Jamie’s alarm clock and I are going to fall out if it continues down this path. It woke us all up at 8:30am. Feeling absolutely shattered I forced myself out of bed with the knowledge we were being picked up at 10, and any more sleep simply wasn’t an option. I climbed down from my seven foot high bunk bed, got in the shower (I say shower, it was more of a dribble really) before getting dressed for the day ahead. When I went into the lobby it was a little bit awkward. The tuktuk driver Sarah rang the night before had showed up to collect us. He told me that when she rang he was out celebrating the new year with his family, and didn’t understand what Sarah had said, otherwise he wouldn’t have shown up. In the end I managed to get away by explaining we already had a driver for the day, and that I’d have a word with Sarah. I then returned to the room to find Jamie and Sarah were ready. The three of us then set out to try and squeeze in a quick breakfast. Unfortunately the driver was still outside playing pool and he came over to us before we left. Sarah also explained that it was cheaper with someone else, she then said we had his number and would phone him if we wanted a ride anywhere else.
At the tourist shop we asked if the tuktuk driver could pick us up there instead of our hostel, as we would just be across the street eating breakfast. It wasn’t a problem and we found a place which sold full English (well, the closest Cambodia could get to it). We managed to scoff it down and ended up only being 5-10 minutes late. The driver was kind enough to wait and we set off on a 40 minute ride to our first stop, The Killing Fields. Again, in a new country their tuktuk’s take a different form. Imagine if you will a horse and carriage, only instead of a horse there is a motorbike. There you have what the tuktuks of Cambodia look like. Our driver swerved many of the roads potholes and speed humps, and occasionally had to stop at a red light (where I’d imagine most bag snatching occurs). During that time we’d smile and say hello to the locals on their bikes, while at the same time pestered by a beggar. When we arrived at The Killing Fields we paid the $3 entrance fee, and were given a set of headphones and audio device. Then began our walk around the grounds.
I was quite surprised at how desensitised I was to it. I think the reason for that came down to two points, 1. Due to years of watching special effects movies and tv shows, things like skulls and images of dead bodies don’t look real to me. And 2. I went in there knowing that what I was about to see was going to be awful thanks to people pre warning me and showing me pictures. I’d have much rather discovered the place for myself and not had an idea of what to expect, maybe that way I would have been more emotional like I was at The War Remnants Museum. Nevertheless the three of us walked around, stopping at each place to listen to an audio description of what we were witnessing. Rather than go into a lot of detail, I will give you the most shocking things you might expect to see should you ever come here (but wait Ben, you’re now being a massive hypocrite. Completely contradicting your last sentence, yeah well, deal with it). The first piece of barbaric information involved the leaves of a sugar cane tree. It doesn’t sound bad when I say it like that, but when you see their razor sharp edges and learn the Khmer Regime were using them to slit Cambodian’s throats, they suddenly become terrifying.
We continued along the pathway, all the while listening to our audio guides until we reached a mass grave site. There were many of these dotted around the grounds and each one had a placard beside it to give you a head count of just how many bodies were buried in each pit. Around each of these sights people had placed their bracelets as a sign of respect for the fallen. Beyond the graves and the barbaric killing methods there were also separate display cases housing the clothes and bones of the prisoners. We sat down for a while to listen to the more lengthy part of the tour which contained stories from the survivors. One told of a lady that was raped. Another of a lady who lost her 8 month old baby (who would have been 30 now). The last story was that of a man’s survival and release from the prison, after another man sacrificed his life for the then 16 year old boy’s freedom. It went into detail about how he saw horrors growing up and how he planned to take revenge after fleeing to America.
The worst part of the tour, and nothing could have prepared us for it (well I guess it could if people pre warned you like I am about to) was called The Killing Tree. This was a tree where soldiers (or as I like to call them, brain dead idiots) followed orders to grab babies and children by their feet and swing them as hard as they could against the tree. Making sure they hit their heads, before throwing them into the pit beside it. It wasn’t just children and babies that were in the grave, but also their mothers too. More often than not the women were told to strip naked first. It was a sick act to learn of, and we found it very difficult to believe someone was capable of doing such a thing on as little as an order. The tree contained the most bracelets of them all, including one that I put on after Sarah was kind enough to remove it from my wrist. We were then nearing the end of our tour with only a couple things left to see. There was an execution site where loud haunting music was played to drown out the sounds of people screaming when they were killed. The music also drowned out the noise of the large pneumatic drills they used to kill. Because times were tough they couldn’t afford to waste ammunition on people, so more often than not the victims were bludgeoned to death. This was made apparent as we walked around the inside of the Sapla. The Sapla was a tall tower containing 17 tiers. Each tier housed skulls and various other bones of the human body. The skulls were on the ground level and categorised into male, female, young, old. The majority of them had large cracks in from were they were beaten to death. After we left the depressing and sadistic sight that was The Killing Fields we couldn’t help thinking how scary it was that it happened only 37 years ago. Like the audio tour said, mass murders have happened the world over, and the sad thing is it will probably happen again.
