Crossing the border into Cambodia on a local bus, you can instantly see the difference in wealth from Vietnam. Red dust, red dirt roads and rubbish are some of the giveaways. It was less perfect but more colourful in many ways and the people were friendly and cheeky, with children waving and wanting to say hello. Passing through no-man’s land was interesting. It was full of casinos for the Vietnamese to spend money, because gambling is illegal in their country.
We took 7 hours to arrive at Phnom Penh, the capital city from Ho Chi Minh, passing roadside market stalls with bright umbrellas and open rice fields fringed with palm trees.
Driving in through the outskirts of Phnom Penh is a bizarre experience. A mix of un-made roads, brand new bridges, expensive gated housing complexes, 4-wheel drive vehicles and free ranging chickens greets you. Its a sign of the rapid increase in investment into the country mixed within a simpler, older way of life still trying to adapt.
Ariving in Phnom Penh we quickly dropped off our bags before jumping on board a cyclo – a 3 wheeled bike and seat which is powered by a guy pedalling and steering from behind. Cyclo drivers are often homeless and their only income and accomodation is their cyclo. The company we used was giving the riders a guaranteed income and also a sense of pride and dignity.
We hit the city and our tour passed by the main sites. From the statue of Lady Penh, who gave her name to this Capital city after discovering a buddha carved inside a tree, to the palace of the King of Cambodia. The most interesting experience was watching people on their motor bikes carrying multiple people, young and old and various objects, include two massive bunches of live chickens held upside down by their feet.
Whilst walking near one of the monuments, the first person I met was a young mother carrying a toddler in her arms. She came up to me and started asking me where I was from. I was wondering what she wanted from me or what she was going to try and sell to me. This reaction was from my experience in Vietnam, where everything is about business. After a small conversation she actually offered me her son and asked me to take him to the UK. She said she had 4 children and it was too much.
I was shocked, to think women here are struggling so much because of poverty that they would offer their own child to a stranger in the street. This is the dark reality of poverty. I saw her walk away with the young boy looking back at me over her shoulder and I felt powerless. What could I do to help? And I wondered what would be the fate of that sweet little boy.
More of the legacy of Cambodia’s history greeted us as we headed to the Mekong riverside. It was a nicely laid out place to stroll along, with trees and open space and views of the river. In admidst the food and flower sellers I saw several middle aged and older men missing a leg or an arm sitting with crutches on the roadside. I found out these people were the victims of landmines, dropped or dumped by America during the Vietnam war.
The mines were left along the Ho Chi Minh trail. A route the supporters of the communist Ho Chi Minh tried to travel in secret from North to South Vietnam. These men were likely to have been farmers simply going about their daily life, ploughing their rice fields or even just walking through the forest when they came across an un-exploded mine. Tragically this is a major problem for Cambodia and Laos where there is still huge amounts of un-exploded devices.
Dinner was at a restaurant called Streets, which is training and educating young people who have come from tough and poorer backgrounds to gaining skills in catering and hospitality. The food was excellent and also creative. I tried fried lotus crisps that looked beautiful. It was nice to see a social responsible business doing so well.
Visiting Cambodia also demands that you see face to face the horror of what one man with power and a certain way of thinking can do. To try and understand this we visited prison S21. Up until the early 1970’s this was an ordinary school but became something much more sinister when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power suddenly.
Pol Pot is actually a nickname and stands for “political potential”. He was a Cambodian brought up in the King of Cambodia’s palace and studied television and media in Paris. Whilst there he was influenced by the ideas of communism and returned to set up his own Communist party.
His ideal was a society that had returned back to the countryside and where people loved one another. In reality within days of coming to power he managed to persuade a capital city to evacuate through fear of being bombed by America. It became a ghost town. The fleeing people, young and old, were then forced to work in the rice fields for long hours. Anyone linked to the previous government or who had been educated and that included anyone who wore glasses or who had soft hands and white skin were taken to places like prison S21 for interrogation and torture. They were deemed to be spies. The rest of the population was unaware that this was happening.
Walking around the classrooms that were converted into chambers of isolation and terrible brutality, seeing the school playing field that became a graveyard, learning how the gymnasium bars became a place to torture people showed me how our creativity as human beings can be used for good or for evil.
It showed me how an entire population can be manipulated by very few powerful people using fear and false hope. It showed me how cruel we can be to one another if we class a person as our enemy. It showed me the power of an idea – to help or to harm. It showed me how terrible atrocities could happen without the wider world knowing or acting.
In total there were 137 prisons like this one across the country.
After the “correct information” was extracted everyone was promised a job in the fields and were taken out to a quiet area outside of the town. This, however, was a lie and instead every single person was executed by hand.
Bullets would be too noisy and might alert the rest of the country to what was actually going on. I visited one of the many “killing fields” as they are now known, to see the reality of what happened in this beautiful country.
It is now a strangely peaceful place, with grass and trees and a lake. It is only when you look down at your feet and see bones that have risen to the surface that you start to comprehend what happened. The memorial to these innocent people doesn’t hold back the stark truth. It stands, unmissable and transparent, in the centre of the fields. A door invites you into a deliberately tight passage where you are pressed close to a tall square of glass filled as high as you can see with human skulls and bones. Very sobering. Very tragic but very important to see, lest we forget.