Cambodia Part 2 – Phnom Penh & Sihanoukville

Day 244: November 11, 2018

We had the morning free to do what we pleased. It was Cambodia’s Independence Day this weekend so Phnom Penh was quite busy. Danny and I slept in, had breakfast in the hotel then chilled in our room. We grabbed a quick sandwich across the street for lunch then met the group at 1:00 pm to start our afternoon tour.

Our first stop was Choeung Ek Killing Field where over 20,000 people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime and placed into 129 mass graves. The location of Choeung Ek Killing Field used to be a Chinese cemetery. In Cambodia, 343 killing fields have been found. Inside each grave 30-400 people were found. The number increased over time.

Inside the gates there were grassy mounds which were the mass graves excavated in the 1980s. Behind was a forest with more graves that were not excavated. We were shown locations that rain had dug up clothes and bones. Skeletons that were excavated still had blindfolds on and wire tying hands behind the back.

Choeung Ek Killing Field

During the Khmer Rouge regime, people would be told they needed training and then taken for torture. After they would be taken to a killing field, blindfolded and forced to kneel in front of the grave. Hammers or axes were used to smash people on the back of the head one by one. Knives were then used to cut their throats to ensure no one survived. Sometimes to prolong the suffering a palm tree stalk was used to cut the victim’s throat. Chemicals were placed on top to stop the smell of the corpses. Revolutionary music was played to drown out the screams.

Palm tree stalks with little teeth

We were shown one mass grave in which naked women and children were found. The blindfolds were taken off the mothers and they were forced to watch as their children were grabbed by their feet and swung against a nearby tree. Other children would be thrown up in the air so the body would drop on a knife. Guns weren’t used as the bullets were too expensive, the sound was too loud and suffering was desired.

Most soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were children (10-15 years old) that were brain washed to remove their emotions. They would even kill their families.

Another grave was found to have soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. They all suspected each other so even they were not safe. The victims found in uniforms had no heads. It is believed the heads were used to scare the other members from betraying the Khmer Rouge.

One of the excavated mass graves

The Khmer Rouge or Polpot Regime was in power of Cambodia from 1975-1979. During this time, three million people died, almost half of the original population of seven million.

Polpot was not their leader’s original name, it was Saloth Sar. Polpot stands for political potential. He was born to a farming family in 1925. He lived in a Buddhist temple for six years and was a monk for two years. Eventually, he moved to the city to live with his sister where he studied at a good school and received a scholarship to study in Paris. There he learned ideas of nationalism and communism.

Eventually, he joined the communist party in the Cambodian jungle. The king at the time was very popular as he had freed Cambodia from French colonialism in 1953. In 1955, he abdicated for his father and became the prime minister. Many people then felt that his family was too in control and they left the city to join Polpot.

The prime minister tried to bring Cambodia out of poverty and in the 1960s it was a developing nation. Then the Vietnam War started. The prime minister decided to help Vietnam believing the Americans would lose. He allowed the use of the Cambodian border to bring in soldiers to south Vietnam which became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Many people were upset about this and left the city to join Polpot.

In 1967, the prime minister announced that those joining Polpot were his enemy. In 1969, an American bomb was used to kill Vietnamese soldiers on the border and many Cambodians were also killed. In 1970, there was a protest to kick the Vietnamese soldiers out leading to instability in Cambodia. The prime minister needed help so he left to seek support leaving the general in charge. The general betrayed him and worked with America to put in place a new government, the Khmer Republic. The people, however, disliked America due to the bombing on the border. This resulted in a civil war from 1970 to 1975.

The prime minister was stuck outside the country and needed to fight the general to get his power back. He decided to join Polpot’s Khmer Rouge and convinced others to join as well. In 1975, Polpot came to power by force and the general fled to America. The prime minister returned to Cambodia and was assigned as the head of state with no actual power. Eventually, he resigned and was put under house arrest in the Royal Palace.

When Polpot came to power, the people were told to leave the city for two or three days so the enemies could be killed. People were collected and told to raise their hands if they had an education. They were promised good jobs, but they would need training first. No one ever came back from the training centre.

