Walk down the Phnom Penh’s history lane

Do you ever have this feeling that you have learned a lot over a very short period of time? Because this is how I would describe my first trip to Cambodia. 

As a school kid in Poland, I never got to learn about the genocide that happened in this country. As a 15-year-old, I have maybe heard something about Khmer Rouge and maybe even associated them with Cambodia, this state somewhere in South East Asia. But I never knew about atrocities Pol Pot and his comrades committed, even though once I eventually learned, couple years after graduating from university, it reminded me a lot of the history of my own country in the Second World War and under Soviet occupation.

Before I go to the details, it might be helpful to set some context and provide a brief overview of the modern history of Cambodia. As its neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia was colonised by the French in the 19th century. However, by mid 20th century, the French have greatly backed out and 1960s and early 1970s have seen the country still having a monarchy but also something resembling democratic elections. That was the time of Cambodian golden age – the economy was growing, cities were developing, Khmer movies were being produced on a mass scale (this was mostly thanks to the King Sihanouk, who himself shot over 60 films), and even Cambodian Rock&Roll became a thing. 

In 1975 a guerrilla group called Khmer Rouge (Khmer, as the Cambodians call themselves and rouge = red, the colour of communism) has abolished the government in power, walked into the capital, Phnom Penh, and ordered evacuation of the city under the pretext of presumed American bombings. All the citizens were made to move out to the farmlands. There, they would be deprived of all possessions, made wear identical clothes, cut their hair in an identical manner and be put to live in communal ‘houses’ build out of bamboos and whatever else the jungle provided. Day after day, they would work in a 40 Celsius degrees heat on bare two bowls of rice a day. Eating whatever one could find in the forest or what grew in the fields was considered stealing from Angkor (=the organisation) and severely punished by beating or even death.

Pol Pot’s idea of the communist Cambodia was to bring the society back to the basics. What this meant, was transforming all the citizens into obedient farmers who would contribute to the only form of allowed activity, the agricultural production. The regime would call the existing farmers “the old people” and everyone who lived in cities and has over the years become Westernised – “the new people”. The latter ones were all resettled to the farmlands. This ‘basic’ world also included abolishing all the farming advances that 1970s had to offer and have everyone working the way their ancestors did – using shovel as the main tool.

Anyone who was not able to contribute, was dragged outside the common living spaces and killed. From the moment Khmer Rouge took over, until the moment the Vietnam Socialists overthrew the regime, 3 out of 8 millions Cambodians lost their life.

The moment I booked my tickets to Cambodia, I knew I wanted to learn more about what happened during this dark period. In Phnom Penh, there are two main sites where you can familiarize yourself with the past – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S21 Prison) and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (aka the Killing Fields). In both of them, there are audio-guides available through which a Cambodian man explains the history of the place.

Security prisons (S-21) were a network of prisons spread across the country, where previous government officials, politicians, professors, artists, doctors, namely the entire intelligentsia, were tortured into testifying whatever the guards ordered. Many cases, the prisoners were forced to admit that their entire families were CIA spies or enemies of state. It did not matter that these testimonies were not even slightly true. What mattered was that they provided ‘evidence’ for killing not only the prisoners, but also their entire families. As one of the Pol Pot’s slogans went, ‘it is better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake’. Over the 4 years that the regime lasted, around 20,000 people were imprisoned, out of which only 12 are documented to have escaped and survived.

The premises where S-21 was located previously belonged to a high school – three buildings featuring classrooms on the ground and first floor would overlook a patio, where you could imagine students passing their time in between classes. When Khmer Rouge decided to repurpose the area and create a place of torture, they have turned the classrooms into one of the three types of rooms. The first one would be a common detention cell where around 40 prisoners were shackled together on the floor. Secondly, there were cell rooms, with classroom divided into 10 individual cells. Lastly, there would be rooms having only a metal bed with shackles. These rooms were meant for the actual torture.

As is typical to such places, means of torturing people were numerous. Prisoners were starved, waterboarded, cut open alive, have worms put on their flesh. Another way of torturing was to hang people upside down and then force testimonies. Once a prisoner lost their consciousness, the guards would let the rope down a bit so that their heads would dip into a big bowl than was placed underneath. These were typically filled with water mixed with rotting body parts and excrements. In this way a prisoner immediately woke up and the interrogation was reinstated.

Nowadays, some of the rooms feature pictures of actual prison employees with descriptions of their responsibilities. What your audio guide mentions is that there was a record of a woman working in the prison as a medic. Why do you need a medic if you’re not going to heal anyone anyway?, I would think. Well, the answer is to keep the prisoners alive until the guards decide it’s time for them to die. Then only, they would be transferred to the Killing Fields.

The transfer from S-21 to the Killing Fields always happened by night. Typically, the prisoners were told that they were being relocated. Once they arrived, they were put in line against what was to become their grave. Because the bullets were expensive, and they made of noise, the prisoners were killed with a hit to the back of their head with any kind of tool that was at hand. However, as this did not always cause immediate death, a second check was performed by cutting the prisoners throats (that also prevented them from screaming). After a new batch of prisoners was killed, their bodies were sprayed with DDT, which prevented the smell of declining corpses from spreading. 

Khmer Rouge had no mercy towards anyone. In Choeung Ek you will see a tree, against which the guards would hit babies heads. The visit to the Fields ends in a Buddhist stupa (a kind of memorial), where some 7,000 skulls are displayed. By looking closely, you can learn what the cause of a person’s death was. Up until today, the bones of the victims still emerge from the ground. This happens mainly in the raining season when the water washes them out from the earth.

