February 5th and 6th
Days `11 and 12
It was a very early start as we had a long journey ahead which we were all dreading. It was also with a heavy heart we left Vin behind. His passport was reported lost as it’s apparently not worth the hassle of reporting it stolen with all the red tape to go with it. Khanh was taking him to the Embassy to apply for a temporary one. His cards were stopped, he contacted his parents who were going to wire him money. I explained how this worked and the easiest way to do it was through Western Union. It looked like he would be staying in HCMC for an extra 2 days to join a group which were coming behind us. As we had 3 days in Siem Reap there would be an overlap so we planned to see him there. however, we had also found a flight that evening which would mean he would catch up with us which we all hoped would happen, however, Khanh said not. So we set off.
It was a long journey and we were told to expect it to be 7 hours in total. We travelled on a public bus, basically just us and some others. As usual there was a stop on the way to the border. The Moc Bai Bavet border is bedlam. It was, yet again, another huge advantage to being part of a group. All our paper work was completed on the bus and we were taken as a group to the passport area. I should explain there are 2 passport controls for leaving Vietnam, cehcking entry and departure visas, then a walk across no mans land where you go through passport control for Cambodia.
I’m now on my 3rd pen since starting this diary!
At the passport control our photos were taken, fingerprints of both hands and finally we were allowed through. Back on the bus and then a stop for lunch. It was a very welcome stop. Back on the bus again but yet again another stop – a ferry crossing and finally we arrived in Phnom Penh.
We checked into our hotel Mondulkiri Hotel. Bob and I didn’t even go to our room, had our case sent up and jumped on a tuk tuk to take me to a book shop I’d sourced on the internet to buy the Lonely Planet book of Cambodia. I could have bought a single one of South East Asia but from previour experience I knew that individual country ones are so much more detailed. We got back in time to see our room – again our luck was with us and we head off with the group on tuks tuks to do a tour of Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh so deserves it’s name The Pearl of Asia. The city surprised us all. It is large, bright and modern. It has serious financial investment behind it and there are many skyscrapers. It really is a beautiful, modern city and such a shock after the quality of the roads when we passed the border. Both Bob and I commented it was very much like Africa and then we’re suddenly in this oasis of wealth. It didn’t take long to realise that this is another corrupted city with many of the leaders of Pol Pot in power following an amnesty. The Cambodians are very forgiving people who believe in the true nature of Buddahism. They’ve been so badly hurt and so recently they don’t look back but look forward with peace. A Mother’s role is to rear her daughter to be a good wife to a husband who must prove himself both financially and of character before he asks to marry her. He then cares for his family giving herhis salary every week. Cambodians have been to hell and back but look to the future with optimism, with an unbreakable spirit and infectious optiimism. And they smile, non stop smility. It is the spirit of the people i want to take away with me, they are fantastic. Our tuk tuk tour was fantastic, great fun hoping and off at the many sites. The used currency is the dollar and we were soon laughing because everything cost $1. Our trip included the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Olympic Stadium Independence monument. We stopped in the Foreign Correspondence Club for a pre dinner drink. Not only is the FCC a hotel it also has a roof top bar. This was the centre for the Foreign Correspondents during the war and the walls are adorned with fascinating reading. I knew I had to return. Following dinner Bob and I, John and Debbie headed back to FCC. An hilarious return to the hotel in a tuk tuk followed. First we were taken to the wrong hotel and the driver buckled up laughing, the laughing continued. He then pointed out a rather risqué elephant monument and laughed some more. Then he started shouting Monkeys! While we were all searching for the monkeys he laughed even harder, it turned out there were two monkeys, two soft monkeys tied to the front of the tuk tuk. By now none of us could speak we were laughing so much. When we finally arrived at our hotel he insisted we took his photograph and then proceeded to try and kiss John. And the cost? $1 best laugh we’d had in ages. Our meal this evening was lovely, very different to Vietnamese food bud sadly the coffee isn’t as good and yet again I’m delighted I’ve my kettle with me. Our briefing from Fila this evening was very serious as tomorrow we will be visiting the Killing Fields and S-21. He said we would have our own guide as he found it too upsetting to visit
Many years ago I saw the film The Killing Fields. I watched in horror as this all happened between 1975 and 1978 when I was old enough to be aware and yet I do not remember reading one thing about Cambodia/Kampuchea during that time. During the film it builds up to a final scene, having watched it with tears running down my face I totally broke down when I saw the date flashed up on screen
9th October 1981
This was a day I remembered from the time I woke up till I went to bed. It was my 21st. I was horrified. I was a frivolous 21 year old planning a party, Skitting around all day in work and this outcome was happening on the other side of the world of which I knew nothing. My trip to the Killing Fields was my private pilgrimage to apologise for being so totally unaware and to play my respects. I knew it was going to be hard, I thought, reality is I hadn’t a clue. We know and have read the horrors of the Killing Fields but the reality is our minds will not let us go the far. The reality is just too horrific to even try and explain
Vin update – he got his temporary passport and cash from home but didn’t make the flight to join us today. The delay is his Vietnamese visa which obviously was with his passport. He cannot leave the country without it so we have to wait to hear more from his tomorrow
I am noticing a huge difference between Khan and Fila. Whereas when we arrived at a hotel with Khan he not only gave us our key but also the hotel cards, in case we got lost. The wifi code, he did this in every restaurant and a map with the hotel marked and also other restaurants and places of interest. With Fila you just about get your key! The younger members of the group appear like him though.
