If you speak to anyone who’s been to Cambodia they will have done two things for sure; been to Phnom Penh to learn about the atrocities the country endured under the Khmer Rouge, and seen the temples of Angkor. After an amazing few days on a beach, we went back to Phnom Penh to visit S21 and the Killing Fields. We knew this part of the trip would be tough, and it definitely was,but you can’t go to a country like this and not learn what it’s been through.
This is pretty hard to write, so probably read too. Warning for those of you easily upset.
A brief history lesson
For those that don’t know the history, after getting clobbered during the Vietnam war by US bombs, the Khmer Rouge were elected into power and immediately enforced atrocious social conditioning regulations nationally. Pol Pot, the leader of the party vowed to create a totally self sufficient nation, meaning Cambodia created all their own goods and produce. This included EVERYTHING in his eyes, like medicine and vehicles as well as food produce, which was never going to be possible. Pot ordered and forced (violently) all Cambodian residents living in cities to go and work on the fields in the rural areas of the country. The results were devastating as half the nation obviously didn’t know why they were doing! The country was immediately hit by famine, and thousands died from malnutrition and exhaustion (people were forced to work 20 hour days with almost no food).
This sounds bad, but it gets worse.
It’s safe to say the Khmer Rouge drew its ideology from Marxism and the more extreme Maoism, but took things an extreme to say the least. The concept of creating the pure Cambodian culture stretched to pure xenophobia towards anyone not 100% Khmer, and resulted in widespread ethnic cleansing exercises. It didn’t end there though, Pot believed that the west influenced culture too much with education, medicine, culture, even religion, so simply banned it all. He wanted the nation to return to a agriculture based existence, replicating the life of the Angkor tribes still living in rural areas. Anyone who was educated, spoke another language, or even wore glasses was immediately sent to the farms to work, or to the prisons like s21 to avoid repercussions from family members, the whole family endured the same fate too. Prison camps like S21 (originally a school that was converted into the prison) would torture thousands of Cambodians to endure inconceivable levels of horrific torture and humiliation. The aim of this was to identify the believed spies for the FBI, KGB, MI6 and other nations secret services which obviously didn’t actually exist; yet more of the horrific propaganda spewed from the Pot regime.
Pot declared the nation full of ‘Enemies’ of the nation who would be punished (tortured and killed). Anyone who had connections to the previous government, was educated, a ‘professional’, anyone not pure Cambodian, ‘economy saboteurs’ who didn’t buy into the new ideology didn’t stand a change, even just being perceived as being intellectual, cause having glasses means your clever innit.
The crimes against humanity committed in Cambodia resulted in a quarter of the nation being murdered. It’s quite rare to see anyone elderly here now, and the average age in Cambodia is one of the lowest across the globe. Research indicates that anything between 1-3 million people died during the Khmer Rouge rule.
S21 is a prison that was discovered after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979. There are only 8 people who are known to have made it out alive I believe. There have been hundreds of these camps discovered across the nation. What we heard, read and saw there was utterly harrowing. The museum is in tact as it was found. Over the 4 years the Khmer Rouge were in control, around 20000 people were imprisoned here, tortured, and murdered, and this was one of hundreds of prisons. It’s inconceivable to think this happened to recently, yet when we look around we see atrocities continuing all around the world to this day. It really made me take a step back and think about humanity and how shit we are in general.
Sorry, but it kinda gets worse again.
The killing fields
After nearing a pretty tough morning at s21 we head to the killing fields (Choeung Ek). This is exactly how it sounds: a field for mass murder.
After prisoners confessed to treason (or whatever crime they were forced into confessing) at S21/similar they were bussed to killing fields, where they were murdered and thrown in mass graves. Bullets were scarce, so the killing was done with handheld weapons in the main. Horrifically, there was one mass grave just for women and children, where the kids were picked up by their feet and smashed into a tree head first before being flung on a pit with hundreds of other victims. This tree has been named the killing tree and is now covered in bracelets and gifts from those that visit.
Towards the end of the rule, anything up to 300 people were sent to this field every day! Once you ended up here, you didn’t make it out again: your fate was sealed. Over 9000 bodies have been found across the vast array of mass graves at this site alone. Again, hundreds have been discovered across Cambodia.
This place was eye opening. From the pits dotted all over the site, to the bits of bone and clothing that still come up from the soil after rainy periods, to the Stupa in memory of those that died, which contains over 5000 skulls discovered so far at the site. I can only use the word harrowing again, it was eye opening, horrific, truly upsetting, and thought provoking.
What I think makes all this worse though, is the criminal charges against the leaders of the Khmer Rouge are STILL GOING ON! Pol Pot took exile in rural Cambodia near thailand until he died, and his cronies have either escaped through dementia, ended up in prison for the later parts of their life, or died themselves. I think to date, only a handful of the party leaders have been imprisoned and only ONE has accepted any remorse or responsibility. Along side this the Khmer Rouge had a seat on the UN throughout all of this, other nations played dumb and didn’t intervene, and some sources imply that countries like the UK And USA actively supported the Khmer Rouge! Even if this isn’t true, there’s not much evidence showing global intervention to stop anything! Seriously, WTF kind of world do we live in? Even writing this is making me hate waves of humanity. How the hell is stuff like this still going on daily across the globe.
