shaped in the contours of the country. A little depressed we leave Tuol Sleng prison.

The rest of the day we stroll around in the city. Still impressed we try to imagine what has changed here in the last 30 years. Before 1975 over 2 million people lived here. Immediately after the arrival of the Khmer Rouge (at first welcomed with joy), they started clearing the city, moving everybody to the countryside. After the partial liberation in 1979, the population of what was left of it returned. But since there were no proofs of ownership, everybody could claim an empty house. As a result, nearly nobody could return to their own house. Currently (in 2001), the population is still not much more than 1 million people.

On our walk, we pass several nice buildings. We wonder whether they are from before or after the Khmer Rouge regime. A lot of colonial buildings have remained as well, as did the monument of independence and the royal palace. Most of the temples, however, are rebuilt after 1980.

The Royal Palace

Compound of the Royal Palace in Phnom PenhAs a contrast to Tuol Sleng, the next day we decide to visit the Royal Palace. Or rather, the buildings around it, like the Throne Hall and the Chan Chhaya Pavilion. The buildings are beautifully colored in gold-yellow between lush green gardens. The terrain is separated by a wall from the complex of the Silver Pagoda. This is a temple that has not been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, just to show the outside world that the regime indeed was careful with the cultural heritage of Cambodia. The Silver Pagoda itself (named after the ugly silver floor tiles) appears not to be very special from the inside, depite of yet another big Buddha. This is in contrast to the rest of the Silver Pagoda complex, consisting of several nice small temples and stupas, and a long painted wall.

The Killing Fields

In the evening, the movie "the Killing Fields" is shown in our hotel. Having seen it, we are prepared for a visit to the actual killing fields in Choeung Ek, 17 kilometers from Phnom Penh. It's a good thing to come prepared, for there is little information on the site itself about what happened here. Mass grave and tree for smashing babies at the killing fields of Choeung EkThere are just the empty graves, in which some pieces of bones and worn clothes still linger. On one of the trees a sign in Khmer (the Cambodian language) probably explains that it was used for smashing young babies to death, the signs of which can still be seen.

In the middle of the compound is a large monument with the bones and skulls nicely arranged. Because of the quiet surroundings the place seems peaceful, it's the knowledge of what happened here, and the combination with what we saw in Tuol Sleng prison that makes it impressive.

Discussing politics

In the car to and from the Killing Fields, we talk with the driver about the current situation in Cambodia. It has only been a few years since the last Khmer Rouge soldiers surrendered and the country can be considered safe again. Yet, the political situation is still far from stable. In 1997 one of the coalition parties used the army to gain complete control over the country. Now, in 2002, there have just been local elections, won by that same party. According to our driver not because people wanted them to win, but because the people are afraid for another civil war.

The National Museum of Phnom PenhIn the night before we would like to go on to Battambang, Sabine got ill. So we extended our stay in Phnom Penh with one more day, in which we take it slow. Patrick visits some more temples, but most of the time we spend reading. We found two books written by victims of the Khmer Rouge, and get to know more about this part of Cambodian history. One of them survided Tuol Sleng prison, as one of only 12 survivors. It leaves us even more impressed. We cannot look at a Cambodian withour guessing his age and wondering what he must have gone through. Nobody older than 25 has not been through any suffering. We find it very remarkable that most of the Cambodian people are so very friendly, given what they must have endured in the recent past.

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