Bright and early start, me with my mug of coffee as usual and a rather quiet bus headed to the Killing Fields. We had our own personal guide who was 5 in 1995 at the start of the evacuation of Phnom Penh, a survivor who lost many members of his own family. At times its was obvious that he found it difficult to speak but one recurrent theme is that this story must be told but also one of forgiveness. the most obvious sight in Cambodia is there are no old people. Very very few of them survived but also very few found people, due to the economic state, this really is a poor country, most of them head to Thailand for work.
Before long we arrive at the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek. Our guid is to lead us through, Interestingly I am reading a good recommended to me – First They Killed my Father – this is also written by a survivor who was a 5 year old girl from a middle class family aft the time of the evacuation in 1995. Our guide may as well have been reading my book out loud, their stories are so similar.
Upon entering the first thing you see is the famous monument to the tortured and murdered. We left that till the end. I should explain that Choeung Ek is only one of 180 killing fields that has been found has hasn’t been fully excavated. The rains continue to wash up bones, teeth and fragments of clothing, basically rags. To my absolute horror the guide asked me to move my foot, I was standing on what they think, due to its size, is a baby’s skull. It just goes on and on. We arrived at a grave that appears to contain only women. Beside it was a tree adorned in wristbands etc that others had left there. This was the tree they bashed the babies against until they were dead and then murdered their mothers. At this point I could no longer keep my emotions in check and the tears started to fall. I just cannot understand how a human being born to a mother with siblings could do this to another human being. And so it continued finally ending at the famous monument. I paid my respects with incense and a prayer and entered. Rows and rows as high as the eye could see of skulls. It is build in a pyramid shape and goes on and one. Skulls are divided by age, sex and method or torture and murder. I could contain myself no longer. I stood rooted to the spot, unable to move and I cried and cried. Totally broke down. Pauline tried to help me and helped get me out. This was totally unimaginable horror. Although Cheoung Ek is a non smoking area right outside the monument there was a massive ashtray fill of butts., I obviously wasn’t the only one. By now Bob had disappeared, a few days later he told me that he thought we were going to a monument and not the actual killing fields. Had he known he would have remained in the bus. We couldn’t take many pictures. We felt it was disrespectful. We have a pic of the outside of the monument and I was horrified at the people taking photo after phoot of skulls. Why?
It was a sober group who got back onto the bus and we made our way to Tuol Sleng Museum. In 1975 this was Tuol Sy Ay Prey High School and was taken over by Pol Pots Security Forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 S-21. It became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 – 1978 more that 17 thousand people were held at S-21 and taken to the killing fields of Cheoung Ek. Each prisoner was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. When in 1978 Phnom Penh was liberated the Khymer Rouge ran but not before killing the prisoners who were left behind. Three days later the liberators entered S-21 to find those murdered prisoners. The photographs of what they found are on display in the rooms they were found it and their bodies are buried in the courtyard. In the kitchen they found 7 survivors who had hidden including 2 brothers aged 7 and 9. We were very lucky as the younger brother was there that day and came to speak with us. Never again in my entire life will I every meet a man that you know when you look into his eyes has seen nothing but horror. This play is just evil and I couldn’t bring myself to enter every room of cells. there is no doubt but pure evil does exist in this world.
When we got back to Phnom Penh, following lunch we had a free afternoon and we decided to return to the Royal Palace where, with a few others we hired a guide. He was fantastic and this is an incredible place of opulence. The floor of the silver pagoda is made entirely of silver. The Gold, the Diamonds are incredible but so hard to marry with what we had seen that morning. I really feel I’m in part of a split universe. Bad the time we got back to the hotel we were in time for mojitos at sundown and found a lovely bar on the rooftop. That night, as a group, we ate in Friends like Koto, it offers street children a start in the hospitality industry, As I wandered outside I discovered Friends had a great shop of different items attached to it and an incredibly cheap nail bar for manicures and pedicures. As it closed at 9 I ran back into the restaurant to let the ladies know. I am writing this on a dairy whose cover is made of trees and I bought Ciarán a wallet made of rugby balls