A Round-the-World Journey to Find a New Home #13

Phnom Penh

Phnom means hill, Penh is the name of a nun that used to live in a small monastery on a hill, now that hill is a garden feature within Phnom Penh, with a Stupa commemorating the life of Grandmother Penh built on top (a guy in Battambang told me that story…).

We arrived in a share taxi, there are no buses from Battambang, it’s not a busy enough route. We had to hang around the market in Battambang to fill the taxi, the driver and his touts accosting people who look like they may be traveling the road. Six passengers and a driver to fill a taxi, we left with four of us in the back including Eddie and I, and a rather plump local in the front, normally reserved for two people of rather slighter build. 5� hours, one piss stop, a short grub break, and a car wash later we arrive in PP central.

I haven’t a lot to say about Phnom Penh (PP). It’s another city, busy, full of ex-pats doing NGO work or teaching English, or lazing around being lecherous over the local girls and taking full advantage of the cheap prostitution scene. There are supermarkets importing foreign delicacies like Vegemite (no Marmite found as yet) and Port Salute. It’s a place like many others; clothes shops, restaurants, a bowling alley, cinemas etc. We hooked up with a guy called Glyn we met in Myanmar who’s been here teaching English for the last 18 months and went out on the piss.

Not to get too morbid, but I might as well get it out of the way in one go… the Toul Sleng Museum, originally the Toul Svay Prey High School until it was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into S-21 security prison. It was the largest centre of detention and torture used by Pol Pot’s forces in Cambodia. A film shot locally following the story of a family’s misfortunes brought a lump to my throat and water to my eyes was shown. The sadness and pain came across so vividly from the villagers that were interviewed.

Walking the grounds and seeing the torture cells was weird after the film, everybody was in complete silence, and only the odd tour guide’s voice could be heard echoing down the corridors. Class rooms had been converted into small pokey cells about 3ft x 7ft, the original shackles still there where prisoners were chained to the floor. Some rooms were torture rooms where victims were chained to a bed supine, the beds and shackles still there, and B/W original photographs adorned the walls showing tortured, blood soaked civilians; contorted bodies of skin and bone, blood soaked floors and splattered walls. Now the place is clean, floors swept for the tourists, but the feeling of death and pain taunts you, still hangs around the place like a thick fog enveloping you.

One gallery houses thousands and thousands of original B/W photographs of detainees, taken by the KR on their admission. Faces that held no expression, dead eyes looking straight at you, black holes into lifeless souls. Young children, fathers, mothers, grandparents. Some with blackened puffy eyes, cuts and bloodied faces from the attacks on route to the S-21 prison. How does a country so poor deserve such pain? Why do people take power by demoralizing the weak? What the hell happened here?!

Like Battambang, I carried a camera but felt unable to take any pictures. Like it was wrong to do so, I was encroaching somewhere I shouldn’t. It felt disrespectful. So many people died, mostly people between 16 and 45, though children and the elderly were by no means discounted. If I look around here in Cambodia, it’s almost 25 years on and there are very few old people left. It’s like a generation has disappeared! Destruction of the people, those who survived had a life expectancy of 55 years, it leaves a country of young people. Survivors of the Pol Pot times are rebuilding and rejuvenating a struggling country. While this was happening over here, I was in school, well fed and being educated, living in my house, safe and snug. I listened to playground jokes of the unfortunates not really understanding….

Question: “How do you save a Cambodian from drowning?”
Answer: “Throw him a polo.” (small round mint with a hole in the center)

How sick and f**ked up is that?! As a school kid I didn’t understand, at least now I’m beginning to.

We’re off out tonight with Glyn the school teacher, at least he’s doing something, and we’re going to get lathered… (and we did, seriously, drunken dancing at the Heart of Darkness).

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