While Lon Nol fought the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, the home grown communists, were expanding their influence from their northern bases and by 1973 they held most of the country outside the capital. On the 17th of April 1975 they took Phnom Penh and were greeted as liberators. They ordered the immediate evacuation of the city, claiming the Americans were about to launch a bombing offensive. They were widely believed, though two weeks later, on the 30th of April, American involvement in Southeast Asia ended when the North Vietnamese took Saigon. For the next three years Phnom Penh was a ghost city.
Photograph stolen from Wikipdeia
(Picture stolen from Wikipedia)
|Mass graves at the Choeung Ek killing field|
Every year the rains bring bones to the surface and even along the paths it is easy to find the bleached remains of human beings entombed in the hard-packed earth.
|The banyan tree, Cheung Ek|
Around are the pits of the mass graves. One, which was filled with mothers and children, sits beside the tree against which the youngest children’s brains were bashed out. There is another where 160 bodies were found, but not a single skull. This is a place where it helps to switch off your imagination.
On the way we dropped into Psar Tuol Tom Poung, also known as the Russian Market, as during the Vietnamese occupation (1978-1989) economic sanctions meant the only imported goods available came from Russia. It is now a regular market with local produce and goods from all over the world. We bought some table mats as gifts and strolled round this refreshing outbreak of normality
|Psat Tuol Tom Poung, the 'Russian Market'|
Security Prison 21, known as S-21 or Tuol Sleng Prison is now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was once Tuol Svay Prey High School and from certain angles it still looks like a high school.....
|Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh|
From some angles it still looks like the high school it once was
... but high schools do not have graves were you might expect volleyball courts, nor gallows where there should be football goals.
The block beyond this contains many of the mugshots taken when prisoners arrived - and some after they had been tortured. There were row upon row of them, mounted on school display boards. The photographs of the children were the most disturbing. Lynne left the room in tears. ‘I found this place even more upsetting than Auschwitz,’ she said later. There were more rooms and exhibits beyond this, but we had seen more than enough.
|Mugshots, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum|
|The graves of the last 14 to die at Tuol Sleng|
|Comrade Duch, the commander of Tuol Sleng Prison, photographed at his trial in 2009|
Picture stolen from Wikipedia
|Pol Pot - as drawn by Bou Meng|
When the Khmer Rouge arrived he tried to make his way back to Kompong Thom, but was caught up in the general movement of people and found himself in the north west of the country where he was put into a boy's camp. Khmer Rouge policy was to separate husband from wives, parents from children.
We lunched in the shady courtyard of an upmarket restaurant in a smart district barely a kilometre away from Tuol Sleng and a world away from mass murder and torture.
That we still had an appetite was remarkable, but we ate and enjoyed spring rolls, soup with prawns and squid, fish in a coconut curry, chicken with green beans and mushrooms followed by fresh fruit.
We took a nap in the hottest part of the day and later walked along Norodom Boulevard....
|Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh|
....to the Independence Monument. The sandstone tower, completed in 1958, was built to celebrate independence from France and now commemorates all the country's war dead - and there are a vast number for such a small country.
|Sihanouk Boulevard, Phnom Penh|
.... is a statue of King Sihanouk. He had a remarkable career first as an absolute monarch, then abdicating to become leader of the communist party - though still styling himself 'Prince' Sihanouk – and being exiled to Beijing. Returning to Cambodia he spent the Khmer Rouge days under house arrest but later returned to the throne as a constitutional monarch. He abdicated in favour of his son in 2004 and styled himself 'King Father' until his death in 2012. His was a career without parallel in the twentieth century - or any other century.
|King Sihanouk, Phnom Penh|
|Buddhist monks, Phnom Penh|
Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos
Part 3: Chau Doc
Part 6: Across Cambodia to Siem Reap
Part 7: Siem Reap (1) Angkor Wat
Part 9: Siem Reap (3) Tonle Sap Lake
Part 10: Luang Prabang (1) The Old Town
Part 11: Luang Prabang (2) Back on the Mekong
Part 12: Luang Prabang (3) Elephants
Part 13: Luang Prabang to Phonsavan
Part 14: Phonsavan, the Plain of Jars and UXO