Tuesday March 18, 2014

If you dig around in enough history books, you sooner-or-later discover that every country – even the ‘nice ones’ – have their dark chapters. And today, with some reluctance, we got powerfully and emotionally acquainted with what must be Cambodia’s darkest, awfullest, most stomach-churning chapter of all. The death-toll was finally uncountable, but, between the years of 1975 and 1979, some THREE MILLION Cambodians (suspected ‘capitalist enemies’ and their families) were driven out of their cities and towns into the countryside where they were ‘re-educated’, worked to death, senselessly starved, and brutally murdered. If we didn’t know already, we know now about Pol Pot (the country’s renegade Mao-inspired ex-prime minister) … the Khmer Rouge (his rebel ‘red army’, most of them poor, brainwashed, rural teenagers) … and the Killing Fields where thousands of ‘worst offenders’ lost their lives under extreme torture. Their only crimes? Having the misfortune to be educated (teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants), possess land, own a business, or have a husband/wife/son/daughter/father/mother/brother/sister/whatever who was (rightly or wrongly) accused.

Our sweet Cambodian guide kept calling this period “the terrible time” … and it wasn’t hard to see why.

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We woke today to find that, during the night, we’d dropped anchor in the mainstream off Phnom Penh’s bustling waterfront. Going ashore, we were spoiled with another cyclo tour – this time of Cambodia’s attractive (albeit, in parts, shabby) riverside capital and former French city. The private quarters of the glittering golden Royal Palace are home to King Sihanouk and his family and, therefore, closed to the public. We did, however, visit the famous Silver Pagoda (the floor-tiles are solid silver). It’s the most sacred temple in the country – which probably explains why it was spared destruction by the Khmer Rouge. We also got to poke around in the National Museum, with its outstanding displays of Khmer crafts.

Then, this afternoon, we were bussed to Choeung Ek, one of the country’s 350-plus ‘killing fields’ (more were found just recently) – where the murderous Khmer Rouge buried their victims in shallow mass-graves. It was hard to reconcile this dusty, peaceful patch of tree-covered land with the bloody events that took place here in the 70s … but the stories we heard, the simple wooden signs that marked the still-open excavations (like: “Mass grave of more than 100 victims, children and women, whose majority were naked”), and the fragments of bone and clothing that continue to surface on the paths we walked on, made this stark tragedy something we’ll not easily forget.

And, then there was the finale: a towering glassed-in memorial, stacked high with human skulls.

From there we drove back into the city for one more reminder of Cambodia’s painful, oh-so-recent past: the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum – a converted school that became known as S-21, and was set aside for detention, interrogation, insane torture, forced confessions, and execution. This dark, foreboding place has been left pretty as it was when the defeated Khmer Rouge took to their heels – and the fading black-and-white photos that cover the walls (in one still barbed-wired block) left us all feeling sick and sad.

Three million dead! You can’t get your head around such an awful number. But you start to understand when it’s broken down, when those victims are seen as individuals-with-names, when the whole thing’s made personal. And pretty much every Cambodian we’ve met has his/her own personal horror-story … including our guide, Phaly, who was force-marched with her family into the jungle for three tough years in a labour camp; she discovered later that her older brother had died in the ‘killing fields’.

We finished the day with lots of “why?” questions. We kept returning to the subject again and again. And we learned lots more details than I have room for in this blog. (Ask us when we get home, and we’ll bore you to tears!) But out of respect for the gentle, soft-spoken, welcoming Cambodians we’ve come to know and love on this truly wonderful trip … the happy, smiling, hopeful Cambodians who have moved on from this ‘terrible time’ and are working hard to give their country and it’s beautiful children a bright new future … I’ve chosen to include no ‘killing fields’ photos in this blog.

Tonight, after dinner, a talented group of youngsters from a nearby orphanage came aboard our boat and entertained us with Cambodian song and dance and acrobatics. They were simply delightful, a breath of fresh-air, and lots of fun.

Just what we needed, I reckon …

TOMORROW: Our upriver cruise on the mighty Mekong continues … with a rural feast of fish trapping, silk weaving, wats, monasteries and schools. (Oh, plus a wild ox-cart ride … giddy-up!) Lots more good stuff to come, folks, so hang around …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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