Four flat and sweat-filled days brought us down Route 6 to Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. Hours of steady cruising was interspersed with friendly encounters while taking rest or eating some more delicious Cambodian fare. Usually it was older school boys coming up to practice their English on us and it was great to chat and get some perspective on what life is like for them as they near the end of their schooldays and think about the future. Traffic increased steadily after Kompong Thom where unbeknownst to us at the time, we passed by the home village of Saloth Sar, later to become infamous to Cambodians and the outside world under his nom de guerre of Pol Pot.
Our first task on arrival in Phnom Penh was to apply for a Thai visa as the 15 days granted now at land entries isn't enough for our journey to the Malaysian border. Some online research revealed the embassy has a poor reputation for being awkward with granting tourist visas but once we'd failed their initial requirements of providing proof of onward travel after Thailand, a bank statement satisfied the stern lady behind the desk, although she didn't notice that it was over a year old (and significantly depleted). We were told to return on Tuesday, leaving us six days to explore a city that can at times appears to be most famous for its genocide centres and prevalent prostitution.
With Italians Marco and Alexandro on Route 6
We're staying opposite the hectic Orussei market in the Capitol guesthouse, where for six dollars a night you get a large room with a bathroom, two beds and two fans. Mice and cockroaches are complimentary. Cardboard walls ensure a surround sound experience and a variety of horn ensembles can be heard from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. as traffic attempts to negotiate the narrow streets three floors below. A policeman's whistle blazes away furiously in a display of dismal failure at achieving any success, so instead the irate officer will halt an unlucky motorist deemed to have committed a serious offense until sufficient compensation for the officer's lunch or evening tipple has been handed over.
When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge (KR) forces liberated the city on 17th April 1975, they were greeted as heros. Yet just 48 hours later the city streets lay still as the three million inhabitants of Phnom Penh were forced to leave the city in a bizarre Maoist attempt at rebuilding a society from scratch. Despite several of the leadership, including Pol Pot himself, having previously worked as teachers, the KR targeted those they deemed as useless to the new society including professionals, intellectuals, former government staff, monks, artists, musicians among others. City dwellers were forced to designated parts of the countryside to grow crops but many died or were killed in the few short years that the KR were in power.
Below the Capitol guesthouse
A couple of days ago we walked to Tuol Sleng museum. Approaching the museum along a quiet city backstreet, the only suspicious feature of the former high-school is the elaborate barbed wire fence that surrounds the site. Inside we were led by a guide through the building and its horrific history was revealed. Known as S-21 during the KR period, the school became the principal interrogation and detention centre in Phnom Penh where perceived subversive elements to the regime were taken to be tortured and interrogated before eventually being brought 15 km out of town to Choeung Ek, one of three hundred so-called killing fields that were discovered after 1979. As powerful as the photographs, rusty shackles and torture apparatus was the story of our guide who was 13 years old in April 1975 and had walked three months with her family to Battambang province where her family were forced to work 12-hour days in the fields with little food provided. Her father was later taken away and executed by the Khmer Rouge. An estimated 17,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng on their way to their final bloody resting place in Choeung Ek. These perceived enemies of the state came in all ages and both genders and often included entire families, thereby hoping to avoid revenge attacks from younger family members in the future. One of the most horrific monuments to the terror and brutality of the period is the so-called killing tree at Choeung Ek, where babies were killed by being bashed against the tree by the young, indoctrinated guards. The rest were executed silently by simple tools and knives so as to avoid wasting expensive bullets and attracting attention from farmers living nearby. Today, a large stupa with glass panels is the central feature at Choeung Ek and contains over 9000 skulls that have been removed and forensically examined at the site, the remainder being left in the earth. Teeth and bones still rise to the surface when it rains.
The civil war in the early 70s, the intense aerial bombing of the country by the US military from 1973 due to the neighbouring war in Vietnam and then the relatively short-lived Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) left Cambodia devastated. As there are few records to assess the exact number of deaths, it's difficult to determine how many fatalities there were exactly but most estimates are between one and three million dead, with perhaps half due to executions and half due to disease and starvation. While the country has experienced sustained economic growth in recent years, it still struggles with the legacy of those years and remains politically stagnant (the current Prime Minister Hun Sen having been in power since the mid 80s) and a third of the populace still live beneath the national poverty line of $1.25 per day. Justice for those killed in the 70s has been slow in coming and todate only one significant figure from that period has been tried and sentenced when the former chief of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav a.k.a Duch, was initially given 35 years for his role in the killings but extended to life last month. Pol Pot himself survived until 1998 where he lived in a remote area near the Thai border.
Phnom Penh feels like quite a friendly capital and the warm Cambodian smile is often present. During the day and evening, lots of children tour the main street trying to sell bootleg copies of popular books. Yet many are vulnerable to exploitation, particularly with the arrival of tourism to the country and strolling around the downtown centre in the evening, you only have to walk down the side streets of the main riverside street to see sex workers awaiting clients outside bars with tinted windows and suggestive titles above the door. Older foreign men, sit surrounded by young women who are eager to laugh and gain favour with their potential client. Approximately a third of the sex workers are estimated to be underage and the HIV prevalence rate among them is about 13%. Even more appalling, however, is the amount of child abuse that occurs although estimates are difficult to establish. A high and rapidly increasing population of street children is a particularly vulnerable group although many children are also simply sold into sexual servitude by their impoverished families. Ad campaigns are now visible throughout the city, calling on tourists and expatriates to denounce suspected abuse to a telephone number or an embassy. Some embassies will actively assist local authorities in tracking down paedophiles, such as FBI officers in the US embassy who work with local NGOs and police authorities to detain suspects.
Bracelets left by visitors at the mass grave of children at Choeung Ek
As for drugs in the blog title I have less to say about that except that its apparently common for local dealers to substitute cocaine with heroin and last week this resulted in further fatal overdoses that appeared in the local newspapers. Heroin being produced nearby in the Golden Triangle, is a far cheaper alternative to cocaine.
Another cheerful post? I thought so too... :) Cambodia has been great. People are engaging and like many cities, its incredible to watch people making a living and keep smiling at the same time and all the more impressive when you begin to come to terms with their recent history. Khmer food is delicious, particularly the curries and amok dishes made with coconut milk. We've still a few days left as we head down to the coast and cross back into Thailand.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Pedalled: 58,152 km