Miss Saigon

and I’ll miss Shanghai, and I’ll also miss the numerous places I saw in Cambodia. It’s been a great holiday, but, like all good things, it has come to an end. A day early, in fact, but that is the topic for a different blog.

The final day was a sobering one for me as I had decided to reserve it for a trip to the notorious Toul Sleng prison, S-21, the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre which provided the many thousands of mutilated bodies found in the killing fields of Cheung Ek. This provided for a harrowing afternoon in probably the most sparse but most grim museum I’ve ever visited.

A former high school in a bustling suburb of Phnom Penh, it was repurposed for its grisly mission early on under the Pol Pot regime, and some of the victims it claimed within its first two years, once the party started its neurotic internal purges, were people who had helped Brother No. 1 to ‘liberate’ the country.

As a stark introduction to the topic, the ground floor rooms of the first wing each hold only the frame of the bed it housed, and a black and white photo of the brutalised corpse discovered within it on the day it was finally abandoned in retreat with 14 prisoners hastily dispatched, and only 7 living inmates left behind, some of whom now return to the museum on a regular basis to speak to visitors.

The layout of the building, where some of the rooms still have chalkboards attached to the walls, is so clearly purpose built to be a school that the horror of the second block, where tiny cells were constructed of brick or of wood within each classroom to hold individuals, is multiplied by the everyday innocuousness of the surroundings. The ground floor houses ranks upon ranks of photos of the victims, all of whom were measured and photographed on admission.

The final room is the ‘movie room’ which hosts two daily showings of the documentary, ‘Bophana,’ one of which I was happily in time to catch. Interwoven with the personal story of Hout Bophana, who died at S-21 leaving 1000 pages of ‘confessions,’ there are recorded memories and testimonies of her family, people who knew her in the village she was evacuated to, and various people who were at S-21. The shocking thing is how recent these atrocities were. The leaders are still on trial at the ECCC. The generation above mine lived through the evacuations of their cities; lost their lands, their livelihoods, their loved ones, and were forced to work the fields to grow rice that wasn’t sufficient to feed the starving nation.

This visit neatly top-and-tailed my experience of the, ‘Kingdom of Wonder;’ a land of contrasts. On the day we arrived, the seven hour bus trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap furnished us first of all with a highly dramatised documentary about the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire and the glories of the temples at Angkor, and then with the film The Killing Fields and the fear and misery of Year Zero. Since then I’ve been making my way forwards through Khmer history, starting with the temples, progressing through the French colonial glories of Battambong, coming up to date with a week on the beach at Sihanoukville, and finally plunging into the darkness of the civil war and revolution, hanging out at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on the riverbank, and enjoying the cafes, restaurants and shady walks along the beautiful streets of the BKK1 area of Phnom Penh. All in all, a top notch holiday!

Sunset at Otres beach, Sihanoukville

The many amazing faces of the Bayon, Siem Reap



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. aFrankAngle
    Sep 22, 2014 @ 22:13:03

    Eerie amidst the beauty.



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