Polpot followed Mao’s communism where there were no rich or poor. Schools, hospitals and temples were shut down and the country closed off from the rest of the world. Everyone was forced to become a farmer. There was no property or belongings. Twelve hour days were spent in the rice fields with only one cup of porridge a day. Over one million people died of starvation. The regime was supported by China, as the rice produced was sent there.

Anyone from the previous government was the first to be killed. Next anyone opposed to the regime was killed. Foreigners were forced to leave, but some journalists remained and were killed for being spies. Next they killed the educated out of fear as they would not have been easy to brainwash. Over 1.7 million people were killed.

Our next stop was Tuol Sleng Prison or S-21 located within the city of Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng held 17,000 prisoners. It was a school transformed into a prison used for torture during the Khmer Rouge regime. In Cambodia, there were 167 prisons that were mostly originally schools. Many have been turned back into schools.

People were arrested for talking to their friends, wearing glasses or speaking more than one language. Once a person was arrested they were either tortured or killed immediately. Most people would answer the questions to stop the torture and then were killed in the killing fields. If one person was killed, their whole family was also killed to prevent them from seeking revenge.

We first saw Building A, known as the VIP prison for governors, generals, etc. Each classroom inside the building was split into two large cells. The rooms were often used for torture. Blood stains can still be seen on the floors.

A cell in Building A at Tuol Sleng Prison

Buildings B, C and D had 11-15 cells per classroom. Prisoners’ feet would be locked by long shackles. American bullet boxes were used as toilets and were emptied only once a week. If any spilled out, the prisoner would have to clean it up with their mouth.

Building B at Tuol Sleng Prison

During the Polpot regime, Vietnam and Cambodia were not very friendly. Vietnam followed Russian communism as opposed to the Chinese communism Cambodia followed. There was a border conflict as well, as Saigon had been a part of Cambodia and Polpot wanted it back. He killed many Vietnamese soldiers on the border.

Insiders of the Khmer Rouge went to Vietnam to ask for help to stop the regime as they were against the mass killings occurring in Cambodia. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia.

Tuol Sleng prison knew the Vietnamese were approaching so the official told the guards to kill all the prisoners. Fourteen people were killed and twelve survived (seven men and five children). The men that survived were skilled in some way that was useful to the Khmer Rouge.

One of the male survivors we met was at the prison. Chum Mey had been tortured for 12 days and 12 nights and then was to be sent to the killing field. A typewriter in the prison broke and he was able to fix it. He was then kept around to fix things around the prison. His story was very impactful for all of us there. We all had tears in our eyes. I asked him how he has the strength to return to the prison and stay positive. He said the world needs to know about what happened. We purchased a book of his story and were able to take pictures with him.

Danny with Chum Mey, survivor of Tuol Sleng Prison

We were also able to meet the oldest surviving child, Norng Chan Phal. His mother was taken prisoner and he was kept with his younger brother in the prison kitchen. He overheard soldiers talking about killing the prisoners and took his brother and three younger children to hide underneath piles of clothes.

Photo of the surviving children of Tuol Sleng Prison with Vietnamese soldiers

Chan Phal had worked in construction, but recently hurt himself preventing him from returning to work. The director of the museum at the prison offered him a job, but he finds it hard to return. He feels he has no other choice though to ensure his children are cared for. His story at first was such an uplifting story of humanity under an evil regime in how he saved those children, but there isn’t always a fairy tale ending. I felt for the man who was a hero, but struggles to find stable work.

Vietnam helped free Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and then occupied Cambodia for another ten years. In 1980, the UN recognized Polpot as the Prime Minister as they wanted the communists to continue fighting each other. The UN supported Polpot while Russia supported Vietnam. Under pressure from the rest of the world, Vietnam withdrew. The UN ruled Cambodia for one year which is why the American dollar is still used in Cambodia today.

In 1985, a government made of the Khmer Rouge that had betrayed Polpot came to power, the Cambodian People’s Party. In 1993, Cambodia became democratic. The new government wanted to end the war so they accepted the Khmer Rouge back from the jungle. The government gave most of the Khmer Rouge amnesty as they said they had just followed orders. This is the government still in place today. It is said to be democratic, but the leader hasn’t changed.

