Thursday, May 15, 2014

From a beautiful laid back town to sad history of the country

After spending a week in Kratie, almost doing nothing at all, except walking, eating, swimming and cycling, finally it was time to say goodbye to this beautiful town and our laziness. Having packed our bags and geared for the bustle in Phnom Penh, we said goodbye to our hotel owner, who seemed to be gravely disappointed as we did not take any tours from him. He smiled nonetheless and we walked to the market center where vans usually wait to be loaded before heading to PP. End of new year's holiday meant huge crowd going back to the cities from hometown and increase in the van fare. We negotiated a bit and saved ourselves 50 cents each before we were shoved on the backseat with our bags on our laps. Once again, the van was packed with people twice its capacity and it was off!
It took 4 hours before we caught a glimpse of a commercial city in the distant from a bridge over the river. As we entered the city, the first bump welcomed us into its heart. The road seemed to be under development, but lack of any workers and activity meant that the road had been in this condition for a long time. First sign of a corrupt city. More bumps followed and we had to hold on to wherever we could. About an hour inside the city on bad roads and crowded street, we finally reached what looked like the central market and were dropped off there. As is the case with any touristy city, we were surrounded by touts and agents asking us about hotels or tuk tuks. Denying everyone politely, we started east-wards, to the river side, which is crowded by numerous hotels. The streets were lined with food stalls, restaurants and shops. It was a crowded area. Everyone seemed to be hurrying towards something important. After checking out a few hotels, we finally found one to our liking and checked into it. But as the ceiling was leaking, we had to check out again and find a new hotel.

The central market

Our basic room
The next day, all three of us started walking aimlessly. Checking out the surroundings, a map in hand. We realised that we could actually walk to a famous tourist spot, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and started to head that way. Cambodia perhaps has worse history than Vietnam and Laos. First because of its occupation by French in the beginning, then their involuntary involvement in Vietnam war and finally an enemy within the country i.e. Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot. It is one of the saddest episodes of history and quite a long one. It is advisable to read about it before coming to Cambodia to understand and respect the country and its people.
Towards the end of Vietnam war, Cambodia had three armies, Americans, Khmer Rouge and then governing political party. Khmer Rouge with their aggression managed to win this war and took over Phnom Penh. The Cambodians welcomed this new regime as it has finally ended an ever going war. But the peace did not last. Khmer Rouge's philosophy was that every country man need to work in the field to maximize the agricultural produce. Pol Pot believed that education and foreign involvement are bad for the country's development and banned schools throughout the country. Well educated people such as doctors, lawyers, architects etc. were kept as prisoners and schools were converted into prison camp. The regime itself had well educated people at the top, most of whom had completed their education in France or other countries in Europe. Any slightest sign of uprising was punished severely and towards the end Pol Pot became so paranoid about a plot against him that many people were imprisoned or murdered without a slightest proof. By the end of the Pol Pot regime, as many as 25% of total population had been murdered and the country's economy was transferred back to the stone age. It was a gruesome act and reminders of this can be seen throughout the country.
One of such reminders is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This, previously a school, was a prison camp for political and other prisoners. All the classrooms were converted into jails and the prisoners were subjected to various methods of torture. By the end of the torture, many people would just accept the crimes they had not committed, to get out of the torture. Well, once accepted, they were subjected to death sentence. It is said that screams could be heard throughout the nearby areas when innocent were tortured. The prisoners included children, women and old people. So many people died in this establishment that it is said that the bad stench of decay lingered throughout the premise for months even after the fall of the regime.

Entrance to the museum

School campus
As a reminder, this prison has now been converted in a museum. The now empty classrooms and faded walls are witness to these episodes. Blood marks can be seen on the floor where innocent people were tortured, many of whom could not withstand it and died. Photos have been put on the walls of tortures and dead people. Many of the weapons used for torture are on display. Some rooms have numerous amounts of photos of prisoners, others have photos of the Khmer Rouge soldiers. On both sides, children as young as 5-6 can be seen. Their innocent eyes, quite aloof to what was actually happening.
One of the last victims


Torture room

Silent witness!

Pol Pot: The reason behind everything!



Young Khmer Rouge soldiers
It is hard not to feel stunned after going through these rooms and as I sat on a bench waiting for Huang and Yushin, a small breeze playing with my hair, my mind had become numb and it seemed as if all happiness was sucked out of a gruesome act in the past!

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