I got a feeling in my waters the moment we boarded the bus for Kep. One of those good feelings that only gets stronger the longer it lasts. A sea of green rolled by the bus window: rice paddies, swaying palms and rocky outcrops. Before the bus rounded the corner my nostrils were filled with the smell sea. Soon we began winding our way along the coastal road, jungle covered slopes leaning down on one side while the tropical waters reached for the horizon on the other.
We stepped off the bus in the little seaside village and quickly negotiated a lift up to our hotel. The beaten up Fiat bounced and banged its way up the bumpy dirt road that leads up to Kep Lodge. Its thatched bungalows nestle comfortably in to the green slopes that rise behind the town. Owned and run by a Swiss expat and his Cambodian wife the lodge combines a relaxed feel, an interesting mix of cultures and amazing poolside views.
On 17 April 1975, after more than five years of civil war, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. People cheered as the soldiers marched the streets. But their joy was short lived. A new nation, Democratic Kampuchea, was founded. “Year zero” was declared, money, schools and religion were outlawed and the communist revolution began.
Two million Cambodians – more than a quarter of the population – were systematically killed during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign. Two instruments of this genocide, Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, have become the most iconic reminders of this brutal period in Cambodia’s history.
Prior to the revolution the corridors and grounds of the Tuol Savy Prey high school, located in central Phnom Penh, would have been filled with the sounds of children laughing and playing. Under the Khmer Rouge this school was converted to Security Prison 21 (S-21), Toul Sleng, the nations most notorious prison. After the place was filled with sounds of a much different sort. It was here that those deemed to be a threat to the “Angkar” (the organization) were interrogated and tortured.
How this threat was determined seems arbitrary and in most cases imagined. During the early stages of the regime, city dwellers and intellectuals were targeted: public servants, monks, academics, doctors, teachers and students. Something as trivial as wearing glasses, as it was assumed to be a sign of intelligence, was enough to sign a death sentence. After this racial prejudices came into play; pure Khmer were thought to have black hair, flat noses, full lips and dark skin. Anybody who didn’t fit this ideal – had Chinese, Vietnamese or any other foreign ancestry – were also targeted. In the final stages of regime, paranoia was so rampant that anybody and everybody, including Khmer Rouge soldiers and leaders, were implicated and executed.
It wasn’t just those directly implicated who were targeted; in most cases when one person was implicated their entire family including the children were also executed.
Toul Sleng consists of four, triple storey buildings surrounded by a double row iron fence topped with barbed wire. From a distance it looks like many of the other abandoned civic buildings that are scatted throughout the city but once you get close, even if you have no knowledge of its history, you can feel that this is a place where bad things happened. A morbid solemnity radiates from the walls; as though the despair experienced there was so great it couldn’t be forgotten, it penetrated the building itself, seeped into the stone, infected the ground. All the pain, agony and angst of the twenty thousand broken souls has infused the very essence of the place.
The front of each the buildings are covered with a net of barbed wired to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by leaping from the balconies. The ground floor classrooms of Buildings “B”, “C” and “D” were divided into tiny (0.8m x 2m) brick holding cells. The rooms on the first and second floors were used as group holding cells.
On the southern side sits Building “A”, the ground floor classrooms have been converted into a row of 6m x 4m rooms where prisoners were interrogated and tortured. Your flesh crawls the moment you step inside. A rusty single bed frame mounted with arm and leg irons stands in the centre of the room. The tiles beneath are stained with the blood of thousands broken on the rack. Despair drips from walls. A single photograph hangs on the wall documenting a moment more than thirty years prior when a broken and bloodied body lay chained to that very rack.
Prisoners were subjected to all methods of torture. They were beaten, water boarded, had electrodes attached to their genitals, their nails were pulled out using pliers and they were stretched on the rack. The frame from which the schoolyard swing once hung was transformed into an instrument of torture. A prisoner, hand bound behind their back, would be hoisted upside down over and over until they lost consciousness. They were then revived by dipping their heads into a drum of filthy water and the interrogation would continue.
