Phnom Penh & the Killing Fields

Our room

Our private pool

The day started a little earlier than expected – thinking the clock said 6:30am when first waking, then laying there a little longer before getting up, proved even earlier when checking the clock to make it down to breakfast some time after 7am only to discover it was only 6:15am!! Went for a swim in our private pool, leisurely showered and dressed, and enjoyed breakfast pool side in the main garden and restaurant area. We then met our tuk tuk driver for the morning – John (am sure that isn’t his real name, just one that the tourists can handle!).The journey through the city was completely engaging, and simply so much fun! Thoroughly enjoyed watching the motor bikes darting in and out of the traffic, playing chicken with the tuk tuks and big trucks, skimming past with deft precision and lots of chutzpa. The ‘close calls’ appear, to us novices, to be avoided by only wafer thin grace, but it doesn’t take long for me to stop gasping and instead just grin at the riders sitting with us in traffic and waving at the ridiculously adorable 3 year old children straddled between their parents or the 6 year olds standing on the running board of the Vespas pretending to steer.

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Our first stop of the day was 12km out of Phnom Penh at Choeung Ek, where prisoners from Toul Sleng were brought for execution during the terror of the genocidal Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. It is the best known of the many killing fields throughout Cambodia, and has the largest memorial – an elegant and lovely stupa is a beautiful home to its rather sad and macabre contents; the remains of thousands of people brutally murdered in this place and buried in mass graves. These 86 burial pits were excavated in 1980 and the remains of 17,000 people discovered, but even now, once a month fragments of bone, teeth and clothing that have been revealed due to rain are gathered and treated with respect. There are 43 more burial pits under the lake next to the stupa, but there are no current plans for excavation as there is nowhere sufficient to deal with the remains to a Buddhist standard.

I had no idea what to expect of Choeung Ek, and had no idea what I would see, but I certainly didn’t expect such a serenely peaceful place with chickens roaming, lizards sunning themselves and birds having a dust bath along the path. Even the grass-covered craters crammed together less than a metre apart were being tended by a large kaleidoscope of butterflies, looking like fairies flitting about in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The serenity was certainly juxtaposed by the voice in my self-guided head set telling me of the atrocities: the bludgeoning and hacking to death of men women and children because the regime didn’t want to waste money on bullets; the sick playing of traditional Khmer music while the executions were taking place so that the prisoners who weren’t dispatched until the day after their arrival couldn’t hear the screams (they had no idea what fate awaited them); but the most gut-wrenching site was that of the ‘killing tree’ – where babies and children were held by the feet and dashed against the tree until dead. The tree is now covered with peace bracelets, as are the bamboo fences bordering some specific grave sites.

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While the first stop of the morning was a sobering one, the visit to Wat Phnom was delightful. It’s a public holiday today – International Human Rights Day – and kids are out of school and SOME adults are not at work. This temple sits atop the highest point in the city, on a mound of 27 metres (!) amongst gardens and paths, where, on a day like today couples relax, kids run and play, and uni students do a bit of political activism by wearing bright white t-shirts promoting the reason for the day off work.

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Popped into the Russian markets, so titled for the fact that all the goods supplied here used to come from Russia – they were one of the few countries providing aid to Cambodia during the Vietnamese occupation.  What a rabbit warren!! (AND complete fire hazard!) Had everything you could possible want, including a huge section selling car parts with guys working on engines on the shop floor with one hand, chatting on their mobile phones with the other. You could buy lovely silks in one narrow aisle and take it to one of the many tailors sitting in their individual pens in another to have your jacket or shirt or dress whipped up.

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We walked to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club this evening (FCC) for their happy hour. Very glad we got there at the beginning of the cheap drink session – we nabbed one of the last good balcony tables with views of the Mekong River and proceeded to bask in the old world atmosphere with the hum of the ceiling fans, cool, constant breezes and charming wait staff. One waitress, Sao, was very flattering when she found I had a whole 4 words of Khmer to show for my 24 hours in the country, and was then particularly patient with trying to teach me some more. But after a nice pina colada and a very ordinary vegetarian pizza with too much cheese sitting rather heavily in my tum, I wasn’t advancing much!

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On the stroll back to the hotel, there were many people out enjoying the last moments of International Human Rights Day. Streets had been blocked off for the evening around the Royal Palace, which was lit up like the best of any suburban street in any western country at Christmas time, where warring neighbours do battle over who has the best neon and twinkle. Families were picnicking on the grass, street vendors were cooking up a storm, monks in their bright orange robes were wearing huge smiles and tuk tuk drivers kept asking the older white couple if they needed a ride – not believing for one moment that we actually wanted to walk!

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There is infinite beauty in the smiles of the people and the lushness of the gardens behind walls, but then one gets a whiff of some revolting stench – the rotting rubbish discarded on the curbside or the putrid grey and brown in the questionable water course just out of town – and the breath catches and the eyes even water. The simple solution, really, is to breathe through your mouth, and just revel in the wonder of all things new and beautiful and strange, and catch someone’s eye and smile.

For more information on The Pavilion Hotel, Phnom Penh, use this link: The Pavilion Hotel

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About bontaks

Nic is the the 'Bon' part of 'Bontaks.' Together we are Nic and John - two travel-addicted teachers who enjoy every opportunity to go places, meet people and experience life.

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