These two places provide some base for understanding the Cambodian society of today. One of the consequences of the genocide is that the country’s population is in 70% below 40 years old. Most of the perpetrators have never been put to justice and so today, victims live door to door with their torturers. For this reason politics or the genocide itself are hardly ever discussed. Just imagine how triggering such a conversation could easily lead to a bloodshed between neighbours.

Also, politics is a difficult topic, as the current system is far from functional. Over the past 10 years Cambodia has received over 5bln USD in foreign aid. In terms of corruption, the country makes it to the world’s top (or actually worst) 20. That is why, the money flowing from NGOs and international organisations hardly ever goes to the benefit of the society. Rather, it remains in the hands of those in power and their cronies.

However, there is a brighter side, the side where the nation starts looking into a future with hope. I got to learn about it using AirBnB experience, where I have found a food and street art tour around the city that run by Shauna, the curator to the Phnom Penh Art Gallery located in an old Levi’s factory turned living and entertainment space.

The tour starts with a visit to a local food market where you can hardly find any tourists. There you can start your day with a traditional condensed milk-coffee and my personal favourite, a doughnut made out of rice flour, covered in a coconut sugar glaze with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Although after having eaten that, me and my travel buddy had pretty happy stomachs, our guide would take us to the other side of the street, where locals eat what you should actually eat for breakfast in Phnom Penh, chicken rice. It might sound basic but the dish actually follows the Khmer perception of food, according to which your meal should be a mix of flavours: salty (marinated chicken baked over charcoal), sour (we get pickles as a side), spicy and sweet (add sweet chilli sauce). 

After such a meal, we were ready to explore the inner part of the market. And this is where life begins – thousands of stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables, fish (many still moving), frogs, bugs sometimes, and meat. Here’s one for the meat – according to Cambodians meat should be consumed fresh and what we, Westerns, do with it by refrigerating and freezing, is just barbaric. As some urban legends go, some people have bought refrigerated meat in a supermarket and then died, so beware. The no refrigerator principles spills on all the other types of produce – for example in Cambodia the oranges are always green because they can only turn yellow when the temperature falls below 8 Celsius degrees. And that simply never happens.

The inner part of the market features a place where we eat Num Banh Chok, a typical breakfast dish, which consists of rice noodles dipped in a cold stew and coconut milk, with pork, herbs and amazingly crunchy spring rolls. Our master chef, the owner of the food stall, has been preparing this dish everyday for the past 35 years. Each morning she gets up early, takes all the ingredients she has assembled the night before to her stall and spends the morning away preparing this mouth watering dish until she runs out of stock, which happens usually before noon. Then, it is time to call it a day, she has earned enough to sustain her family and she doesn’t need to work anymore.

From the market, our tuk tuk takes us to a place that used to be the largest lake in Phnom Penh until the government has sold the land to a private investor, who in turn dried it out to develop new buildings. This area surrounding what used to be a lake, as recent ago as in 2009, is where you can still find street art. And the street art of Phnom Penh really makes an impression – both local and international artists have created murals that feature ordinary lives, traditional motives, symbols, artists that are gone, … 

The life of the street art does not end in the Boeung Kak area though. Many of the artists have been invited to bring their talent and help develop ‘The Factory’. Old Levi’s garment factory has been given a new life and reshaped to serve a new purpose. Buildings in which previously jeans and tops were made have now become home to creative workspaces to rent, a local brewery, a trampoline park, a hipster cafe, a small garment company (you can’t escape destiny) aaand the most amazing art gallery that I have seen. 

K-Bach is a contemporary art gallery, where you will find mostly the art from the streets. Pieces that would typically be sprayed on the walls, have found their ways into canvases. From time to time, there are creative events organised during which some artists would feel so inspired that they would live paint a two-by-three meters canvas, which has now become a part of exhibition. Next to the street art, the gallery also displays works of young Cambodian artists, which is utterly unique, as the Khmer art is just becoming to rise again after total destruction in the times the Khmer Rouge.

Pieces of art in The Factory and K-Bach Gallery

As much as I wish it was the case, what I described above is not a result of history lessons I have taken in early childhood or my pure innate wisdom. I must admit, there were several sources I used to get an insight into Cambodia’s reality. On one of those Netflix kind of evenings, instead of watching another episode of Billions, I decided to opt for First they killed my father, a movie shot from a perspective of a girl, whose family is being evacuated from Phnom Penh as Khmer Rouge enter the city. On one of those chill days, instead of dwelling into Michelle Obama’s diary, I would open Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare to try to understand how a person could become one of the most evil characters in human history. In Cambodia itself, I would never have learned so much if it hasn’t been for the audio guides at the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields, as well as our amazing food & street art guide, who although an expat from Ireland, had a 4-year Phnom Penh living experience, fluency in Khmer and answer to all of my questions, irregardless of whether about the genocide, the shape of society or the main source of energy in Cambodia…

If I was to summarise, I would say that I am grateful I could learn so much about this country and extremely happy I took this opportunity. But I would also say that I experienced a reality check and so will leave couple of facts as a food for thought. When the genocide in Cambodia was happening over 1975-1979, the Western world apparently didn’t know… When Vietnamese freed Cambodia from Pol Pot’s regime and the country joined UN, Khmer Rouge was its representative to the organisation for the next 20 years.. Pol Pot was never put to justice and enjoyed the rest of his life in the company of his children and grandchildren until he died, aged a bit over 70…

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