In most cases imprisonment would last somewhere between two and four months with political prisoners often held longer. After that period of time the prisoner would have confessed to anything and everything as well as implicating everyone they had ever meet.
Just as disturbing was the fastidious detail with which every aspect of the interrogations and torture were recorded. Every prisoner – man, woman and child – was meticulously photographed, their personal history including family and acquaintances recorded alongside their confessions. Thousand upon thousand of files were discovered following the Khmer Rouge’s defeat.
Once the interrogation, torture and subsequent confessions had been completed the Toul Sleng prisoners were trucked fourteen kilometers to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Blindfolded with their hands bound behind their backs, they were led out onto the field. They were ordered to squat by the edge of an open ditch and, to save bullets, most were clubbed to death. A guard would take a hoe, axe or ox cart axle and smash in their head. Their throat was then slit using a palm knife. The lifeless body was kicked into the open mass grave. Chemicals were thrown over the bodies to mask the smell and finish off any unlikely survivors.
Any infants who were brought with the prisoners were taken by the ankles, swung and had their heads smashed in on the trunk of “the killing tree”, which grows in the centre of the field.
The open fields of Choeung Ek feel different to the buildings of Toul Sleng. No contaminated walls remain to hold in the horror and despair. Instead a profound sense of sorrow emanates from the ground.
A tall white stupa, a Buddhist monument to those who lost their lives at that place, dominates in the centre of the field. Encased in glass are thousands of skulls taken from the surrounding field and stacked one atop the other. In all, 129 mass graves have been identified at Choeung Ek. Eighty-six of these graves have been excavated and 8985 corpses were found. Thousands more remain buried beneath the ground.
The atrocities played out at Toul Sleng and Choeung Ek were so primal, so inhuman, so barbaric I found them almost beyond my comprehension. Stepping into the torture cells at Toul Sleng it took me an eternity to process the scene that lay in front of me. Finally realisation dawned on me. Acknowledgement of humans’ capacity for evil made my mind and body reel in horror. Sorrow flooded my soul.
The fact that other human beings are capable of such acts means that I too possess that potential. The humanity of every man, woman and child who has lived as well as those who are yet to live is diminished by the cold, calculated acts of inhuman brutality committed at Toul Sleng and Choeunk Ek.
Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeunk Ek were just two cogs in a nationwide apparatus established by a small group of deluded fanatics to purse a utopian fantasy. It is estimated that the genocide in Democratic Kampuchea produced 189 prisons, 380 killing fields and 19,403 mass graves.
I don’t know what it is; perhaps being born seaside plants some primal desire for salt water and the smell of the sea. Life in Phnom Penh was good but being landlocked too long makes you stir crazy. Ignoring a number of warnings from fellow travelers it was time to escape the confines of the city for Cambodia’s premiere seaside resort, Sihanoukville.
Five hours on the bus and we arrived at the home of the humping lions (a pair of golden statues sit atop the hill near Occheuteal Beach). It is an appropriate emblem for what is, well and truly, a backpacker town.
I’d been pissing out of my arse for nearly a week. We had well and truly run the food gauntlet during our Cambodian holiday; dubious skewers of barbequed mystery meat from street vendors, plates of steamed tripe and fried liver prepared on dirt floors in ramshackle restaurants, ice in everything. You can’t avoid the inevitable and I was finally struck down by the traveller’s curse: the runs, the squirts, the shits. Whatever you call it, I had it bad.
I foolishly thought that it would be safe sneaking around the corner to grab a bottle of water. I didn’t time my run(s) very well, missing that five-minute window of gastronomic normality. I only got a hundred metres down the road before I had to dash for home.
With a severe rumbling deep in my bowels, I threw the key in the lock. The key turned and I was one step closer to relief. I twisted the handle and pulled but my only reward was disappointment. The lock had been catching for days but we hadn’t thought that much of it. Like all things unpleasant it was biding its time, waiting for the most inconvenient moment to stop working. The handle turned but the barrel was broken so the door remained locked.
