Holiday Part 2 – Phnomh Penh (not for the faint-hearted), and Ho Chi Minh City

Thursday 10th February 2005

Well it has been an exhausting trip so far, but well worth it!!

The speedboat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh – packed with sunburnt tourists!

We had a hectic day and a half in the capital, (I got sunburnt on the speedboat), lots more shopping and we did an extensive city tour.

Around Phnom Penh

I must say that the killing fields and S-21 were by far the most gruesome and terrifying places I’ve ever been to. This email may seem a bit sombre compared to the last one, but I was ashamed at how little I knew about the atrocities that went on here, and feel that I should tell you about ­what I learned.

Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21)

During Pol Pot’s time in power from 1975 to 1979 he had over 1 million Cambodians slaughtered, from a population of 10 million. The Tuol Sleng high school was turned into ‘security office 21’ or S-21, and over ten thousand people were held and tortured there before being taken to the killing field to be murdered.

The rules of Tuol Sleng prison camp

At the site they have so far found 83 mass graves, and this field is only one of 323 killing fields in Cambodia. Unlike Hitler’s camps, the Khmer rouge regime couldn’t afford gas chambers or even guns, so they beat the men, women and children to death with bamboo rods and hammers. They also used the sharp serrated edges of palm tree branches to slit their throats. The babies they held by their feet and swung against trees. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, the guards fled S-21, leaving behind 14 prisoners whose bodies were found a week later by Vietnamese troops. Each ground floor room in Block A has a bed, shackles, and a large photograph on the wall of the body that was found in there. The guards took photographs documenting each and every prisoner to have gone through their cells, and in the end, out of over 10 thousand, only 7 prisoners survived, having been taken out by the guards and then abandoned.
It’s all really overwhelming and horrific, but I’m glad I was able to see it nonetheless. When S-21 was re-opened as a museum of genocide in August 1979, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians came from all over the country to look at the pictures on display, trying to find their families and loved ones who had disappeared.

Photos of all the prisoners that came through S-21

Sorry that was so graphic, but I really felt ashamed that I was never taught about this at school, and until just two days ago had really no idea what had gone on, except that Pol Pot was a bad guy. Seeing the bloodstains on the prison floor with my own eyes makes a big difference.
It was really eerie, walking around the killing fields, looking at the piles and piles of skulls that were recovered (some of the mass graves only had heads in). You’re walking around outside, and there are bits of bones and people’s clothes sticking out of the ground everywhere. It’s all so horrifying and recent too.

Skulls recovered from the mass graves in the killing fields

Anyway, that aside I’ll try to finish off with some more cheery news! Penny and I went for dinner in a Chinese restaurant, where they told us we couldn’t sit on the folding chairs like everyone else, cos we were too fat, so they brought us over special wooden chairs!! We’ve also tried out the mototaxis, which I hated (two of us crammed onto a motorbike behind the driver, whizzing around clinging on for dear life – did you know that driving on the right is only a guideline here, rather than a law?), and also we tried these cool things that has a chair strapped to the front of a bicycle. Much more gentle and civilised way to travel, (my dad would appreciate it!), and we got to see a bit more of the city tootling around slowly in those. We arrived in Vietnam yesterday, on New Year’s day, so Chuic Mu’ng Nam Moi (or Happy New Year!), and discovered everything was closed!! Luckily we were both a bit knackered and not feeling too hot, so an afternoon rest went down well. Today we did a half day tour to the Cu Chi tunnels of the victorious Viet Cong. We went down and crawled around a bit and came back up, learnt all about how the clever VC used sharpened bamboo sticks to make ingenious booby traps for the evil Americans, and I even got to shoot an actual AK-47 at the shooting range! (it was $1 a bullet for the priviledge).
So, I am weighed down with gifts and souvenirs, and this afternoon we’re going to try and see the markets, but we’re not sure they’ll be open!!
take care, and thanks for all your lovely responses,

Us in a tuc-tuc

Going down into the Cu-Chi tunnels

In the tunnels!

In Vietnam

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