Friday, 20 February 2015

Dr Evil and the Killing Fields

Another travel blog from number 1 daughter who is making the most of this 
wonderful opportunity to travel the world. I wish...

All was going relatively well until I got tonsillitis on the 13 hour bus journey 
between Laos and Cambodia. Simultaneously shivering and sweating on shit
-coloured leather seats with a trigger-happy-with-the-horn driver meant that 
life was not turned onto Comedy Central that day.

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, the boy's first port of call was to find a non-
dodgy chemist, in a city where behind every counter lies a Dr Evil maniacally 
cracking his fingers. Entering a pharmacy in Cambodia is a little like the 
Skittles Midas Touch advert* where everything one touches explodes into 
thousands of colourful sweets - except here it's obviously pills. The good 
news was that you didn't need a prescription for anything, just simply a 
response to:

"What you want? Where you from? I get you anything you want!"

Luckily Alex's fine memory from his New Year's sickbed experience meant that 
he could reel off all the antibiotics he took, including some very nasty mouth-
spray which was like inhaling bug repellent. Alex actually calls this stuff 
'Pooberry Juice' and has concocted a theme-tune for it to the rhythm to The 
Who's 'Who Are You' - just play it out in your head. And don't let it stick.

Alex has just asked me why I blame him anytime I write something stupid on 
this blog. He's right, it's a joint effort. (It was really him).

One night spent at 11 Happy Backpackers Hostel was enough for us to swerve 
off the budget trail and check us in to an actual hotel with hot water. The music 
played until 3am and was loud enough for me to suddenly sit up in the middle 
of the night and name the song - an astonishing feat for a deaf person who has 
old fashioned taste in music. The ceiling was pretty low and so the ceiling fan 
hovered precariously above Alex's head. This meant that inevitably, when putting 
a tshirt on, he experienced an almost finger dismemberment that any fan (ha!) of 
the film 300 would have been proud of. The sheets were dirty, the water cold and 
the drains in the bathroom smelt pretty miserable. It was only a fiver, but if we 
had stayed another night, you would have seen a reproduction of the prom scene 
in 'Carrie' with me starring in it.

Being sick enables a little bit of extra leeway - a little bit of getting away with things 
I wouldn't ordinarily be allowed to do. For when I asked Alex whilst he was shaving 
to show me what he would look like if he had a goatee, he indulged.

Photo removed here by owner's request.

Additionally, I also discovered that the one thing that his father would say to him as 
a child that really riled him up was "Stop showing off". This would result in a freeze 
and a quiet fury radiating from every pore of his eight year old body which was a 
very cute image and useful ammunition.

Six days later and I was sufficiently recovered to actually go out and see Phnom 
Penh and to visit two of the sights I had really been looking forward to - Tuol Sleng 
Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Because it is simply not possible to 
describe our experiences here in an entertaining way, you will have to accept my 
apologies because the funny part of this blog is over.

In spite of having a history degree, I shamefully know very little about the Khmer 
Rouge period which meant that whilst I knew this was somewhere I had to visit, I 
didn't really appreciate why. Though I knew that if HCMC's Revolutionary Museum 
was anything to go by, this would be brutal.

The Khmer Rouge was Cambodia's Communist Party led by Pol Pot which ruled 
between 1975-1979. During this period, two million people - a third of Cambodia's 
population was killed by their own. Genocide - "a systematic destruction of a 
significant racial, ethnic, religious or national group" took place here. Tuol Sleng 
was a prison during the Khmer Rouge period which housed at least 1,500 people 
at any given time over the four years. Whom through torture were forced to 
confess to international espionage links with the CIA, KGB or Vietnam.

Tuol Sleng's premises is a high school. Playgrounds, classrooms, lockers - the 
things we all take for granted were there among the barbed wire fence, torture 
instruments and rows and rows of photographs of prisoners. A clash of good and
 evil, of right and wrong. Many of the classrooms are subdivided into crude cells for 
the prisoners. Blood stains remain on the floor, gruesome pictures of torture taking 
place stand unapologetically on walls. Outside stands a climbing frame with three 
pots sitting underneath. Prisoners were hung upside down here whilst being 
questioned, until they passed out from exhaustion at which point they would be
 dunked into human faeces. The most difficult of prisoners were skinned alive.

Did you know when arresting people, they took whole families to reduce the 
risk of bad blood or revenge later in life?

I'm going to crib a line by WW2 poet, Charles Sorley. "When you see the 
millions of mouthless dead"

Choeung Ek - the Killing Fields is a little further outside of town. We took a 
tuk-tuk in the early hours before the hoards of tourists arrived. Audio guides 
are presented to us, which I declined of course, but there was more than 
enough of a visual.

There is a 'Killing Tree' and a 'Magic Tree'. The Killing Tree is where soldiers 
would grip the ankles of babies and bash their brains in against the trunk. The 
Magic Tree held a loudspeaker which played music to drown out the screams 
and cries.

The palm trees, which stand next to us, were also a weapon - the serrated 
stem of the leaves were used to cut people's throats. Wooden shelters house 
the mass graves and thousands of bracelets are left on the fences as a 
blessing or a token to the dead. Only 79 of the 112 gravesites here have 
been excavated - they have chosen for the rest to be left alone.

Possibly one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen is observed when 
we walk around, there are rags in the hard soil of the paths we are walking on - 
clothes of the dead that are slowly rising to the surface after the rainy season. 
We are advised not to pick up the rags or the bones that are also emerging - 
the volunteer custodians that look after this place will do it after we have left.

It seems inane that a full excavation has not taken place - that people would not 
want their family or friends identified and their remains put to rest. But the 
unspeakable horror that took place here is visible - it smacks of impact. The final 
part of our visit was the Cheoung Ek memorial; a buddhist stupa with glass sides 
displaying over 5,000 skulls that have been found here. Red, yellow, blue, green 
stickers are affixed to the skulls to illuminate the cause of their death - whether by 
bullet, bayonet, club, hoe, tree or palm. Whatever they could put their hands on.

Most people didn't know where they were coming to - when they were blindfolded 
and transported at night to the Killing Fields. They were told they were going to 
somewhere else to work - most did not come from prisons but from the fields - 
picked out for wearing glasses (for these showed foreign influence), for looking 
like an ethnic minority - this all rings akin to the holocaust. And the court cases 
are still taking place to this day. The killers have still not been brought to justice.

I could have skipped all of this and lightly recounted the highlights of our visit to 
Phnom Penh. But this was it - the highlight. Phnom Penh itself was a little bleurgh 
and very smelly. After staying in five hostels in five nights in five different areas of 
the city, we felt we had seen it all. Sometimes it is not the best of times that stay with 
us, but the worst. And I will forever remember, with haunting precision, those rags 
and those bones. May they rest in peace.

*Check the Skittles Midas Touch advert out here.

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