Monthly Archives: September 2015

A Solemn Visit

Picture of barbed wire.

Barbed wire still encloses the cells.

February 18, 2015
Day 216

Today I saw two of the most somber places I have ever visited: the infamous S-21 prison and the Choeung Ek killing field, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Our large group first went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, at the S-21 prison. The building was once a school, which was converted into prison when the Khmer Rouge rose to power in 1975.

Most of the initial prisoners at S-21 were soldiers for, or members of, the previous ruling party. But soon, doctors, teachers and other members of the bourgeoisie class were also taken there. In the end, when Pol Pot was at the height of his paranoia, many high ranking officials within the Khmer Rouge itself were imprisoned. The inmates' “crimes” were often nothing more than owning a business or having an education. Some, however, stood accused of spying for the CIA or KGB, organizations they had often never even heard of. In the end, it didn't matter what the accusations were, because the punishment for all crimes was death.

Upon entering S-21, all prisoners were photographed and stripped of their belongings, including anything they might use to commit suicide. Most were shackled to a group of other inmates, though some were given their own cells, constructed from brick dividers in the former classrooms. Inmates were encouraged to write their autobiographies, and then confess to their “crimes,” under the promise of lenience. Those who didn't confess were tortured until they changed their minds. After confessing, they were tortured some more. Prisoners were also told to name everyone who collaborated with them, including their friends and family members. Those people were then brought in for a similar treatment. Within their first few months at S-21, many inmates died from malnourishment or torture. Those who were still alive were taken to a killing field, where they were executed.

Walking through S-21, I could see that it hadn't changed much since 1979, when the Khmer Rouge fled from Phnom Penh. Barbed wire still surrounded most of the cells. The torture rooms were still intact, complete with iron beds and shackles. In the courtyard, there was an apparatus for hanging people upside down and dunking their heads into jars of water until they nearly drowned. And throughout the museum, photographs of the condemned were hanging on the walls. It was sobering to think that all of these faces I was looking at had died at the hand of the Khmer Rouge.

Of the estimated 17,000 prisoners held at Tuol Sleng, only twelve were known to have survived. And only three of them are still alive today. As I walked through the courtyard on my way out of the museum, I saw an old gentleman selling books about the genocide. One of the books was a memoir written by Chum Mey, one of the three remaining survivors. I looked down at the book, then up at the man, and suddenly made the connection: the man selling the books was Chum Mey himself!

All of the survivors had some skill that the Khmer Rouge thought was useful enough to justify keeping them alive. In Mr. Mey's case, he was a mechanic who could repair the typewriters that would be used to transcribe prisoners' confessions. His former cell was still on display, unchanged but for a fluorescent light bulb hanging overhead. He displayed incredible bravery, sharing the story of how his wife and four children were murdered, and he was tortured in this horrific place. It's one thing to read about this history, but it's quite another to see it for yourself. And for me, meeting someone who had barely survived one of the worst atrocities in the history of the world was a life-altering experience.

Picture of bracelets.

Bracelets for the dead.

From S-21, we made a short trip out of the city, to Choeung Ek. Horrific as S-21 was, Choeung Ek was even worse: this was the killing field where most of S-21's prisoners were actually executed. Every night, covered trucks would show up, full of the condemned. From there, they would be marched to the edge of a mass grave, and the slaying would begin. Bullets were scarce, so the executioners used whatever they could get their hands on: machetes, car axles, sharpened bamboo sticks, palm fronds, rocks. Music was played over loudspeakers so the local villagers wouldn't hear the screams of those being bludgeoned and hacked to death.

I was provided with an audio guide, narrated by a man whose entire family was executed. In the center of the field was a Buddhist temple, full of victims' skulls, where we could pay our respects. The mass graves were on display for all to see. Strangely, if it weren't for the audio guide, this would almost be a peaceful, relaxing place. Some of the fields looked ready to grow crops, and there was a pond adjacent to the property. Though there were some reminders of what had taken place here, such as the signs kindly reminding visitors not to walk through the mass graves or to step on any bones that may have surfaced after a rainstorm. Just knowing that so many people had been executed where I was walking sent chills through my body. A deafening silence filled the place.

In all, Pol Pot's regime was responsible for around two million deaths, about one-fourth of Cambodia's population. Thirty-five years later, the aftermath of the genocide is obvious – there are almost no elderly people here, and even seeing someone of middle age is uncommon. Obviously the situation has greatly improved for the youngest generation, but Cambodia remains a very poor country. I can't say I ended the day in a good mood, but I was still glad to have seen S-21 and Choeung Ek. They gave me a better understanding for what had happened, and a greater appreciation for all of the privileges I have had in my own life.

More photos from Phnom Penh, S-21 and the killing field

Angkor Wat

Picture of Angkor Wat.

Day 2: A look at distant Angkor Wat from the top of Phnom Bakheng.

