Even now, nearly 40 years after the end of the murderous Pol Pot regime, the seasonal rains erode the soil to the extent that fragments of bone and clothing from the estimated two million victims are brought to the surface.
Likewise, on a daily basis in Cambodia, live munitions and landmines kill or maim and it is estimated that despite concerted efforts to rid the country of the scourge of landmines, it will be another 20 years before the painstaking work will be considered complete. This is not dissimilar to large areas of Belgium where unexploded bombs and landmines continue to litter the countryside.
It is shocking to learn about what went on at the Killing Fields but it is a must-do for any visitor to the country, as is the Tuol Sleng prison. In a land of stark contrasts, much-needed tourism includes visits to many sites which respectfully remind us of the not too distant past and ask us to learn from the mistakes of others and yet we were told that in the secondary schools there is no formal study of the Pol Pot regime in an apparent failure to acknowledge events of the past.
I remember reading about the Khmer Rouge when I was at school but it’s only now that I have a grasp of what went on here… Two million civilians slaughtered, that was a quarter of their population. A visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Prison is very sobering indeed, the faces of hundreds of innocent people staring out at you, people who were brought to this former school in Phnom Penh for torture and questioning.
A very good audio guide tells you about some of the details of the brutality, including holding people upside down until they were unconscious and then dunking their heads in a vat of filthy water and human excrement. And to think this could happen to you just for wearing glasses. The point is, most of the people who died (either from being murdered or through starvation) were innocent people like you and me.
You have to fight back the tears at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields where there is a ‘killing tree’. It is where the Khmer Rouge smashed babies’ heads against it. I just hope no parent had to witness it.
In stark contrast, you have the magic and beauty of Angkor Wat and the other temples dotted around Siem Reap. All have something to offer, whether it is the faces of Bayon, or the peace and quiet and beautiful carvings of Banteay Srei, or – everyone’s favourite – the ruins of Ta Prohm where trees have grown around the temples.
Siem Reap itself is a safe, friendly place to visit. It is full of charming cafes and has a huge old market.
Our guide at the temples told us how his parents were brought together by an arranged marriage. Hundreds of other couples were ordered by the Khmer Rouge to marry and have more children. On the wedding day they were fed a big meal, and then told they were expected to consummate the marriage on their honeymoon night, even though some couples had never even met before.
Our guide’s father, having been in the army, knew that they must obey and he respectfully advised his new wife of this necessity. The next day, all couples were asked if they had done the deed. Some said yes, others just pretended and said yes. Those who lied didn’t realise that they had been spied upon – and were executed there and then.
A precarious life
Time and again, we are made aware of how precarious life can be here in Cambodia, especially in the rural areas.
Rainy season is upon us and it’s a good time to see the floating village of Kompung Phluk. All the houses are built on stilts – including the schools and the police station. They know to expect the rising waters of Tonle Sap Lake. Boats are being prepared for higher levels.
We take a boat along a route where the water level is already reaching the foliage of trees. We walk down a ‘main street’ (if you can call it that) and at the end the water cuts you off – you can simply walk no further.
Naked children are splashing around in the water. You wouldn’t fancy it yourself, it is brown with mud, and there is too much rubbish in it, something that will surely only increase as the lake swells. It wouldn’t take much for some of these wooden stilts to collapse or for a storm to bring many of them down like a pack of cards.
Our minds are drawn to Kerala which has seen its worst flooding for a century. We are watching developments there with interest, as we are due to be there in about a month.
For now though, our next stop is Sri Lanka.
6 months, 7 countries and 17 packets of Imodium… Only 4 months, 3 countries and 15 packets of Imodium left.