In 1998, Polpot died of “natural causes”. Right before his death, he had been interviewed and agreed to go to court to tell everything that had happened during the Khmer Rouge’s time in power. No one saw how he died and his body was burned right away.

The current government has only allowed five people from the Khmer Rouge to be put on trial. The rest are still part of the government today. People who speak out against the government, even today, will be arrested. Our guide told us that the people in Cambodia don’t want a revolution as it led to a war before. They want slow change to eliminate the corruption. In schools, children are taught only the basics of the Khmer Rouge.

Our guide only told us about the recent history within the safety of the bus. We were told if someone overheard he might be arrested. In a way, it is his own personal protest. He said that many from the original Khmer Rouge are getting older and soon none of them will be left. Hopefully then the truth of it all will come out and the corruption can cease. It made me wonder what horrors will eventually come out of North Korea.

The truth of a country is sometimes hard to take. We knew going to Cambodia, that the Polpot regime had killed millions, but being there and hearing the stories makes it feel even more horrendous especially when the corruption continues. It’s hard to hear similar stories across the world of an elite that values money and power over everything even their own people.

We returned to our hotel in a very somber mood. We relaxed for a bit then went to watch the fireworks for the Independence Day celebrations. After we went to the night market for some local cuisine. We were confused about how to order so we ended up getting way too much food.

Night market, Phnom Penh

We went to a bar for some drinks after supper and played some pool then eventually took a tuk tuk back to our hotel to sleep.

Day 245: November 12, 2018

We had breakfast in the hotel then boarded our bus heading south out of Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. It was a five hour drive split up with lunch in between. Our hotel was not the greatest. Chinese resorts have taken over the area which has increased prices. Over a dozen high rise hotels were going up. It looked like the Chinese were creating their own city.

The group planned to go out to the beach. I needed some time to chill. Danny wanted to go to the beach. This led to an argument and Danny went to the beach. He came back for me at 6:00 pm in a much better mood, but I was still angry that he had stomped off. He said the group was going to eat soon so we walked out to the beach. There were pictures taken of us and we were actually not happy with each other.

Can you see the anger in this picture?

We ate supper at a bar nearby and chatted with the group. Eventually we returned to the hotel to talk about what happened. This has been a good thing about our trip. We are forced to talk about issues right away or it becomes unbearable. I also think I’ve become better at expressing my feelings. We went to bed much happier with each other.

Day 246: November 13, 2018

We left the hotel at 8:30 am and went into town to a restaurant that served us breakfast. Then we boarded a boat out into the Gulf of Thailand. The boat took us out to a small reef. We were given snorkel masks and jumped in. Danny went in without even a life jacket. He’s become a pro swimmer.

Snorkeling in the Gulf of Thailand

We saw quite a few little fish, but the coral wasn’t doing too well. After an hour, the boat took us to an island. We swam in the clear water there, enjoyed some hammocks, then had a BBQ lunch on the beach. We swam a bit more then boarded the boat to a different reef. The waves had gotten bigger so it was harder to swim. The coral seemed a bit better there. The snorkel mask wasn’t fitting right for me so I came in after not too long. After about 15 minutes the boat dropped us off at the beach near our hotel. We walked back and cleaned up.

The rest of the group went back to the bar we were at the previous night for supper, but we hadn’t enjoyed the food there. Instead we went to a restaurant at the hotel across the street from us. I had a very nice mixed seafood plate, Danny had fish and chips and then we shared a mango sticky rice for dessert. It was all very tasty. It was a bit more pricey than the other places we’ve been in Cambodia, but still much cheaper than Canada. After we returned to our room and caught up on internets. I finished the book I was reading about the life of Buddha then we went to bed.

Cambodia has not disappointed in terms of history. The two highlights we wanted to experience were Angkor Wat and learning about the Khmer Rouge regime. The heat in Cambodia was a bit much for me, but I’m glad we were able to get onto the water and do some snorkelling. Tomorrow we head across the border into Vietnam.