Tag Archives: Phnom Penh

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 3


Our day-and-a-half stay in Phnom Penh was marked by two distinct sites that caused our hearts to further bleed for the country: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The two places hosted a significant amount of the horror that occurred under the Khmer Rouge and are now open to visitors to share that history with the rest of the world.

Holding cells in Tuol Sleng prison

Also known as Security Prison 21 (“S-21”), Tuol Sleng is a former high school-turned political prison that was a massive site of death and torture under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79. The prison housed a number of political “threats” including officials from the previous government, academics, teachers, students, monks, factory workers, engineers, and eventually, suspicious members of the Khmer Rouge itself and their family members. When brought in, prisoners were either housed in tiny cells (like bathroom stalls) or shackled with other prisoners in larger rooms and were forced to stay under the most inhumane conditions. They were fed four spoonfuls of rice porridge twice a day, forced to sleep on the bare floor and forbidden to talk to each other. Breaking any of these rules, even drinking water without permission, would result in severe beatings or other punishments. Ultimately, however, the prison was an interrogation center and the victims were electrocuted, hung up by their arms, nearly drowned or had their fingernails ripped out as some of the methods of torture used on them. Many ended up selling out their friends and family members (who often then suffered the same fate) before being killed.

Photos of victims after their death in Tuol Sleng

Today, visitors can roam around nearly the entire complex, which includes several blocks of buildings used for interrogation and holding cells. The rooms are eerily simple, holding remnants of the bed frame, shackle and metal box (for going to the bathroom) that made up most of the interrogation rooms. Nearly each room in the interrogation block, however, also contains a photograph of a dead body after it had been tortured, putting an eerie perspective on the whole place. Nearby, the holding cells block contains three floors of wooden or brick cells, all about the size of a bathroom stall. Each level has barbed wire covering the outside balcony to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide. In some cases, you can still see blood stains on the floor.

Topping off the whole museum, however, is the victim’s memorial in the last complex. The ground floors are full of photographs of the prisoners, remnants of the torture devices used on them and the stories of the seven lone survivors (out of 17,000) who were found when the prison was liberated in 1979. In the very last room is a large monument full of skulls and clothing remnants. It was quite an emotional museum, to say the least.

On the morning of day two, Karri and I visited Tuol Sleng’s sister site, the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where most of the prisoners were killed and buried after their interrogation. The site is a ways out of the city at the former site of a Chinese graveyard. The prisoners had to be killed and buried there when the Khmer Rouge ran out of space at Tuol Sleng. To save bullets, they were bludgeoned to death with basic farm tools and buried in mass graves throughout the fields.

Empty pits at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek from where thousands of bodies of Khmer Rouge victims were excavated

Today, people can still see the huge pits that fill up the grounds from where the bodies have been excavated. In fact, the site is set up so visitors can walk from the entrance around the grounds at different stop points to read about different aspects of the fields, including the grave of the headless bodies, a tree against which the Khmer Rouge smashed babies and several cases containing the clothes and bone fragments of the victims’ remains. What is still eerie, however, is they say they still find bits of clothes and bones coming up from the grounds after it rains…

Inside the Killing Fields Memorial, where the remains of some of the Khmer Rouge victims are held

The site also has a museum containing clothes from the Khmer Rouge, tools used in the killings, a video on the Khmer Rouge and photos from the excavation. One of its biggest draws still, however, is the large memorial located in the center of the fields. The monument is 17 stories high and contains the victims’ remains in open, glass display cases. The first few levels are full of human skulls while the upper levels contain different other bones and clothing remnants. The whole thing is really open, you can go right up to it and touch the skulls if you want (though probably not recommended) since the glass cases aren’t always closed…

Though we’ve all grown up learning about horrible atrocities that have occurred throughout history, especially things like the Holocaust, it’s very different experiencing the sites first hand. What was especially scary to me was the fact that this all happened in the late 70s, less than a decade before the year I was born… After these museums I kept staring at all the Cambodians I encountered, especially the older ones, wondering what they were thinking about, what memories they had and what their lives are like now. I just feel sometimes Iike I’ve grown up in a bubble, one for which I am very grateful, and I hope I never have to endure anything like they did during my lifetime.

Cambodia and Vietnam: Part 1


As I sit here, just a couple weeks after returning from my one-week trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, all I can say is that this trip was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Cambodia, a country that has been through so much political unrest, genocide and famine, was one of the most fascinating yet heartbreaking places I have ever been to. Likewise, Vietnam, the first communist country I have visited, also proved to be a reality check, as I saw firsthand how much control the government exerts on information. Additionally, both of these countries were the two most polluted I have ever been to (especially Ho Chi Min City), and I’m still recovering  from the cough I picked up from the three straight days of congestion I suffered as a result of the pollution aggravating my allergies.

