Cambodia: killing fields at Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has had a crazy recent history.  Without going into too much detail, as the capital city it was the centre-piece for the Khmer Rouge disaster.  The Khmer Rouge were a disgusting extreme-left political party led by the abominable Pol Pot, responsible for the genocide of approximately one fifth of the countries then 11 million people including anyone with a university education or as a proxy, if you wore glasses!  They evacuated the cities and sent everyone to work in the rice fields and any sort of mis-behaviour resulted in your death.  This all happened between 1975 to 1979 so it’s mind-boggling as you walk around to imagine that anyone middle-aged will have been witness to these crazy, tragic events (and might have been involved with the KR).

As a result the population which was 400,000 prior to the KR era is believed to have dropped to a mere 20,000 consisting mainly KR officials and their families.  Since the Vietnamese saved the day in 1979 the city (and country for that matter) has been rebuilding and there are now around 2 million inhabitants.  The city used to be  described as the Pearl of Asia in the 1920s because of the attractive French architecture but since the French were kicked out it’s become a rather unattractive concrete jungle with the exception of the river-front which has retained the French charm.

Most people seem to travel to Phnom Penh with one thing on their agenda, to visit the killings fields and S-21 prison.   That and Angkor Wat seem to be the big draw cards for going to Cambodia which I guess is a bit of a shame because the former is quite a negative experience but one that’s hard to avoid once you’re there because of some strange intrigue that pulls everybody in….myself being no exception.

So after arriving in Phnom Penh and having a quick explore around the city I had an early night and was up the next day to rent a scooter to drive the 15km out to the killing fields of Choeng Ek.  But not before visiting a local market to get some breakfast down me.

A sea-food restaurant adjacent to the market was selling these little critters.  Some sort of turtle with a piggy-like snout but an internet search says the pig-nosed turtle can only be found in Oz and Guinea, so I don’t know what these animals actually are!

Asian fruits: from the left  durian, mangosteen and rambutan. Very common here, kind of like apples, pears and strawberries back home 🙂

Breakfast in SE Asia could easily be confused with lunch or dinner.  For this brekky in particular I tucked into a bowl of noodles with chopped up spring rolls, fried pork and various herbs and spices:

Around mid-morning I headed out to the killing fields and after paying the $3 entrance fee was given a set of head-phones and as you walk around a narrative explains the various sites.

The basic format for this place was that people suspected of being enemies of the state were first sent to the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh for processing and then shipped out to this place (which was out-of-the-way to avoid unwanted attention) and slaughtered.  As ammunition was expensive,  farming tools such as hammers, scythes and machetes were used, which led to brutal, gruesome deaths.

Around 17,000 people are believed to have been murdered and buried in mass graves here, some of which still haven’t been exhumed (so as to leave the bodies in peace).

It is quite a harrowing experience as you step over human bones and clothes that regularly re-surface  following heavy rains and are left on show.

You might want to skip these photos…..

One of the mass graves:

Clothes and bones are often washed up when rains come.  They are cleared up every month or so:

One of the more shocking parts of the museum is the killing tree.   Here Khmer Rouge henchmen would hold babies by their legs and smash their skulls on the tree.  The bodies would then be thrown in an adjacent pit with their mothers.

Watch your step.  A human jawbone lies exposed in the path:

A Buddhist Stupa filled with 5,000 human skulls:


Back in the city I completed quite a depressing day by visiting the S-21 prison museum.  This used to be a high school, but as schools were no longer needed under KR, it was converted into a prison to house and torture men, women and children the government didn’t like, prior to them being sent to their untimely deaths.  Again, another grim experience because now the ex-class-rooms-cum-prison-cells house thousands of pictures of those that passed through.

The rules of S-21.  Perhaps a bit lost in translation but you get the gist:


All guilty:

The next day was spent crusing around on my bad-ass scooter checking out some sights and trying to survice the crazy Phnom Penh trafic.  One thing you get told and you soon notice about Cambodia is it’s still recovering from the KR.  This means that corruption is rife, and the legal system is flimsy to say the least.  This results in traffic laws being flounted to the extreme.  90% of the traffic is on scooter and it appears that if you are on a scooter:

  • red lights mean: retain your current speed whilst crossing the junction without hitting anybody coming from your left/right;
  • one way streets mean: retain your current speed whilst avoiding anybody coming at you;
  • pavements mean: retain your current speed whilst avoiding other drivers and pedestrians.

Walking down the pavement can be hazardous:

To sum it up you get from A to B by the quickest means possible without hitting anybody else.  Simple really.

Now the police usually won’t stop you for any of the above unless you meet one specific criteria: you appear to be a foreigner, which could result in a bountiful bribe of $5-$10.  I was aware of this prior to commandeering my bike so was extra careful but on this particular day I had left my head-light on (definitely a bribable offence) which quickly dawned on me as two cops started flagging me down with their batons.  Slowing down my mind was racing, and I decided I didn’t want to pay the bribe so hit the gas knocking the policeman’s baton to the side and raced off into the sea of other scooters!  Slightly naughty but I knew they wouldn’t come after me as they would just wait for the next white face.

The next day or so I just spent my time chilling in the hostel pool and taking in some sights of Phnom Penh.

There is a hump in the middle of the city, atop sits an impressive temple Wat Phnom (literally Hill Temple):

Royal palace:

Garuda statue on the riverfront:

Hard morning tuk-tuking for this guy.  You might say he’s tukered out. 😀

On my last day I met up with the Filipinos I had met in Siem Reap and we checked out the national museum which housed hundreds of cool early Khmer statues and archaeological findings.

Monkey warrior.  There were loads of these involved in the mythological Khmer wars:

The national museum:

The remains of a huge thousand-year-old bronze reclining Siva:

Room full of Hindu/Buddhist statues:

Room full of Buddha statues:

No pictures allowed! Right of the picture I’m being approached by an armed guard.  “But I’m British!” I protest:

Later that evening we celebrated Shiela’s birthday again (she was having a birthday month apparently) by visiting a high-class Uruguayan owned Salsa restaurant. After a few glasses of Australian red I was showing the girls the moves I had picked up in Colombia ;).

After my few days in Phnom Penh and witnessing bag snatchings amongst other iffy things, I decided it was probably the dodgiest of places I’d been in SE Asia, and I was coming to realise that Cambodia was probably the least developed of all the places I had been on my trip so far. Definitely not a place for the faint hearted, but thoroughly enjoyable.


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