Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Phnom Phen - Oct 10

I finally arrived in Phnom Phen after my 6 hour bus ride lasted just over 12 hours. Turns out it was a National holiday and as my barely english speaking seat mate put it - an "unlucky" day to travel. We sat pretty much at a stand still for over 5 hours waiting for a ferry that I didn't know we were waiting for. Apparently you have to take a boat over the river to get into Phnom Phen. You can imagine my surprise in the dark of night when I asked the guy next to me - "are we on a boat?!". It gave him a good chuckle but as the only foreigner on the bus and even the host only speaking broken English, it made for an uneasy journey.

Arriving at night meant that the bus stopped right on the river in hotel/guesthouse central rather than a little more into town at the market. This was good news for me as it was now 9pm, dark and pouring rain and now I didn't have far to trek to find a hotel. In fact I found the one I was hoping for (as recommended by my Frommers guide) just a block or two from where I got off the bus.

This morning I got up and made my way to breakfast in the pouring rain and tonight, I made my way to dinner in the same condition. The weather broke briefly during the day, but not for long. To keep occupied and dry, I checked out the National museum first. I tried making it there by foot since I knew it wasn't far, but since the rain was so thick I could barely see down the road, I opted for a $2 tuk-tuk instead of wandering lost and getting soaked. The museum wasn't great, but for the $2 admittance it was the perfect dry attraction.

After a quick wander around the streets during the first brief period of dry, I caught some lunch and ended up meeting a couple from Edmonton. They were headed to Vietnam doing the south to north route with a few of the same stops we did. I offered some advice, raised caution about shoe makers in Hoi An and we said goodbye.

I did a visit to the Royal Palace as well since it was across the street and the rain was still on hold. It wasn't worth the $6 entrance fee, plus, I think I got hit on by a monk.

With still a few daylight hours left, I decided that I would check out the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and former prison. This was something I had previously decided to avoid completely given the reading I've been doing about the Khmer Rouge. This is something I've just learned of recently and is likely responsible for my uneasy feeling in Cambodia. I've been reminding myself that the people have moved forward and the Pol Pot reign is now a part of their history. However, this gruesome past being only 31 years ago gave me no comfort. Looking around, I was always trying to estimate the ages of the local faces and realized soberly that if they were between the ages of 31-36, they were likely born in a concentration camp. If they looked 36 or older, it's very possibly may have lived through the nightmare of what was called the Cambodian holocaust. It was very rare to see old people. They simply did not survive the genocide of 1/4 of Cambodia's population from 1975 - 1979.

I thought that visiting this old high school converted into a detention facility used for interrogation and brutal torture before prisoners where shipped out to the killing fields would be similar to most museums. I assumed it would hold some original artifacts, provide information but mostly be a preservation of the past for the purposes for learning for the future, but more so a tourist trap. I was quickly corrected.

The actual sight came on me quickly since it originally was a middle school. Its in the middle of a busy neighborhood with not much foreground like you might expect a national exhibit to have. The excess in barbed wire over the enclosing walls garnered my attention and a double take, but it was pissing rain so hard that I practically ran through the gates, grabbed my ticket and straight into the first building on the left side of the "U" shaped compound.

Looking up for the first time, I was inside a barren classroom that had been used for torture. It had only a bed frame with rusted shackles on it. There was no electricity in this particular building and the dark rain clouds made it even harder to see. I could tell however that there was a large picture on the wall but needed to take a picture of it (with flash) to make out what it was. Only after viewing the playback on my camera could I see it was a very clear, very graphic and very real picture of a recently brutally tortured dead body, likely from in that very room. Immediately I was second guessing my decision to visit this place.

The entire first floor of this building was the same. Room after room of torture facility each displaying large graphic and (again) very real photos of what took place. Glad to have made it through those halls and eager to move onto the next building (which I could see had electricity) I darted out and moved on. The next set of rooms displayed what was described as the "nazi-like" documentation of prisoners. Every prisoner that was brought here was photographed upon arrival. Every one of the photos (originals) where displayed in the next few rooms. Starting in 1975, the photos looked like most mugs shots do. Deadpan expression, passport quality smile. As the years progressed, and the devastation of Pol Pots reign plagued the country, people knew more and more about S-21 (its official name) and what went on there. The photos slowly turned from deadpan to unimaginable fear. It was difficult to even look at some.

From what I understand, Khmer people (Cambodians) think its important to preserve the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide museum as a reminder of a life/country they will never return to. They think that by showing, in grave detail, the horrific nightmare that once was, people will never allow that sort of revolution again and that people will learn never to be that brutal and inhumane.

After passing through the final room, which housed floor to ceiling glass casings full of human skulls, I'm not sure how I feel. I'm certain that the images I saw today were things I wish I didn't. But at the same time, I'm not sure my generation, and especially those from the western world, could ever understand, comprehend or even take seriously something like this. I say "take seriously" because to us (well, speaking for myself), war is something found in textbooks or on TV on the other side of the world. Our parents may have (or may not have) had a related experience with, but mostly, nightmares are things found in good Hollywood films. We have nothing that makes this sort of thing a reality for us. Genocide, torture, random arrests and daily killings, evacuations and complete fear. We just can't relate.

Despite the nightmares I'm sure to have tonight, I'm glad to have seen and felt a part of history. I gained a little perspective today, a little appreciation and a lot of gratitude for the world in which I live. Wow, that doesn't seem to scratch the surface of it.

More pictures of Phnom Phen and the genocide museum here:

No comments:

Post a Comment