Our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school the Khmer Rouge converted into the notorious S-21 prison shortly after coming to power in 1975. During their reign between 17,000 and 20,000 people were tortured and killed there. The place is eerily stopped in time, the rooms just as they were – removed only of the bodies – when the Vietnamese invaded. Blood stains on the floor amongst the tiny cells are a reminder of the pain and suffering of its victims.
Room by room displays of the many faces of these people – faces etched with sorrow in their eyes; faces of defeat; faces of hopelessness; faces of defiance; men; women; children; babies.
Our guide presented with a passion and emotion as she told her own story of her family members murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Her sharing with us her story was clearly difficult but she felt compelled to do so as she struggles for justice – many of the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity still await trial in Phnom Penh gaols.
The razor and barbed wire frames the buildings like a sinister macabre curtain. The multiple torture devices on display are as brutal as they are creative.
We were blessed enough to meet Chum Mey, one of only seven survivors of the prison. Now in his eighties, he continues to tell his story to seek justice for those that died and ensure that it never happens again. His autobiography, Survivor, is a chilling recount of his experiences, and an excellent resource for anyone wanting to know about this dark time in human history. I was lucky enough for him to sign my copy.
As we made our way out of the museum we noticed that our bus driver was having trouble starting the bus. A quick call to Ed and we were advised to organize for two tuk tuks to take us to Choeung Ek, a killing field 15km from the city. For anyone who hasn’t been on a tuk tuk, 15 kms is a long way!
The Choeung Ek site is one of the many killing fields and the final resting place of most of the victims from S-21. This time we used audio guides and made our way quietly and independently around the site. A tall memorial stupa stands in the middle housing many unidentified victims’ skulls. The identified mass grave sites are protected by a roof, and visitors leave messages and wristbands in memory of the victims. With rain and flood, bone fragments and teeth continually rise to the surface. These are collected and preserved by the caretakers in respect for the people that died.
One of the most moving moments was at the ‘magic tree’, a place where loudspeakers were hung broadcasting propaganda songs to drown out the wails and screams of the victims as they were executed. As I stood under that tree the hairs on my neck stood on end and my eyes stung with tears as I heard the sounds so many heard as their very last.
After a cooling coconut to pause for reflection, our replacement bus arrived. As we stepped in we noticed that it was infested with mosquitoes – to say there were 500 would not be an understatement! We spent the trip to the hotel repeatedly covering ourselves with DEET, coughing in the fumes, and slapping each other for fear of dengue and malaria.
A quick stop off at the hotel to pick up our bags, we also met Catherine and Rudi, videographers who were coming along to record our work in the schools.
We piled in, still fighting the mozzies, and started our seven hour journey… or so we thought! About two hours in and we got a flat tyre. Stuck in the middle of nowhere (no NRMA!) our skilled bus driver quickly and efficiently replaced the tyre – so we were only running approximately 40 mins behind schedule.
Another two hours in and the bus hit a moto. Those on the right side of the bus could see that he was still upright and unhurt, and so we continued on – only to be stopped at the next town by the police and some very curious locals!
While the police decided on a fine and waited for it to arrive we popped across the road at a small road-side shack-like restaurant, and treated ourselves to a cool drink and some local freshly made noodles.
By the time we made it to Battambang our trip took nine hours, and we quickly went to bed to prepare for our early start out at the schools the following morning. It was all a lesson in how things don’t always go to plan – in life and in Cambodia!
When have your travel plans not gone to plan? Did you just go with the flow, or did you struggle with the change in schedule?