Thursday, 1 July 2010

Phnom Penh Museums and Killing Fields

We met the others at 8 at the Golden Mekong, the hotel that we are in (which is far nicer and cheaper!) is about 10mins walk away. From there we went and had a breakfast at a local Khmer restaurant - quite strange operating in dollars all the time, but we had a nice meal and discussed what we are going to do in our lessons in the villages.

After breakfast we went by tuk-tuk to the Khmer market to buy sports and art equipment for the villages. Ben and I managed to get 13 footballs for a decent price after a lot of bargaining - lucky we are taking the minibus as I wouldn't want to try and fit those in my bulging rucksack!
Then the boys (Andy, Ben, Chris and I) went back to near the hotel and went to a local bar for a cold drink, while the girls went shopping at another market - ideal! It was great to learn a bit more from Chris (the charity leader) about what we could expect in the villages and how the charity was run.

Back at the hotel, we met the girls and split up into groups. Andy and our original four got in a tuk-tuk and headed for the Tuol Sleng Museum. The place is briefly mentioned in the film 'The Killing Fields', but none of us were really aware of what went on here in Phnom Penh, and the reality that likens it to the holocaust. Although I have been to Auschwitz, and that was a graphic and hugely interesting experience, there was something almost more harrowing about the events carried out by the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979 (here is a brief explanation):

The Khmer Rouge, under the control of their leader Pol Pot "Liberated" Phnom Penh in 1975, although their arrival was far from liberating; within a day they had marched the entire city out to the countryside to work until death in poverty in the rice fields. Toul Sleng was effectively a school that was turned into a torture house for mostly high ranking officials and those that might be linked with "Rich" backgrounds that would try and prevent the Communist domination. The torture methods shown in the museum are not unlike those used in graphic horror films - including such atrocities as hanging a person upside down and repeatedly plunging them into filthy tubs of water when they became conscious, while they interrogated them.

The museum was hugely eye opening; and something that has to be seen in order to understand the country and understand why there are very few people in the country aged around 50. This fact was driven home when we got back in the tuk tuk and headed out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. This was the place where the victims of Tuol Sleng and any other potential traitors were marched out to be brutally murdered and buried in mass graves. Choeung Ek is the largest of the mass burial sites and has a huge Buddhist temple to bless the 3 million people that died under the Khmer Rouge (1/3rd of the population at the time) - The temple itself it filled by a 17 story high box of shelves that holds skulls that were recovered when the graves where excavated in 1980.

As you can probably tell, the experience was very harrowing and very interesting at the same time. In some ways it makes you wish that the Americans had stayed in Cambodia, as they had prevented the Khmer Rouge from taking control while they were here. Either way, it was something that was vital to know about as it clearly affected everyone that was and is living in Cambodia.

After heading back to the city by tuk tuk we stopped off at a very western supermarket to grab a last bit of food for the villages and the journey there, and to get some late lunch. Then is was back to the hotel for a rest, before heading out for a late dinner in a few hours.

A very interesting day, and we all learnt a huge amount. Tomorrow we head off on our ten hour minibus journey to Ban Lung! Looking forward to the villages so much now - I think it will be an amazing experience. Will try and keep the blog updated as often as it possible.

Bring on the jungle!

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