Studying the Khmer Rouge is like studying the devil. But that’s what we did this morning on our second day in Phnom Penh. This post is part of our series on AmaWaterways Riches of the Mekong cruise. See yesterday’s post on Phnom Penh or start at the beginning of the series Hanoi: orderly Chaos.
Khmer Rouge legacy
The day starts somberly as we visit one of 300 odd former Killing Fields from the Khmer Rouge era. We went to Choeung Ek where those sentenced in the S21 Detention center (see below) were executed. The Kymer Rouge legacy is that they killed about 25% of Cambodian citizens during their 4 year reign (1975 – 79). That’s about 2 million people.
As we walk along there’s open trenches on both sides where the executions occurred and where bodies were buried. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone they suspected of being a spy or for that matter any artist, professional or intellectual that stood in the way of restructuring society in a communist way. The brutality was evident as you see human remains scattered around.
There’s a stupa that acts as a memorial on the grounds. It’s filled with human skulls that were recovered from the graves. It’s humbling to walk through. The fact that this was so recent and in our lifetimes makes it so regrettable and horrifying. Almost everyone we spoke with had the same reaction after leaving the Stupa: How did the world sit back and let this happen? How can we prevent this brutality from happening again? Surely anyone that witnessed what we just witnessed will work to prevent this. Yet, Syria stands as a current day example of humanity either not understanding history or not having the will to stop it.
Khmer Rouge brutality
Next we went to the S21 Detention Center (now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide) We quickly learn that the “detention center” was euphemistically named. The Khmer Rouge took over a former school, and turned it into a prison, an interrogation house and the place prisoners were sentenced to death. Once sentenced the prisoners would be sent to the Choeung Ek killing field to be executed.
This is where the brutality of the Khmer Rouge was in full view. Conditions were horrid and the interrogations worse. Prisoners were hung upside down until they passed out; to awaken them, they were then dipped in a bucket of human excrement so that the torture could continue.
Each prisoner was photographed as they were sentenced so that the authorities could match their “confessions” with a body. Many photographs were displayed in the prison of former prisoners. Putting faces to bodies made the visit even more poignant.
A much more pleasant afternoon
After lunch we ventured out again into the 96 F humid weather. This time we took a short ride to the Royal Palace. The Palace was built by the French in the late 19th century. It’s a beautiful complex of buildings. First we viewed Throne hall which actually has two thrones. One is used only once per king during the coronation. The other is the “everyday” throne used to receive visitors.
Also on the complex is a storage building that houses certain treasures including a Buddha statue made of gold and diamonds. We also saw the Silver Pagoda which has 5000 silver tiles covering the floor. While we were expecting a very shiny floor, most of the floor is covered by rug while those tiles that were exposed were tarnished. In other words, it was not very shiny and actually pretty dusty.
Click on this link for additional background on the National Palace complex.
Museum vs heat
The last activity planned for the day was a visit to the National Museum. But most people had enough of the heat and humidity and went straight back to the ship. Actually the museum was nice in that it housed many original artifacts from the Siem Reap temples we had previously seen. (see our Anchor Wat blog and Kymer Temples blog)
Back on the ship we cooled off, listened to a brief description of the next day’s activity and then had dinner on board. We decided to stay on board instead of going into Phnom Penh this evening – somewhat because of all the heat. No matter, the food was excellent and the conversation even better.
To continue reading the rest of this series about AmaWaterways Riches of the Mekong, read about our experiences along the Mekong Delta.