Notes on Tuol Sleng

We got to Phnom Pehn on Wednesday afternoon after a six hour bus trip from Siem Reap. Originally, we were to take a plane, but the tour group decided–without telling us directly before the tour started–that it changed the transport to public bus. At least the bus was air considitioned, no one sat on my lap, and no kids or farm animals roamed the aisles. The seats were a step up in comfort from those on a plane. To boot, the bus ahd a DVD player, which played pop tunes in Khmer (which are just as shitty as their western counterparts). Hotel overlooks the Tonle Sap River, which moves quickly due to the heavy rains in the region.
Phnom Pehn is a bit like India lite–chaotic traffic (lots of motorbikes, because gas is so expensive), beggars, and tuk tuk(motorcycles that tote 2-4 people in a canopied cab) drivers everywhere. You barely step out of a tuk tuk when someone approahces, “Tuk tuk?” You have to have a sense of humor about it because the poverty and desperation is awful. China has a lot of sweatshops here. And the exploitation of children for selling items, including sex, is all over. One of the first signs you see at the border entering Cambodia is one warning visitors that it is a crime to have sex with children.
Yesterday am we toured Tuol Sleng prison, one of many in the country where enemies of the Khmer Rouge were tortured and executed. Our tour guide, a man a year younger than I am, has the perpetual look of sorrowful resignation. He was one of 8 kids, who lost a few siblings and a father to malaria and starvation. His mother is remarried and has a new family. When the KR took over, they separated kids from their parents. He and his sibs were told to tell KR soldiers that his parents were dead.
Some history: Within hours of takeover, the KR evacuated the citizens of Phnom Pehn, who were subsequently sent into the fields to work or were killed.They lured educated people by initially offering jobs, then sending them for execution. They executed anyone who would challenge Pol Pot’s ideas. Pol Pot, who had been a monk for 2 years before he rose to lead the KR, abolished Buddhism, convenently killing another group that would speak out about his atrocities. 1.7 million died from executions, and it included Americans, Thais, Australians, Laos, Vietnamese–they weren’t allowed to leave because they knew too much. In Pol Pot’s vision of returning to Year Zero, he abolished religion and the family unit. Anyone who spoke out or crossed him was killed, along with their families. People were sent into the fields to work, and the food was sent to China in exchange for arms. Starvation was rampant. Only soldiers received decent rations, so many young men joined up in order to eat.
When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, after KR killed some Vietnamese, the KR executed 14 remaining prisoners–7 others survived, including a painter named Vann Nath, who later returned to paint images of what he remembered as a prisoner (he is also featured in a documentatry called S-21, where he confronts his captors). Tuol Sleng features some of these gruesome works.
We then went to Choeng Ek, one of thousands of killing fields across Cambodia, which is 20-30 minute drive from PP. Choeng Ek used to be a Chinese cemetary. It features a stupa with over 8000 skulls that were retrieved in the many mass graves in this area. The rains washed up more pieces of clothing and bones on the paths, which I saw, including a piece of jawbone and human teeth. Our guide didn’t blink an eye.
Pol Pot and his goons went unpunished for their crimes, with many former high ranking KR defecting to the government that overthrew KR. Pol Pot kept a seat on the UN for years afterwards, and was supported by multiple Western nations (including US) because its enemies were Vietnam, Soviet Union, and China at the time.
After that morning, we went to eat lunch at Friends, a restaurant that supports street youth and trains them for the hospitality industry. I ahd the best curried pumpkin soup ever. Then went to the National Museum, located on beautiful grounds, and the Royal Palace. The wealthof the palace was otherwordly when there is so much poverty outside. Gold everwhere, silver tiles in one part, and a couple diamond encrusted Buddhas–not exactly the “Middle Path”.
Today we are taking a cruise on teh Tonle Sap River, which will turn into the Mekong–will end up in Chau Doc, Vietnam, tonight.
Peace Out–Aimee

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