Day 2 of our holiday was always going to be a tough one. Sadly, Cambodia has been through horrific periods during its history, not least from 1975 -1978 when the Khmer Rouge held the country its vice like grip.
This atrocity took place in my lifetime – it’s not the stuff of textbook wars that I learned about at school, I actually remember it happening and the aftermath as 1,000s fled for a new life in the UK and elsewhere. Whilst I was worrying about whether my pencil case was cool enough, wondering whether to ask for seconds of my delicious school dinner, or waging my own war against the dinner ladies by organising a protest march in the playground (our slogan was “We hate the dinner ladies” – catchy eh!?!?!) the Cambodians (some of whom I now live and work amongst) were going through hell on earth.
And so we set off to visit sites reflect on this period in Cambodia’s history knowing that what lay ahead was going to prove a challenge.
What we hadn’t bargained for was a different challenge enroute. A leaking pipe at an ice factory on the road to the Killing Fields was spewing neat ammonia onto the road as we were driving through. We sat in Sophat’s tuktuk covering our faces and gasping for breathe as he gallantly (and virtually blind) manouvered us through the chaos and back into the relatively fresh air past the incident. Poor Sophat’s eyes were red raw and streaming but he refused to stop, instead dabbing at his eyes with a wet towel that we gave him and gulping down water as we continued on our way.
Here’s the link to the story from the Cambodia Daily Newspaper
As we got nearer the route to the Killing Fields took us out of the city and through ramshackle villages surrounded by water. The recently built memorial stupa at the site suddenly loomed large in front of us and before long Sophat was dropping us at the gate.
You’re guided around the site by a fantastic audio tour allowing you to go at your own pace whilst you are taken to key areas of the site and given the facts and figures of what went on. Interspersed with the facts are stories from survivors and also those involved in the killings. What set this tour above other similar genocide site tours in my mind though was the offer of time for pause and reflection. You were actively encouraged to take a mindful walk around the lake or sit under the shade of a tree on one of the multitude of benches around the site to not only listen to the stories survivors told but also to enjoy beautiful music written specifically to commemorate the lives of those lost.
I’m not even going to try to describe the tour itself. My words will in no way do justice to what we saw and heard – pain and suffering beyond belief that bought tears to my eyes a lump to my throat and more than once had me shivering as the hairs on my arms stood on end. It’ll be a long time before the memory of the visit fades – a good thing I know but also painful in many ways.
Heading back into the city after a brief look around the shop (same tat for sale as everywhere else sadly) we thankfully didn’t get ammonia gassed again but did have to take a detour due to the afore mentioned leak. As the detour took us down a steep slope to a part of the city set lower there was some weight redistribution required (us chunkies moved to the rear seat) to ensure the 150cc motorbike transporting us could cope. When it came to getting back out of this dip more drastic measures were needed to get the tuktuk back up to normal city level – yep we got out and walked up whilst Sophat took a run at the slope!
Back in the city we were ready for lunch. At the Killing Fields mum had mentioned that she wanted a cheese sandwich just to help her get back a sense of normality in this hell that she was in and so I took us to a lovely café in the Russian Market where mum got her sandwich (she had egg rather than cheese) and Auntie Yvonne partook of a jacket potato. Oh and obviously a pot of tea was the order of the day as well.
Sufficiently reenergised we headed to the second site of Khmer Rouge atrocities – the S21 prison which was a former high school.
Again we were provided with an excellent audio tour as we made our way through room after room full of photos and stories of the prisoners, the atrocities committed against them and their stories of survival. In all honesty after a while this got too much to bear. The harrowing pain in the eyes of prisoner photos were harrowing enough but then there were the photos of tortured and dead soldiers, the smears of blood in the cells, the implements used to chain prisoners to the floor, the vile evidence of mans hatred of man went on and on and on.
And just when you head to leave, there sits one of the survivors selling his books. His face is such a picture of gentleness, of kindness, of the beauty of humanity that once again your heart breaks at what he and millions more went through under the evil dictatorship.
It was a solemn return to the hotel and we all needed a bit of time to refresh and process before heading out to lighten the mood over dinner by meeting up with the gorgeous Kheang. We were soon smiling, laughing and giggling over fabulous food (apart from Kheang’s odd choice) and a treat of ice cream for dessert before once again heading off home to bed exhausted and grateful for the peace that we have in our lives.