Monday, July 18, 2011

Faces of Death in Phnom Penh & the Deceptive Calm at the Sisowath

Cambodia pilfered by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. This photo courtesy of Dith Pran, 1974.

There is absolutely no getting around a civil war, painful death and genocide. It is merciless, parsimonious, offensive and reeks of demented, delirious, maniacal judgement. Pol Pot's regime - from 1973-1979 - was such! And with no compulsion to airbrush it, I do hope he rots in hell until eternity!

Pol Pot was schooled in Paris, but that doesn't make him an intellectual. After all, there are also idiots in France the same way there are at every nook and cranny in the world. But more importantly, he went to the university and flunked his course three times! If that qualifies him to lead a nation, I should be President of America (remember that George Bush became one) so you would know that the qualifications aren't as rigid.


Mr. Pot led a racial cleansing in his deranged Khmer Rouge that killed thousands on his way to insanity. But he was too ashamed of how he looked that he hardly allowed anyone to see him or take his photos. His cleansing started in Phnom Penh, a move that would eventually decimate every structure that represented civilization which, to his mind, was unpure - churches, government dwellings, temples, houses, banks, bridges, concrete roads, then people! - Painful torture and death to everyone. These photos (above and below) only courtesy of the official Tuol Sleng website. Please visit the site for more photos which are on display at S21.

The first time I visited S21, aka Tuol Sleng Prison - a former elementary school turned into a prison - it took me 2 hours to navigate around the actual prison cells. And I couldn't help getting misty eyed. It was a sobering encounter with a not too distant past.


The prison cells were tight enclosures made of bricks in one floor and wood panels in another. Every part of the capture was documented by the regime - the way the French loved documenting everything! Each prisoner was photographed upon arrival then post-mortem, after they were tortured. Some were even snapped during the whole bludgeoning process of lunacy. No one was spared. Women, even the pregnant ones, children, old people - each one was taken as prisoners. The most spine-tingling accounts came from the survivors - those who eventually made it out simply because there were just too many prisoners. The officers couldn't keep up with the killings as fast as they should.


I thought it would be easier this time around, but emotions aren't that easily tutored. I paid the entrance of $2 and noticed that the new entrance was through the compound's right side corner instead of the front gates. There were more tourists this time. But the twilight zone moment came when one lady stood beside one of a prisoner's photograph. I thought I was seeing a ghost! This breathing, living lady was the very same woman on the photo - moments before she was to be executed! It was unnerving! Turned out, a team was doing a documentary.


After Tuol Sleng, our tuktuk driver named Sem, maneuvered his way towards the Killing Fields, aka Cheung Ek Genocidal Museum. It was a 40 minute drizzly ride to the suburbs. There was new gate and ticket office. There's even a new museum at the left side of the compound. It wasn't there three years ago. A Japanese firm has acquired management privileges of the whole compound which explains the new welcome development.


The Killing Fields is really just a parcel of land where prisoners from S21 and other prisons were taken for immediate execution - then buried there. They would place loud speakers on trees so as to drown cries of pain. Babies were thrown up the air then bludgeoned with bayonets as they drop down the ground. Those who were too heavy for this were held at their feet then their head were bashed against the trunk of the trees. Such barbaric acts are, to this day, unfathomable. These trees bear witness to an era of unbridled lunacy.

A pagoda stands at the center of the compound bearing skulls of the departed, thousands of them.


From the Killing Fields, I asked Sem to take me to Boeung Kak, the old backpacker area north of Sisowath Quay. I have always wanted to see this place. Boeung Kak used to host the cheapest guesthouses in Phnom Penh, but many of them - including a number of Lonely Planet-recommended enclaves - have been dismantled. We navigated through an Edsa-like avenue, then turned left through narrow roads. I saw a gleaming mosque until we eventually reached a place I'd be so scared to visit at night. There were still a few guesthouses left, and the smattering of tourists looking as decrepit as the old settlements that now survive there.

The lakeside had this dramatic view. From across the lake, I saw nothing but sand, allegedly laid by the government developers. The whole area would eventually see the rise of tall buildings in the next 5-10 years. To be honest about it, this seems like a great idea. If Phnom Penh needed to catch up with Siem Reap, the planners seem to go about it the right way. The placed looked scary, and between Sisowath Quay and Boeung Kak, it's a no-brainer which one I'd recommend to friends.

From Boeung Kak, all that's left to do was to get back to Sisowath Quay (photo above). It would be sunset by that time. But tomorrow is another day for revisits.

I can't wait.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monks crossing the street along Sisowath Quay. This photo only courtesy of

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