True to form it took me nearly three months before I got around to doing something that I had planned on doing the week we arrived. I went for a run. Not just any old run but a run with an expat running club. Joining the Phnom Penh Hash House Harriers on their weekly run definitely showed me something of rural Cambodia that I would have otherwise missed.
Come 2:15pm Sunday the tracksuit wearing exercisers congregate at the Phnom Penh train station. At first glace it looks like a club for nerds, misfits and middle aged blokes with no mates who, one afternoon per week, get together, assume imagined identities and escape reality. There certainly was a bit of that but there was also a whole lot more. A closer look revealed quite a diverse group of people: expats and locals, young and old, fit and bordering on obese.
All the preparations have been completed. A fresh layer of white paint covers the concrete curves of all the main roads. The propaganda is in place: flags, billboards and enormous effigies of the benevolent Hen Sun are everywhere. The beggars, homeless and mentally unwell have been rounded up, imprisoned and are now being “reeducated”. Vacant blocks which just a week ago were littered with garbage and filth have been cleaned up and are now home to hundreds of market stalls and a concert stage. The exodus of city dwellers has in no way offset the influx of visitors.
The girth of the great Tonle Sap has grown fat and swollen from months spent gorging thirstily on the flow from the Mekong. The rains have lessened with the turning of the seasons and the upstream flow goes slack. The full moon approaches and soon the accumulated water in the lake will begin to seep back downstream making its way for the shores of the South China Sea. In Cambodia this changing of the tides is cause for celebration. Water Festival (Bon Om Tuk) is here.
The festival runs for three days (Sunday through to Tuesday) during which all roads lead to Phnom Penh, traffic comes to a standstill, the population doubles in size, the city doesn’t sleep and crime goes through the roof.
People as far as the eye can see crowd the banks of Tonle Sap to watch the boat racing. Long boats piloted by a crew of up to eighty compete head to head over 1700 metres. Standing upright the crews row like a chain gang furiously hoeing the ground. In some races there seems to be a large gap in talent. This is most obvious when a one of the provincial teams comes up against a team of expats. Even funnier is watching the expat crew struggling to negotiate the upstream row back to the starting line. After two days of heats the results are tallied and the boats are allocated into one of four divisions for the final day.
This racing gig isn’t risk free: while the surface water flows downstream, the undercurrent still flows upstream meaning that if a boat floods the crew better be strong swimmers. This year, the river claimed the life of one unlucky crew member.
When night falls the long boats are replaced by slow moving barges laden to the rails with neon towers of Buddhist kitsch. A fireworks extravaganza provides a fitting backdrop.
While the boat racing and fireworks provide the water festivals obvious highlights, the real joy is to be found treading the pavement. For many people from the provinces the festival will be their only trip into the city. Every piece of pavement and section of park is covered by straw mats on which families eat, sleep and sell anything and everything: secondhand clothes, cutlery and meat skewers.
Negotiating the streets in certain sections of the city is not for the faint of heart. Our house happened to be located next to the thoroughfare closest to the festival that was still open to traffic. This meant that the normally quite streets around our house provided thousands of truck taxis with a drop off point for streams of festival punters.
We pulled up a bar stool at a high-rise bar/restaurant in order to bear witness to the madness. The intersection near our house (Sihanouk Bvd and Street 51) was becoming the bottleneck to end all bottlenecks. Thousands of punters all traveling in different directions converged to strand Tuk Tuks, Motos and cars. People were at a standstill for hours, food stalls collapsed with the press of bodies and the cabins of Tuk Tuks became legitimate thoroughfares. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about our privileged vantage point, six storey’s above the chaos. This feeling dissipated at the moment of our departure when, in order to get home, we were forced to negotiate that crowd. Who would have thought climbing through a maze of thousand parked motorbikes would be quicker than the road? Apparently the number of visitors this year was far less than previous years; I can’t imagine what the crowds would have been like then.
It is easy to understand why the celebrations have such energy; Tonle Sap is the lifeblood of Cambodia. Outside the comforts of the city most of the population live and die by its whims. Its fertile depths provide the lion’s share (eighty percent) of protein for the population as well as the moisture required to grow the country’s rice. On the flip side, regular floods claim the lives of hundreds and leave tens of thousands homeless every year.
Cambodia is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the whims of its neighbors. If the sea level were to rise by one meter a large proportion of the country will be underwater leaving more than eight million Cambodians homeless.
China’s phenomenal growth is an even more immediate threat. When the eight hydroelectric schemes which China has planned for the upper reaches of the Mekong come online, the flood flows into the Tonle Sap will be devastated. This will jeopardise the food supply to more than 60 million people.
I am glad to have experienced the exuberance of water festival as who knows how much longer people will be able to celebrate?
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.
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.
I have owned a number of bikes over the years.
My first was a wooden tricycle turned from the hands and heart of my great uncle Alf.
A Christmas gift from the early stages of my pre-pubescence provided my primary school ride. It was antiquated even when new, compared to the shiny alloy rigs of my contemporaries. But damn, good times were had with that rust ridden, heavy, old shit truck BMX. Wagging school, tadpoling and piffen yonnies. It also had sweet pegs and character.
The best way to know a city is to walk her streets.
Immediately evident in Phnom Penh is the number of cars and trucks on the road in comparison to other Asian cities were the Moto tends to be king. The roads are definitely indicative of the divide between rich and poor. The affluent in the air-conditioned comfort of their brand new Hummers, 4WD and SUVs fly by while a naked toddler shits in the gutter, parents nowhere in sight.
For those lacking their own ride, Phnom Penh offers a number of different ways to join the procession.