We took the Mekong Express bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh – an elderly, but comfortable service which carefully shepherded us over the border at Bavet, one of the few crossings where you can reliably get your Cambodian visa for the prescribed $20, rather than being shaken down for more. Although the official currency of Cambodia is the riel, in practice the entire Cambodian economy operates on the US dollar: ATMs give out dollars, all price labelling is in dollars, and the only time you’ll see riel throughout your time in the country is when receiving change smaller than a dollar. We swapped our remaining Vietnamese dong to riel via the no-doubt-highly-inaccurate rates provided by the women changing money at the border, but we might as well not have bothered.
One of the little joys of travelling in Southeast Asia is the neverending uses to which a motorbike can be put. At various times in the trip, I’ve spotted them being used to transport crates of live ducklings, heaps of flowers, and several mattresses. Just over the Cambodian border, a man had strapped a whole dead pig across the back of his bike. The rural Cambodian ‘bus’ also made an appearance: a long trailer pulled by motorbike, with planks tied across it for seats. Rural Cambodia made an impression immediately as somewhat poorer than Vietnam, with an economy much more based on fishing; still, maybe that’s just because our route ran alongside the mighty Mekong. But on arrival into Phnom Penh, after seven hours, my expectations were confounded again. We were staying just off a street of bright, modern shops and pretty shaded restaurants, in what turned out to be an expat area of the city. It reminded me to be careful of judging from appearances; by all accounts Cambodia is still a desperately poor country, but you wouldn’t know it from much of Phnom Penh.
We began our time there with a visit to Tuol Sleng, the former S-21 prison maintained by the Khmer Rouge. No visit to Phnom Penh can avoid confronting the spectre of the Khmer Rouge, and the four years of their radical communist regime that left the country ravaged and a third of the population dead. Tuol Sleng, a former high school, looks exactly like many other French-built schools dotted around the capital, but the inner courtyard is lined with the graves of the seven prisoners still alive when the prison was liberated in 1979. There is a jasmine tree growing alongside, and its sweet heavy smell permeates everything.The wooden frame once used for exercise by the pupils was used to torture prisoners by hanging them upside-down. The old classrooms and cells are now nearly empty, except for dusty bedframes; on the walls are grainy pictures of emaciated figures shackled to the bare frames, sprawled in pools of blood and vomit. I felt sick, and my throat started to close up.
One of the most gut-wrenching parts of the museum is the pitiless detail in which the Khmer Rouge documented their victims. Numbered photos, numbered tiny cells. The prison displays many photos; ID ones , photos of corpses after torture or death from disease, pages and pages of written and taped ‘confessions’ that broke my heart. “Please, I’ve told you everything… I will never disobey Angka again… my brain isn’t working, if I could just have some rice to eat…” On finishing, we went guiltily for a palate cleanser of lunch at the Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondents’ Club, overlooking the river. In the afternoon, we visited the National Museum, which is dominated by art and sculpture for the Angkor period, when the city of temples and palaces was being built near Siem Reap. While the sculptures lose some of their majesty in a museum setting, it allows you to understand some of the influences and artistry that went into them, and learn about the distinctive “Angkor smile” – the wide-lipped, benign expression that’s characteristic of the Angkor temples.
The next day, we girded ourselves for a visit to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. There are many, many sites of killing fields around the country, but Choeng Ek, a ten-kilometre journey by tuk-tuk over dusty, rutted and bumpy roads, has been curated as a memorial site. It’s a quiet, peaceful place, with chickens scratching and puppies gambolling, and a small placid lake in the centre. Under that lake are further mass graves, which the historians and curators of the site have chosen to leave in peace. Little remains on the site now in terms of buildings, except a tall memorial stupa, but an audio tour guides you around the site; the spot where the guards’ hut stood, where trucks dumped out blindfolded prisoners with their hands tied every night, the mass graves of headless Khmer Rouge soldiers, and the one composed solely of naked women and children, besides the tree against which soldiers beat out children’s brains. Every now and again, new fragments of bone, teeth and cloth come to light after rain and shifting of soil, and every few months the curators collect them. I found a scrap of worn blue cloth half-buried near a tree root, and stood staring at it for a few minutes before moving away. A few feet away, a glass case held many of the smaller bones that have been dug up and for which there isn’t room in the memorial stupa. In with them is a standard blue Tupperware container, about two-thirds full with teeth. I’m not sure why this was the thing that broke me, but it was; tears started to run down my face behind my sunglasses. The stupa itself is filled with the skulls and large bones of the victims, level on level on level of them; seventeen stories high.
As you walk towards the gate to leave, the audio guide mercilessly lists off the mass genocides of the past – Jews, Armenians, Native Americans, Rwandans – and warns that we’ve probably not seen the last. What I struggled with most in understand the Khmer Rouge at first was simply what everyone involved was thinking. How was any of this orchestrated? How did a small group of communists manage to drive everyone from the cities and force them into rural collectives and semi-starvation? Who could possibly even think that this could work? Atrocities occurred in Vietnam only a few years before, for sure, but I felt that – to a degree – I could understand the thinking of the American GI’s, and of the Viet Cong. I couldn’t make any sense of the Khmer Rouge at all. Or maybe I didn’t want to.