On the drive to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, we stopped off at a bit of a tourist trap. Panya called it the Spider Service Station, a name that pretty much sums up the place. Insects are supposedly popular fare in Cambodia. This somewhat dates back to the civil war days when a significant amount of the population were starving. I’m not sure if Panya was having me on when he said that nowadays they remain a popular bar snack to enjoy with a cold beer. I’d need to drink a lot of cold beers to even consider such a delicacy! While the stalls offered a comprehensive range of edible bugs, the local specialty is deep-fried spider. However spiders seemed to be out of stock due to them being a popular dish during the recent Cambodian New Year celebrations!
After arriving in Phnom Penh we headed out to Choeung Ek, part of the area that has become known as the Killing Fields. Our tour guide was excellent. I don’t want to say their name as they spoke in an extremely forthright manner on the minibus and actually said that they couldn’t air such opinions outside, as being overhead by the wrong person could be dangerous. As with most people in Cambodia, the tour guide suffered personal tragedy during the genocide. They had three brothers, grandparents and numerous cousins killed.
The Killing Fields are located a short bus ride outside of Phnom Penh. Here thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge. Mass graves were discovered in 1979 and today the Choeung Ek site serves as a memorial. A Buddhist stupa containing 8,000 human skulls has been constructed, creating a haunting image. Choeung Ek isn’t really a tourist attraction per se. That’s what Disneyland and the Eiffel Tower are. The Killing Fields are more of a place of historical significance where you can learn and reflect, similar to Auschwitz or the Somme battlefields. I’d already read a fair bit about the Killing Fields so knew to expect to see some fairly graphic remnants. It’s still incredibly sad to see pieces of human bones and clothing emerging from the ground as they are brought to the surface from underground moisture. As was pointed out, these events didn’t take place in a bygone century where barbarians marauded around. This happened during the lifetime of anyone over 40 years of age, making the experience seem even more disturbing. It’s crazy to think that Pol Pot was still around until 1998. I didn’t take any pictures of the Killing Fields themselves. They look pretty much like any other field, aside from serving as mass graves for genocide victims. Photographing the area just didn’t seem right. Talking of poor taste, there’s a gun range nearby where if you feel the need, AK-47s and the like can be fired.
Back in Phnom Penh we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, housed in the notorious former S-21 Prison. As with the Killing Fields this also wasn’t for the squeamish. In 1975 a school was converted into a place were more than 14,000 people were tortured and eventually killed. Again the relics don’t shy away from graphic detail. Blood stains remain on the ceilings of interrogation rooms. Only 8 prisoners survived S-21. One of the two remaining survivors was present today, meeting visitors and talking about his book. His story is remarkable. Chum Mey was tortured but his life was spared after he became of use to the Khmer Rouge due to his typewrite repair skills.
It was sad to see children running around the S-21 buildings as though it was some sort of playground. There is even a sign telling visitors not to play Pokemon Go here. The tour guide explained that many young people don’t have much awareness to the events that occurred here as it’s seldom taught in history lessons. However the adults who were posing and smiling for photos in front of cells should know better.
Lots of adjectives spring to mind to mind to describe what we saw this afternoon; depressing, moving, intense, emotive, tragic and distressing. However it has also provided a valuable insight into Cambodian society. Large sections of people still alive today have committed unspeakable atrocities against their fellow compatriots. The whole concept of reconciliation, a sense of looking ahead in order to create a better future, is extremely admirable though.