Hectic streets, flat tyres and a visit to the disturbing Tuol Sleng Museum

The streets around the lakeside had dried up considerably well in the morning, considering how heavily it rained the night before. However, the sky remained very dark and there were the odd few rain drops escaping from the clouds. We debated hiring a bicycle but the ground remained a little on the muddy side and we didn’t want to run the risk of the skies opening upon us, so we decided to wait until the weather had cleared up.
We spent the afternoon typical rainy-day style, in a comfortable chair whilst watching a movie. We chose The Killing Fields due to it’s relevance to our current location in Cambodia. It’s a film documenting events through the eyes of the journalists reporting upon them, one of the journalists being a Cambodian guy called Phran who works for the New York Times. Having read First They Killed My Father and being thoroughly moved by the author’s first hand account of her experiences under the Khmer Rouge overthrow, I felt the film to be a little superficial. It tried to be dramatic, it tried to be poignant, but I didn’t feel the immediacy that i felt reading Loung Ung’s work.
The following day, due to me feeling a little under the weather and Kotoe being her usual lazy self, we did absolutely nothing until late afternoon, when we took a walk down to Wat Phnom, a temple on Phnom Penh’s only hill. The temple itself wasn’t much to write home about but it’s a nice escape from the crowds. Wild monkeys roam the grounds and there are local food vendors scattered around the vicinity. It’s resembles a miniature park in the middle of the city and is where many of the locals gather for the Khmer New Year celebrations.
After two days of relative inactivity, I persuaded Kotoe to join me on a mammoth bike ride today. We hired some very dodgy looking bicycles from just outside our guesthouse and then cycled off down Phnom Penh’s precarious traffic-filled streets. I think it’s the first time I’ve attempted to navigate my way around a capital city on a push bike and it’s a pretty stressful experience! None of the drivers seem to have the remotest regard for the rules of the road (if there are any!) : there are motorbikes weaving in and out of the traffic, paying little attention to cyclists; there are cars pulling out of roads or parking spaces, not looking or caring whether there are any other motorists in their way; there are drivers continually running red lights and motorcyclists blatantly driving on the wrong side of the road, and everyone who has one is using their horn like it’s going out of fashion. So, although the journey to Tuol Sleng museum involved travelling down just one street (Monivong Boulevard) until the final turning into street 310, it certainly didn’t feel like so simple a task.
Tuol Sleng Museum is well worth the $2 entrance fee. The site used to be Tuol Svay Prey High School until, in 1975, it was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S21). It soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek, 15km south west of Phnom Penh. The museum is a poignant and heart-rending reminder of the appalling conditions the prisoners were kept in and the horrific treatment they received. There are rooms where prisoners were found dead, which remain relatively untouched save for the obvious removal of the body and stains of blood and excrement. In each room there remains a bed, which the prisoner was chained to, complete with the instruments used to torture them. Finally there is a large black and white photograph on the wall, taken presumably when the victim was discovered. Other buildings contain the tiny wood and brick cells used to detain prisoners; in some cells are the shackles which were fastened around the prisoner’s ankles and wrists.
The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism, so all around the museum are black and white photographs of each prisoner, often taken before and after torture. Do not come here if you are at all squeamish : a lot of the photographs really churned my stomach, not solely because of the visible physical pain which has been inflicted upon the prisoners but also because of the overwhelming fear in their eyes. It’s a wide-eyed, helpless and desperate look, almost like they’re staring death in the face.
Despite having witnessed a huge number of harrowing images at the museum, I encountered another when I walked out the gates : a man with half his face burnt off, approached me, his one remaining hand outstretched, begging for money. After everything I’d already seen, I couldn’t bear to look at him and averted my eyes and my sympathies as I crossed the road to the Boddhi Tree Restaurant. When Kotoe and I had regained our appetites, we ordered lunch here. The food (grilled eggplant with sundried tomatoes, melted cheese and garlic) was delicious and the lush garden setting provided effective shelter from the midday heat.
After lunch we perused a couple of local handicraft shops before setting off on our tiring 15km ride out to Choeung Ek. A ride which would have been lot less tiring a ceratinly a lot less stressful had my bike not gotten a flat tyre and had we not got lost before we even left Phnom Penh! Fortunately, right at the place where I discovered my flat tyre, there was a skinny mahogony coloured Cambodian man fixing a motorcycle on the side of the road. He didn’t speak a word of English but we managed to converse as much as was required in order to get my bike repaired. The inner tube had perished and it would cost me $3 to fix it. I agreed, thinking that I would be able to take appropriate photographs of the repair and ensure that I was issued with a receipt in order to claim the money back from the bicycle rental establishment. The photographs weren’t a problem (one of the beauties of a digital camera) but the receipt unfortunately was. My phrasebook did not contain a word for ‘receipt’; the closest was the Khmer for ‘please bring the bill’ (as used after eating at a restaurant). I showed this to the man but, due to the obvious communication barriers, all I managed to get him to write down was the number 3 and his name. Even so, I thanked him and we continued on our way.
Despite the fact that my Lonely Planet guide states that The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are “well signposted”, they are not. There is one sign for The Killing Fields, once you have already left the city centre and taken the correct fork in the road out into rural Cambodia, but that is all. We had to call upon the assistance of numerous locals, most of whom were incredibly helpful. As we neared the site, we didn’t even have to tell them where we were going, as Choeung Ek is clearly the only reason foreigners venture out into this neck of the woods.
After navigating several very bumpy, very dusty roads, we arrived at The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and were immediately surrounded by a group of scruffy Cambodian children all wanting water, pens and money. The site, once a longan orchard, is now home to a large memorial stupa errected in 1988, and 129 mass graves containing the remains of 8985 people. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits and there are 8000 skulls visible behind the glass panels of the memorial stupa. Also on site are ‘The Killing Tree’, where victims were beaten against its trunk, and ‘The Magic Tree’, which had a microphone rigged into it to drown out the screams of the victims as they were bludgeoned to death.
The site was closing as we were leaving, so we quickly shared some iced Angkor beer offered to us by the locals (which we drank out of a plastic water bottle with the top half sliced off) before heading back into Phnom Penh. It’s a wonder we made it, right in the middle of rush hour traffic, where it was every man for himself in the crowds of vehicles (cars, landrovers, buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cyclos, push bikes and locals pulling wooden carts loaded with goods) that filled Phnom Penh’s streets.
When we returned the bikes, it started to look like I wasn’t going to get a cent of the $3 it cost to repair the bike, paid back to me. The staff believed I got the bike fixed (so they should, I have the photographs to prove it) but they didn’t believe it cost me $3, informing me that if they had got the bike fixed it would have cost no more than 3000RIEL. They tried to tell me I should have returned the bike so that they could have fixed it, to which I informed them that I was in the middle of no-where when I discovered the flat tyre, so i could not have walked the bike back and I certainly couldn’t have ridden it back. My only option was to get it fixed. The owner then had the cheek to try and pass the blame, insisting that I had broken the bike so I should pay for it! Well, that was it : I wasn’t angry before but I certainly was now! After much arguing and shouting I managed to get a dollar back, and as I hadn’t yet paid them the $1 fee for the hire of the bicycle, it ended up costing me $1 instead of $3, for the repair.
We eventually arrived back at The Lakeside at around 6:30pm, after having cycled what we calculated to be approximately 40km today. We used what remaining energy we had chatting and drinking beer Lao out on our guesthouse veranda, enjoying the only rain-free evening since our arrival in Phnom Penh.
Photo to follow.


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