February 15 - 16, 2015
Days 213 - 214

For our visit to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, we hired a driver named Pie Ran to take us in a tuk tuk from nearby Siem Reap. We left early, arriving at the famous Angkor Wat temple at dawn, along with several hundred others. Most of the crowd stayed near the ponds in front of the temple to get a classic sunrise photo, while we moseyed right on in, practically alone. We spent a few hours walking around before heading to the next site.

Before coming to Cambodia, I hadn't realized how many ancient sites there were near Angkor Wat. We ended up spending two days checking out the ruins, and we still didn't see nearly everything. My favorite temples were Bayon, where giant faces are carved into the stone, and Ta Prohm, where parts of the movie Tomb Raider were filmed. Almost everyone came away from their visit feeling like an explorer, myself included.

Here are a few of my photos from Angkor Wat:

Picture of temple.

Angkor Wat is one of the world's most beautiful and famous temples.

Picture of folks.

I joined a few hundred other people to watch the sun rise behind the ruins.

Picture of stairs.

Here's the stairway to the top of the temple.

Picture of Katie.

Katie takes a well-deserved break during our visit.

Picture of columns.

Many columns encapsulate the central courtyard.

Picture of carving.

A vandal broke in and carved up the wall.

Picture of carvings.

Some of the carvings have been pieced together.

Picture of face.

The Bayon temple is famous for its faces carved out of the stone.

Picture of dancers.

Intricate carvings abound.

Picture of book.

A certain guidebook was very popular, and the price was a steal.

Picture of carving.

The hunt is on.

Picture of smirkers.

Some carvings are much older than others.

Picture of tree.

At Ta Prohm, the trees grow from the stones.

Picture of Ta Keo.

Relaxing atop Ta Keo at the end of the day.

Picture of rubble.

The ruins were walkable, but not fully restored, making everyone feel like an explorer.

Picture of stupa.

Many temples have stupas, representing male genitalia, in the center.

Picture of kicker.

High kick!

Picture of monk.

An old lady selling handicrafts at Preah Khan.

Picture of ladies.

The Hall of the Dancing Ladies.

Picture of Acropolis.

Romanesque columns.

Picture of lions.

Lions protect the entrance to many temples.

Picture of monk.

A praying monk.

Picture of kids.

Kids playing at Ta Som.

Picture of Pre Rup.

A final sunset viewing at Pre Rup.

There rest of my photos from Angkor Wat are here.

Bus to Siem Reap

Picture of bus.

February 14, 2015
Day 212

Our bus to Siem Reap was clean and modern, with plenty of legroom, air conditioning, and free cold water and snacks. Unfortunately, the “highway” was in terrible condition. The pavement along the sides had eroded, leaving a strip in the center, barely wide enough for one car. The rest of the road was a mix of dirt and mud, full of ruts and potholes. Perhaps as a coping mechanism, our driver played a collection of slow tunes from the '70s and '80s like I Just Called to Say I Love You by Stevie Wonder.

Progress was excruciatingly slow. Countless motorbikes zoomed past us in a free-for-all, like a swarm of angry wasps. On the edges of the road, people rode bicycles with trailers carrying stacks of wood for cooking. Sometimes they wore face masks, but almost never helmets. Once a guy on a primitive tractor, with huge wheels and a tiny motor, hogged the middle of the road, going a few miles per hour as his machine chuffed out smoke. Whenever we tried to pass him, we launched ourselves through a big rut, then battled the oncoming traffic until we finally gave up, tucking in behind him. Half an hour went by before he finally pulled over; the line behind him must have been hundreds of cars long.

We drove through a few small towns, but for the most part there was a single line of houses along the highway, and rice fields and cornfields behind them, stretching into the distance. On both sides of the road, between clouds of dust from passing motorcycles, we could see coconut palms, banana palms, run-down houses on stilts, nice houses with shingled roofs and painted walls, street vendors, cows, the Tonle Sap River, people lounging in their front yards, and kids playing. Every now and then we saw a Buddhist temple.

The bus itself was a huge contradiction from the outside world. I plugged my laptop into an AC outlet, logged onto the WiFi network and made updates to my website. It was blisteringly hot outside, but nice and cool inside. And even though the road was in such bad shape, the bus's shocks were of the highest quality, so I was able to take a few naps along the way. Some of my companions managed to sleep for 90% of the ride. Luckily our driver didn't sleep, nor did he remove his eyes from the road. He had his work cut out for him, keeping us safe from the chaos around us, but he remained calm. Maybe it was the music.

We arrived in Siem Reap late in the afternoon. The city was busy, but a little more laid back than Phnom Penh. The streets were packed with tourists, many of whom were making a side-trip from nearby Thailand, so this would be the only part of Cambodia they would see. Unfortunately, our group wouldn't see much more on this whirlwind trip. When we reached the bus station, we gathered our stuff and jumped into tuk tuks for the ride across town to our hotel. From there we unpacked, showered and got ready for a day of visiting the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

A few more photos from the ride