I tried jiggling the lock, jiggling the handle. No joy. At this point primal desperation kicked in and I began yanking the door. I leaned back throwing all my weight on the door. It tested and teased, getting to the point where it might pop open if only I could exert a fraction more force. The problem was, the only potential source of explosive force lay in the wrong part of my body.
The security guard from our apartment wandered around to check the ruckus. I explained my dilemma in broken sign language – my limited Khmer didn’t stand up when subjected to the threat of a thorough pants shitting.
The guard went through what I’d attempted. He tried the key, jiggled the lock, jiggled the handle and then resorted to brute force. He failed dismally and suggested I try the back door. I shook my head. It wasn’t an option: I didn’t have the key and even if I did, the door was bolted from the inside.
Now I have been locked out of a lot of places: houses, hotels and pubs. In the past these instances were the result of:
an informed and justified decision made by the proprietor of the respective establishment; or
my own ineptitude.
Being a serial misplacer of keys teaches you a number of skills. You often dabble in a little recreational break and enter. There was the cat flap at Sercombe Grove, the second floor bathroom window at Lennox Street, balcony doors at numerous hotels. Years of bitter experience also taught me you can avoid these outrageous feats of flexibility through simple pre-planning; hiding a spare key in the backyard, taping a bent coat hanger inside the bumper bar of the car. I had done none of that.
I’ve got an eye for vulnerable entry points. I had assessed the situation: ground floor, bars on every window and no cat flap. I wasn’t getting into this place anyway other than through the front door.
Shifting my weight from one leg to the other provided temporary relief for the bum gun and I set about explaining the hopelessness of our situation to the guard. He was a picture of relaxation, in no hurry to take further action. Maybe it was my crazed look and shallow breathing, perhaps it was the disturbingly loud rumbles bubbling from the darkest depths of my bowels, but eventually he relented and rang the landlady.
Had I not been on the verge of shitting my pants the scene that followed would have been hilarious. I’m sure even Abbott and Costello would have applauded the senseless repetition.
The landlady arrived and the guard filled her in. Going through the same drill: she failed just as we had. She suggested we try the back door. I shook my head. The guard shook his head. The violent churning in my bowels was causing my arse-cheeks to clutch uncontrollably. Her unhurried calm showed she was happy to spend the rest of the day looking for a way in. I didn’t have a moment to spare. I shot her a look bursting with desperation and she rang her husband.
He arrived and the routine was played out again: key, jiggle, jiggle, ram. When he suggested I try the back door, I nearly punched him in the face. Instead, I closed my eyes and concentrated on anything other than a gushing flood of poo.
The three of them began a long-winded debate in Khmer about how to proceed. I was left to sweat profusely in the corner. When they glanced across and saw me rocking, quietly whispering like a broken soul, commonsense finally prevailed and the husband went in search of a locksmith.
You can spend hours waiting for tradies but luckily for me (and those around me) this is not the case in Phnom Penh. The husband returned within five minutes, locksmith in tow.
Locksmithery is a mysterious art combining subtly and force. Unfortunately I wasn’t in a position to appreciate the skill of that particular tradesman because I was busy foot hopping like a wino dancing a jig for a dollar.
After an eternity the locksmith chiseled out the lock barrel and the door opened. I burst into the house, a hurricane on heat, and locked myself in the bathroom to unleash the fury. There was sobbing, screaming, pain, involuntary grabbing of the bowl and ungodly noise from the full ensemble of my bum trumpet band.
I returned, slightly embarrassed, and offered the locksmith the money for his services. He looked at me like I had leprosy but took the cash carefully.
Relieved to have ready access to the amenities of home once again, I wondered how many weeks it would be until I could fart without following through.
They say the simple joys are the best. Well, a noodle soup (pho or ka teav tirk) is as simple as it gets, but enjoying this traditional Khmer breakfast in a noodle-shop is one of the many joys of our life in Cambodia.
Whether it is a lean-to, little shop or a big open-plan eatery, Phnom Penh’s noodle-houses are packed every morning with men and women grabbing a quick bite or families breakfasting together. Irrelevant of whether the place is clean or filthy the food is always good.