An early morning start at 5am saw me take a boat from Siem Riep to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in the South. I managed to bump into Paul who I’d met on the bus ride to Siem Riep from Bangkok, so we stuck together for the next couple of days. The ride lasted around 6 hours down the Tonle Sap, giving me a chance to relax in the blazing sunshine whilst taking in the sights of the local villages on the banks, passing by fisherman and farmers en-route.The country was evidently still heavily rebuilding itself from the hangover of the Khmer Rouge days, with rural life seemingly still battling for survival. The villages were extremely basic, propped up precariously on the bright orange-coloured soiled river banks. The majority of the housing was built out of wood – and not even good quality wood by the look of it -just simple scraps found here and there thrown together for basic shelter. Other villages would be floating in the middle of the Tonle Sap, almost constructed to cater for the local fishing industry. We would pass families in boats on their way home after visiting local markets. The whole eco-structure of the Tonle Sap was perilous, and you could see exactly why any change in nature could have a devastating impact on its people. I even saw locals trying to fish out their farm animals that had been caught out by the treacherous tides. It was almost like the country had just been hit by a huge hurricane and was in the midst of a clean-up.
Arriving in good time in Phnom Penh, Paul and I were confronted immediately by a con artist tuk-tuk driver. We didn’t really know where to head in terms of hostels so wanted him to take us to an area close to the city centre to take a look around. Of course, he knew where the hostels were, but to show us came with an additional fee even though he was only really taking us 10 minutes round the corner. After a bit of arguing, we bartered with him to take us to a hostel then wait around for a half hour before taking us to the nearby Killing Fields for the day. Although my motorcycle guide from Angkor had already given me some background to the dangers of the Khmer Rouge, the visit to the Killing Fields and to the S21 Prison Genocide Museum the next day really hit it home with me.
All in all, there wasn’t too much to see at the Killing Fields because of its nature, but, the museum and information there described how the country had its heart ripped out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with Cambodians subjected to all kinds of brutality and inhumanity. As mentioned previously, 2 to 3 million Cambodians were butchered which added up to around a third of the population at the time of the regime.The Khmer Rouge formed in 1968 as a splinter cell to the Vietnam People’s Party and later created an Agrarian Communist Society between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia. Pol Pot led the party which decided to go through drastic social and economic reforms, with a social re-engineering project comparable to the Nazi Regime. With the attention of the world fully focussed on the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge took full advantage to storm Phnom Penh in 1975 and carry out the atrocities right under the UN’s noses. The regime even had a seat in the UN until 1993 – the full extent of the regime going unnoticed. In return for its membership, the exploits ended up being one of the biggest acts of genocide in recent years. With agriculture central to the government’s plans, those living in urban areas were gathered up and forced out into rural areas for acts of slave labour. Families were split apart with children completely separated from their parents to be brainwashed into the new agrarian way of life, and to punish their parents with their capitalist stances. The reform led to widespread famine across the country as the project was completely implausible and unsustainable. There were also reforms put in place for complete self-sufficiency which cut the country off completely from any type of medicine or aid and led to widespread diseases and deaths from malaria. With conditions unbearable for the slaves, many were tortured or finally executed for their lack of cooperation. Any cultural symbols, books and records were gathered up and burnt, replaced by propaganda. Intellectuals, city-dwellers and anyone suspected of being a traitor were killed. All free market operations were banished. Hospitals and schools were closed. Banking and financial institutions were abolished. Religions were outlawed. Private property was nationalised. There were language reforms and people were told what to do, what to wear, who to speak to, what to eat and forced into a new authoritarian way of life.
As refugees began to spill over the borders of Vietnam, the regime were finally driven out in 1979 following a pre-emptive attack on Vietnam which backfired seeing Phnom Penh fall. The Khmer Rouge still operated in the remote hills by the Thai border, but had limited influence on future rulings of the country.
Sandwiched in between the visit to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, Paul and I had a chance to check out the night life of Phnom Penh. As with Siem Riep and Bangkok, it didn’t take long in each bar before we were surrounded by local women offering up some entertainment. They weren’t call girls as such, but there would be groups that would come and sit with you to try to get you to buy them drinks all night in return for their company. In one of the quieter bars at the start of the night, Paul decided to buy in a round of drinks to see exactly what was going on, and after they realised we weren’t there to buy girls, they hung out with us and bought us drinks in return! It was completely bizarre and there was, in the end, no hint of seediness to it. That was until the next group of guys walked in…
The following day after the visit to the Genocide Museum, Paul headed off to the Philippines for work leaving me to explore the city for the rest of the day before moving onto Vietnam. I decided to head towards the Russian Market, the main market which was used for foreign trade in the 80s – the majority of which was by Russians, hence the name. The market itself was full of colour, offering all kinds of stuff from cheap clothes to food stuffs to electronics and pets.
However, en route, I started to see signs of the hangover from the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam War, encountering a few victims of landmines with missing limbs, begging for money. I also passed by a number of orphanages and homeless kids just sat around on street corners. It was a harrowing time walking through the streets witnessing it all.
From there, I headed back into town to check out the Silver Pagoda, wandering down the main stretch by various Government buildings, the Presidential Palace and the Liberation and Independence Monuments.
On one particular stop off point on the main strip, I managed to meet a teenager called Ny Soklin. As we got chatting about why I was there and what my future plans were, I turned the topic of conversation to the Khmer Rouge. Ny immediately shied away from the subject and said that they prefer to try and forget about the atrocities and focus on the future. He explained to me how difficult life was in Cambodia. People were still only just managing to scrape a living, with a huge proportion of the population still struggling to find any kind of work. The streets were busy, like today in Phnom Penh, just because there’s nothing to do. International aid from the UN was coming in, but the money wasn’t being distributed by the government, simply going into the back pockets of those that inhabited the Palaces surrounding us. The government like to call themselves democratic, but there was little evidence of change from the authoritarian government before it. There were no educational reforms meaning that the next generation weren’t being catered for and had no hopes for the future. The country also lacked any economic focus. Tourism was starting to build in the country, but again the investment of foreign money was being sucked up by the government. After a bite to eat with him, he then bid farewell and randomly joined an early evening aerobics session in the street in front of us! Although I only spent a couple of days in Cambodia, the visit was enough to give me a brief insight into the difficulties of a country that has evidently been scarred by its dark history. With the country trying to rebuild itself after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, it has a long way to go before it can fully move on from the ghosts of its past.
Further Reading on Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge
Phnom Penh City Guide
The Khmer Rouge – Genocide of Cambodia
The Killing Fields Museum
More Photography :
“The Photography Collection” by Antematters