After grabbing some drinks (and myself a new bracelet) we returned to our tuktuk driver who took us to the second part of our trip, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This was once a high school used to educate and house students who were eager to learn each day. That was until the evil communist leader Pol Potts got involved, and turned the place into a prison. When we arrived in our pumpkin carriage, we were greeted by a man with a completely burned face. He was hanging around the entrance with another man. For every person who passed by, the pair of them would beg for money. As bad as I felt for the poor people of the country, it’s just not safe or wise to expose your wallet and get cash out. Not to mention, if you gave every beggar some money, you’d soon be out of pocket. It cost us $2 in entrance fees, when we were inside it was evidently clear the place hadn’t been used for education in a long time. The tall dark grey walls of the buildings had an eerie vibe to them. As we made our way around the porcelain tiled prison cells, the feeling grew more and more haunting. We were there for at least an hour or two, each building block having more and more interesting things to observe.
In one building the large rooms were turned into small prison cells to contain it’s guests. By guests I mean innocent people who were abused and tortured. There were paintings to depict just how savage their techniques were. One of which involved a pull up bar (which would have been used for exercise by the school children) where they hung a prisoner upside down until they passed out. They were revived when their heads were dunked into a nasty pit of dirty, filthy water, only so the torturing could continue. In another building were hundreds, going on thousands, of mug shots of all the prisoners who were kept there. The chair which they all sat on when their pictures were taken was also a display.
The whole place had the vibe of a hospital from the 1950’s gone to rot. It was hard to imagine tens of thousands of people being killed, because in my head that was just a figure. It didn’t mean anything to me until I saw their faces. Some were just boys. It suddenly felt all the more real when I was able to put faces to figures. The worst bit was the sign outside the first building. This contained a list of strict rules everyone had to follow. Anything, such as back talking or even failing to respond quick enough to questions could have had fatal consequences. Sarah soon had enough (mentally & emotionally) by the time we finished our tour. So to cheer her up we decided to visit the Russian Market, as if there’s one thing that can cheer a girl up it’s shopping.
For an additional $1 our driver took us to a labyrinth of a market. Inside the vast winding rows of merchandise we all managed to find something to buy. Sarah found herself some clothes, Jamie bought a couple t shirts and I bought yet another bracelet and a pair of nice red shorts. We weren’t there for long… Actually, we were there for a while, while Sarah tried on various garments, but left soon after that. Our driver then took us back to the tour guide. There, we enquired about the buses, but they couldn’t really help us as we didn’t know where we were heading next. We found out they closed at 8pm and decided to go away and have some dinner to mull it over. Because we didn’t have a lonely planet to hand it made it difficult to decide where in Cambodia was good to visit. After eating we returned to the hostel to get a better idea of which direction to head in next, north or south.
We were back at the hotel for a couple hours, talking about which would be the better direction. Eventually we settled on heading south to Sihanoukville. During our time around the computer, the Scotsman known as Jamie Bliss jumped out of his skin when something touched his leg. It was a tiny, fluffy puppy. After a quick shower we returned to the tourist shop, with only 5 minutes to spare before they closed. We booked up a bus for the following morning, then popped next door for some food and a game of pool. When we were done we got back to the hostel around 9:30pm. While sat on the sofas Sarah and I made a new friend, he was a 5 year old Cambodian boy named Tali.
I impressed him by making a paper aeroplane. We threw it back and forth to each other, before Tali was distracted by Sarah’s Skype call. He kept jumping in and out of camera, but like most boys his age he was constantly distracted by other things every 10 seconds. We then played with the fluffy puppy again, with Sarah having to tell Tali not to pet it too hard. Eventually the pup ran for freedom, so I gave him back to his owners. I then made a quick Skype call, this time I got through to my dear mother. We chatted for a while about what I had been up to and the latest news back home, before saying our goodbyes. It was then time for an early night, as the next day would also see us starting early. All for a four our bus journey. It was 12 o’clock when I finally turned out the light… Ok, so maybe it wasn’t that early a night.