So Day 3 started with an early bus ride back to Phnom Penh. We booked Giant Ibis bus.One way ticket costs around $20. It has a couple of stopovers during the 6 hr long journey for breakfast and coffee. The journey was very comfortable and was spent chatting, napping and reading. The way to Phnom Penh is very beautiful with vast fields and open spaces. In between, I caught up on some Angkor history. The bus drops the passengers off at Central market from where it is very easy to get a ride. The city is like any other developing city with roadside cyber cafes, salons, pubs and shops. We were living at a walking distance from Central market and National museum.
After resting for some, we decided to check out the National museum. The entry fee is a minimal $5. It is a huge sandstone structure and houses many artifacts from the Angkor era, and is a must visit for anyone wanting to delve deeper into Cambodia’s history. I was able to visualize the Khmer timeline through the lovely displays and information.
And like the Hindu symbolism we found in Siem Reap, here was an idol of Lord Ganesha at the entrance. Which was awesome, as it was Diwali season.
After this, we thought of some late afternoon lunch. Hunting around the local market and spotted a red colored cafe. It was a cute little place owned by an Italian. Some conversation told us that he had come to Cambodia for agriculture studies and as a volunteer, and eventually opened up the cafe as a place to promote live music as well as an academy.
From there we roamed around central market. Since it was still early for the evening revelry to kick in, most of the places were still shut. The streets were lined with pubs, bars and restaurants, the owners of whom looked at us expectantly as early visitors. One thing I noticed was that streets only have numbers, but no names! And this made navigation through Google maps just so much tougher. We ended up walking way more than we planned to. With an early dinner, we called it a day.
Next morning, which was also the last one in Cambodia, we had some time on hand to explore Phnom Penh. I was curious about the other past of Cambodia which is not so glorious – the genocide during the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot which literally claimed one-fourth of the entire population in the 70’s. The victims were mostly the educated class – teachers, doctors, students, professors, engineers – which resulted in Cambodia losing an entire generation and emerge a poor and largely illiterate society.
Khmer Rouge created torture centers all over the country, and after killing the people, mass buried the victims in far flung places. We hired a tuktuk to see one of each site – S-21 (Tuol Sleng genocide museum) and the Killing Fields (Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center) – which together document the genocide events.
The tuktuk suddenly stopped at a nondescript building right in the middle of a market. This was S-21. S-21 was earlier a school which was converted into a torture center during the Khmer Rouge. This has now been converted into a museum and displays the torture tools and photos of the people who were tortured here. The photos were taken by the executioners and cover wall after wall in the museum. The expressionless photos of kids and elderly, men and women, bore into you, life pretty much sucked out of them even before they were executed. And this was just one center. Many existed back then.
Sombre, we made our way to the Killing Fields or the Cheoung Ek museum. After torturing the people they were loaded in trucks and taken away to these Killing Fields to be executed. The journey is a longer one as Cheoung Ek field is on the outskirts. The tuktuk trudges along a dirt track, and suddenly the museum looms ahead. Its a lonely, eerie place and I could unmistakably feel the horrors that took place here.
There is a memorial which has been constructed in the memory of the victims. Visitors can walk around the memorial in the museum grounds. An audio track, which is part of the ticket, takes the visitors through the museum detailing out the atrocities. The horror stories are hard to digest – that such terror had been inflicted upon innocent people in so to say modern times. The museum grounds are littered with mass graves which were discovered after the Khmer Rouge was ousted. I have added some pictures, leaving out the gory ones.
The place has a haunting effect as it is so very quiet out here – quiet out of respect and quiet as it is so far out from the city. Such fields were largely set up outside the main cities literally so that the cries of the victims could not be heard anywhere. It is a very heartbreaking experience, but one that is important to know to understand why Cambodia is in the state it is today.
After a few hours, it was time to head back and say goodbye to this amazingly beautiful country with a rich history, stunning architecture, kind people and a poignancy which made me truly fall in love with it. I am taking back truckloads of memories to last a lifetime.