So the trip came about after I found myself with nearly an entire week off work with the celebration of both Federal Territory Day and Chinese New Year in one week (gotta love the many cultures of Malaysia)! Since it was only a few weeks after the massive preparations for Thailand, I decided to join my Finnish friend Karri on his pre-planned trip, which included four days in Cambodia and four days in Vietnam, with my friend Danielle joining us for the second half.

I must say, in the (rushed) weeks planning my trip to Cambodia, I was pretty terrified and extremely anxious of what was to come. After receiving a typhoid vaccine and accumulating a mini-pharmacy including anti-malaria pills, anti-diarrhea pills, stomach medicine, anti-histamines and rehydration salts, I turned my worries more to the country’s lack of infrastructure, unsafe traffic and crime. Plus the image of the nasty scars on the legs of a New Zealand girl I met in Thailand due to a sink and mirror falling on her in her guest house in Cambodia left quite an impression on me.

But as we arrived at the Siem Reap airport and headed to the city, my fears mostly began to melt away. Cambodia is fascinating! To start with, it’s a lot like Thailand, except poorer and “Frencher.” Like Thailand, we rode around in tuk tuks, though the ones in Cambodia are simply motorbikes dragging the carriage as opposed to one, connected (stable) vehicle. Similarly, the food in Cambodia is like that of Thailand, though less spicy and with more French influence, like baguettes and croissants. Additionally, the country has a history of Buddhism and Hinduism with beautiful palaces and temples built with architecture similar to those of Thailand.

Cambodian Child

The country is, however, EXTREMELY poor. I’m not kidding, as we looked at all the children running around, some naked, nearly all barefoot, playing in the dirt and the dirty water in the ditches, I felt like I was looking at a Sally Struthers infomercial to adopt a child. Beggars are everywhere, especially in the city’s capital, Phnom Penh, where one child followed me for two blocks, begging me to buy a pirated book, while another waited for more than 15 minutes next to my dinner table at a restaurant to try to get me to buy one. In addition to the children, the country is full of land mine victims, some who beg on the streets and others who have formed a musical band where they play at tourist places and collect money in a basket.

Landmine Victim Band

Though I normally don’t give money to beggars, it was especially hard to refuse in Cambodia after seeing and reading about all the hardship these people  have endured during the past few decades,  especially under the Khmer Rouge communist government from 1975-79 where between 20 and 25 percent of the population died or was executed under the brutal regime. I found myself, instead, doing quite a bit of shopping, including buying two skirts, two books, earrings, a painting and a t-shirt, always justifying my spending that I was supporting this NGO or the local economy. (Plus, some of the stuff was really cool).

So the whole trip started in Siem Reap, Cambodia home of Angkor Wat, one of the most spectacular temples in the world, and an entire complex of ruins spread out outside the city. As some of the ruins are quite far away from each other, many guidebooks recommend spending at least three days to view everything, but since we only had two days, Karri and I decided to hit the ground running on day one and try to see as much as possible.

Angkor Wat

Our first stop was Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of the entire archeological park. The temple and its surrounding complex were built in the early 12th century for King Suryavarman II. Though now a Buddhist temple, it was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and built to resemble Mount Meru in Hindu mythology, including a massive moat that surrounds the whole thing. Though under some reconstruction at the moment, Angkor Wat was beautiful. The complex is quite large and contains several buildings including a few large entryways, two libraries and the temple itself (side note: make sure to cover your shoulders and legs before you visit, otherwise you will be forced to wait to borrow the temple’s lone scarf for visitors).

Ta Prohm

After Angkor Wat, Karri and I managed to see the rest of the park’s main circuit, and though exhausting, is quite incredible. Actually, despite the national icon that is Angkor Wat, I think I prefer some of the other ruins we saw that day. Ta Phrom, another 12th century temple nearby, was amazing. Most of the temple has already fallen apart and what remains doesn’t look like it will last much longer. What is really beautiful, though, is that the temple is full of huge, old trees which have grown around the ruins, sometimes framing them with their roots.

Karri, Me and the Bayon

Perhaps my favorite ruins, however, were those of the Bayon temple, which were definitely the most unique of all the buildings we saw. The entire thing is covered in FACES! I mean, really, it’s COVERED in actual faces carved into the stone, and they’re all the same face! There are 216 of them, which face all four directions of the building’s 54 towers. Some say the face is of King Jayavarman VII, who commissioned the building in the late 12th or early 13th century, while others say it is supposed to be the Buddhist essence of compassion, the Avalokiteshvara, while others say it is a combination of the two. Whatever the case, the faces are really interesting, albeit, a bit creepy. I’d hate to be stuck there at night…

After more than seven solid hours of ancient ruins, thus ended day one in Cambodia.