Okay that was tough to write, but needed to be written.
So after a day of sadness in Phnom Penh we got a night bus to Siem Reap.
Siem reap- unleashing our inner Tomb Raider
After getting dropped off on the outskirts of the city before 5am, in the rain, with nowhere booked to stay, we weren’t really feeling a day walking around the temples, so spent the day researching the temples and planning our next two days, as well as exploring the city. Firstly, I need to say I really liked this place. The atmosphere is quality, and there’s so many things to do (including going to the cinema on a miserably rainy day, which I definitely did). I’d recommend staying around Pub St if you go as this is where all the action is. I ended up out with some guys from the island for a few bevvies and had a great night. Regardless, you don’t go to Siem Reap for a piss up, you go for the temples.
The Angkor temples are a UNESCO world heritage site; It’s actually the worlds biggest religious site covering a vast distance through forest and jungle land. You could probably spend a week here and barely scratch the surface. We spent two days exploring the main areas but definitely could have done way more.
Now rather than talking about each temple individually, I just want to give an overview.
Firstly, each place seems like a one of a kind. We probably visited 20 or so temples over the two days we explored I didn’t get temple fatigue for this reason. On day one we hired a scooter and drove around ourselves, starting at the other end of the main body of temples, and each one we saw was totally different from another. Our first two were either vast and in the middle of the jungle, or a floating temple on a tiny island, even getting to the temple was like nothing I’ve experienced before. You know those scenes in Harry Potter where the ghosts come out the water? This made me think of that!
The highlight of day one for me was the famous “tomb Raider” temple, Ta Phrom. I can see why this temple is so famous, it’s incredible! The whole temple has been taken back by the forest, with tree routes running through the whole thing, taking over vast areas of the site. I have never seen anything like this before, and probably never will again. Seriously, everywhere I looked I was mesmerised. It also made me think the earth always wins in some way… Words can’t really describe this, so just take a look for yourself; this was probably my favourite place over the whole two days.
On day two we decided to be lazy and get a driver. Doing things yourself is cool, but actually quite draining as I spent half my time trying to not tip the bike over on the slippery clay roads peppered with massive pot holes! We started the day with the most famous temple, Angkor Wat.
Again, I’m struggling to put an explanation of how amazing this place was into words. The building itself is huge and beautiful. I can only imagine what it would have looked like in its hay day. The truly amazing thing though is it was built in about 18 years, with rock taken from over 20 miles away. Comparatively when cathedrals were being built in Europe they took at least double this time to be constructed!
We were lucky enough to get up to the top of Angkor Wat; I think the fact it was raining helped us a lot.the views were outstanding but to be honest the higher parts of the temple were simply mesmerising! I also got a blessing from this monk; probably need a few more before I’m accepted into Nirvana!
After a good 2 hours at Angkor Wat we went full blown Lara Croft and went off finding our own temples. I think between us we’ve probably taken 1000 photos of all the temples we visited so theres way too many to put up here, but it was a great few hours seeing some of the lesser known temples buried more in the forestry.
To finish up, we visited Angkor Tom and the surrounding temples. Again, this is HUGE! Climbing up to the top of these was a battle as the steps are so steep, uneven and obviously rather rocky, but it felt like an achievement! Our favourite temple here was the Bayon temple, paying homage to shiva. Again, it’s vast, but the heads of Shiva are just everywhere and so many are so well restored or preserved. It’s a very spiritual place to be and even better place to finish up our trip. I can see why this has been dubbed one of the must see things across the globe. Lonely planet actually named it number one!
I A couple of pointers if you go manage to go:-
- Book your own driver, it’s so much easier
- Ask your driver about the routes and timings of the coaches. There are thousands of people doing these temples each day so if you get it wrong, you’ll be covered in tourists wearing silly hats, thats never good good for once in a lifetime photos.
- Keep an eye on the weather. We didn’t get to do sunrise at Angkor Wat because it was overcast or cloudy each morning, fortunately we checked the weather so didn’t get up super early to be disappointed.
- Likewise if you go when it’s clear skies it’s gonna be HOT! You will get burned and will get dehydrated unless you properly hydrate yourself.
- Be careful with where you eat. You will get stung in most places. Ask your driver for cheap place, we did this and had one of the best meals we had in Cambodia.
- DO NOT buy things from kids. Child poverty and child labour are issues here and Cambodia are trying to do something about it especially around Ankor. Don’t encourage it!
So this is our last stop in Cambodia. It’s a magical county that should definitely be on your bucket list. Like India, we both endured a myriad of emotions as we travelled around but overall it’s a wonderful place. Next stop, Thailand for a week of frolicking around the north in the jungles, before celebrating xmas in the sun!