Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Killing fields and Freeing Bears in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh.

It was a bit of a rough start getting underway to Phnom Penh, but we actually made it there in a decent amount of time. You know, the familiar drill… a strange foul-smelling gas coming out from under the back seats followed by an abrupt stop, everyone running off the bus then waiting on the side of the road for nearly an hour for a functioning bus to handle the onward journey.  We got in to town around 230 pm, about 90 minutes behind schedule.  We quickly hailed a tuk tuk and bargained for ourselves a reasonable ride to the Okay Guesthouse.  Okay was recommended by a fellow backpacker somewhere along the way and turned out to be great.  On the way to Okay Guesthouse we drove past a place called “The Pizza Company.”  We had not eaten since breakfast, more than eight hours earlier and, until today, neither Michelle nor I had missed or needed or really wanted any western food. We’ve been quite content with our Asian dishes.  But when we drove past “The Pizza Company” just one look at each other and the decision about where we’d have dinner was made.  

Pizza Company Garlic Bread

Yep.  Delicious appetizers and pan pizza with some meat on it.  Adequate portions?  Let’s just say there was no need to eat again that day.  We spent the evening doing a whole lot of nothing.  We took our computers over to a place called “The Lazy Gecko,” had some 2 for 1 Angkor drafts and played catch-up with journaling, organizing pictures and otherwise chronicling the trip.  We are four weeks in, and I’m still trying to write about what happened during week two.

The Killing fields

Our first full day in Phnom Penh was an educational and sobering day. We visited the Killing Fields at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and Tuol Sleng Genocide Muesum.  I never before knew about this terrible period of Cambodia’s history until reading about it in the days prior to crossing the Cambodian border.  No, they didn’t teach us about this in high school.


I’m still not crystal clear on the order of events or cause and effect of the government structure prior to, during and after the Khmer Rouge Regime from 1975-1979. It seems to be a rather complicated piece of history, but also incredibly interesting. After trying very hard to understand everything that happened during this recent period in history, my basic understanding is this: On April 17th 1975 a man named Pol Pot came to rule a communist Cambodia, this was the beginning of the Khmer Rough Regime. During this time a third of Cambodia's men, woman and children were murdered. Many of them were tortured over long periods of time.

The Khmer Rough army killed anyone who showed any signs of intellect or ability to fight back. They also killed all their family members in an effort to eliminate anyone who might one day seek revenge on the army.  A phrase I heard multiple times about how the army justified many of the murders, "Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than spare an enemy by mistake."

The whole story is frightening and sickening. If I try to explain it I'll probably do it wrong. There is loads of information all over the internet. Here are here, are good places to start if you're interested.

Here is the description of Choeung Ek, as printed on the back of my entry ticket:
“CHOEUNG EK Genocidal Center is a unique and special place that reflects the most barbarous, cruel crime committed by the Ultra Communist Khmer Rouge Regime and 1975-1979.  Here, about 20,000 people, including foreigners, were executed and murdered. Obviously, 129 mass graves and about 8,000 human skulls at the site bear testimony to this unspeakable crime.


“In order to remember the spirits of the victims at this site as well as over 3 million victims throughout the country, a memorial charnel was built in the center in 1988.”


The Memorial Stupa

We took the audio tour of the site. It was very informative, and the details of this horrific piece of history were well presented.  It included interviews with people working for the Khmer Rouge as well as personal accounts of some of the surviving victims.

A few things we saw along the way....

This sign reads: Mass grave of 450 victims

Here the sign says: "The bones and teeth fragment that were exhumed in 1980 were in the ground. Nowadays, the bones and teeth fragments have come up after the flood and raining a lot, and they were collected to keep on."

At the end of the Khmer Rough Regime many of the buildings at Choeung Ek were torn down in an effort to remove evidence of the horrible things that happened here and because the wood and metal scraps could be sold for income.  

Here are some signs in their places describing the purpose of those buildings...


When clothing of the victims is found they washed and displayed in a manner
in which the victims can be respected and remembered.

The mass grave where hundreds of women, children and infants were found naked.

Following Choeung Ek, we visited the Tuol Sleng. This place was somehow more frightening and even more disturbing than the Killing fields. It’s the former security office, or S-21, designed for detention, interrogation, inhumane torture and killing.

This is building "A." The building was used for detaining cadres tho were accused of leading the uprising against Pol Pot revolution. 

The bodies of 14 victims were discovered at S-21 on January 7th 1979 by the united front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea. The corpses were unidentifiable due to awful decomposition. The bodies, one of which was female, were carried out and buried in front of Building "A."  These 14 bodies were the last to be tortured and killed by S-21 personnel  before they fled.

A room, or cage, on Building "A." 
This picture in this picture shows how the room was found after the Khmer Rouge fled.

This wooden pole was used for interrogation and torture.

Not all the victims were Cambodian... 
While reading the profiles of many of the victims I came across one of a man from Minnesota

Peasants in a palace! 

The next day was a little less eventful.  We didn’t have anything specific on our agenda and hadn’t enjoyed a largely “down” day in a while.  So we opted for an afternoon at the pool.  Lonely Planet said you could pay a small entrance fee to any of several of the fancy hotels in the city for access to their swimming pool.  So that’s exactly what we did. Conveniently, there was such a hotel just across from our $5/night guesthouse.  When we walked in it was as if we were peasants in a palace!

Free the Bears


On our last day in Phenom Penh we did our day with “Free the Bears,” the volunteer opportunity we stumbled upon while in Laos.  While the day actually consisted of much less work than I was expecting, it was still very fun to see the place and learn about the organization and what they are doing to save animals that are trapped and tortured in bear bile farms, or captured for trade and the selling of their body parts in the black market.

This is the first bear we met, Kong. He is blind due to being kept in a cage where was always in sunlight, never able to find shade

This bear is "sucking his thumb," Or his whole foot!

A blonde Asiatic black bear, Daisy

Even when they're all grown up, they are little guys.

A walk around the center to see some of  the other rescued animals.

Both of these guys were house pets who out grew their owners 

The most friendly gibbon I have ever met in my life.

He likes to be pet and have his head scratched

His hands are really soft

Hungry Otters

 Friendly elephant, Lucky, on her way out for one of her daily walks around the rescue center

Don't mind the fact that I appear as though I'm a child dressing herself
for the first time in her life in these photos... I was running out of clean clothes!

Elephant with a prosthetic leg

In the afternoon we set out the food/treats we had made for the bears and watched as they searched for them and worked to get the goods out of the bamboo...


This guy is actually pealing a banana! 

 At the end our day they brought the babies out to play. The newest cubs to the rescue center, Tina and Santiago. There we found by members of a hill tribe with no mother, at nine days old. It is believed their mother was captured to be sold of sent to a bear bile farm.

Time for the little ones to eat...

Our final evening in Phenom Penh (and in Cambodia) I actually managed to meet up with a sailor friend I knew from Chicago, now living In Phnom Penh. I love to hate Facebook, but it sure is handy sometimes when you’re half a world away from home and all of a sudden you realize you can send a single message and, soon thereafter, be have a drink with a friend and a familiar face. 

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