Rouge or Red – what’s in a name? (Thailand to Cambodia)

Any journey that involves waiting five extra hours for a delayed train on a hot and humid train station with absolutely nothing to do is going to be memorable. When the reason for the delay is that the train derailed further down the line and four people have died, it puts the delay into perspective of course, but makes for a no less forgettable experience. The calm and sheer normality of the atmosphere on Chumporn station, on the Thai mainland from where ‘express’ night trains ply the 450 kms to Bangkok in a ‘mere’ 10 hours on a good run, was equally remarkable. It didn’t seem to worry anyone, cause people to return their tickets and seek safer means of transport or hardly even be worthy of note. I remember bus stations in South America where bus companies vie for your business by advertising how few deaths they’ve had that month. This was similar. “Only four dead? on we go!”

We had left Koh Tao that afternoon and safely negotiated the incredible half-mile match stick pier of the Lompraya ferry company, ridden the bus to Chumporn, spent a couple of hours in the obligatory ‘farang-style’ bar (farang is their word for any foreigner) facebooking, eating pad thai and taking advantage of their night- train-only two for one Chang beer offer. Before Phnom Penh we were left with what was supposed to be my induction into first class compartments on the night train, a couple of leisurely hours, maybe a movie, in Bangkok, taxi to the airport and 45 minutes to Phnom Penh to begin our glorified 5 day ‘visa-run’ (both Becs’ and my visa had expired and instead of the usual 24 dash across the into Myanmar, we’d chosen a holiday-style, more civilised affair), easy!

As it turned out I am still a first class virgin, so to speak. After being given midnight,1 a.m and finally a shrug of the shoulders in response to our very reasonable question “when is the 8.44 train likely to arrive?” we opted for switching onto a train that had not derailed that night, getting the last two second class fan (note: NOT a/c) beds available and finally bumbling into Bangkok train station only four hours late, still with plenty of time for our flight.

NOT first class - again!

“I know a great place”. The famous words uttered by Becs that morning which ended up with us going on an unusually quiet metro train (we now know why) to downtown Bangkok, near Lumprini Park to have coffee in an, also unusually quiet, Starbucks-style wifi, a/c, Thai coffee bar. Unbeknown to us, whilst we were googling ‘great bars’ in Phnom Penh or ordering seconds of our excellent banoffee coffee smoothies, just a couple of hundred yards down the road a Thai Red Shirt General was executed at point blank range (see the BBC report here) whilst being interviewed. As we left the bar a little later all we noticed was some razor wire and the fact that any westerners in the area were carrying lots of big cameras and looked very journalist-like. Only later did we discover that of all the coffee bars in all of Bangkok, Becs had to take us to this one, right in the middle of the civil war.

Cambodia or Kampuchea as it is sometimes called is of all the places we have visited the lowest on various rich lists we checked out before going. The average yearly income is only $480. This puts it below Nicaragua, Guatemala and all the other places we went to in Central and South America. I guess then paying $9 for a tuk-tuk from the airport to our hotel could seem a lot. It was a fantastic journey through rush hour traffic, with bikes, cars, trucks, mopeds all whizzing all over the place in all directions. It seems fair cop in Phnom Penh that if one side of the road is too busy, you can just drive down the other, right into the oncoming traffic- nuts! However, when you add that the journey took 45 minutes and the cost of gas is the same as in Australia it becomes hard to argue with £4. In fact throughout our stay tuk-tuks were the chosen means of getting around. We ended up hiring tuk-tuks and their death-defying drivers for a total of 16 hours, paying £22 for the pleasure (a ten minute taxi ride to the train station back home, with which most of my  journeys begin sets me back about half of that).

Cheap? Yes. Comfortable? Certainly. Safe? Hmmm...

How do you like the odds of 7 in 20.000? Better than the national lottery for sure, but when the 20.000 is the number of people thrown in S-21 the notorious Khmer Rouge prison and torture centre in downtown Phnom Penh and the 7 is the number that made it out alive, one feels less inclined to ‘be in it to win it’.

Visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as it is now called and the associated ‘Killing Fields’ was just about the main reason for my wanting to go to Phnom Penh and not head straight to Angkor Wat as most seem to. I did reflect later that having such a short time in a city like this, the decision to focus so much of it on two sites that cover only 4 years of a country’s history, and a part they’d probably like to forget at that, is certainly debatable. I guess it’s a bit like flying into Poland and just seeing Auschwitz or trip to Germany where one just goes to Sachsenhausen.  Is it still relevant? However, pretty much all I really knew about Cambodia was in fact from the excellent book by Jon Swain River of Time and the fantastic movie The Killing Fields both of which cover these 4 dramatic years and so there was never really any doubt where the tuk-tuk that waited at the gates of our hotel that morning was going to take me. Becs ummed and ahhed a little, the temptation of the ‘Russian Silk Market’ proving quite a draw, but eventually succumbed I think a little because of feeling she ought to. Whatever our differing motivations, although the following four hours were not easy, at times horrifying and sickening, at times deeply moving, there are absolutely no regrets.

We decided not to take a guide but to wander the halls, rooms and cells of what was in 1975 a school, ourselves and try to take it all in. After Pol Pot took over on 17 April 1975, the school was converted to a centre for detention, interrogation, torture and killing. In an almost Orwellian move Pol Pot named himself ‘Brother Number 1’ (all brothers are equal, but some are more equal than others) and put the 1 in the name of the centre; S-21 in ‘honour’ of himself. During the course of the next 4 years an estimated 20.000 Cambodians from all walks of life, but especially the educated, were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured here. Many died during torture. A favourite was tying the hands of prisoners behind their backs and using a wooden pole to lift them upside down. This action was repeated a number of times until the prisoner lost consciousness. Then the interrogator dipped the prisoner’s head into a barrel of filthy water, shocking him (or her) back into consciousness only for the process to repeat itself. We saw cells with photos of the dead lining the walls, old cartridges, portraits of the dead, graphic paintings drawn from the memory of one of the 7 survivors and in a fifty degree sweltering room watched a documentary about a Cambodian woman who had been tortured to death across the hallway in ‘C’ Block. She had no idea that at the same time her husband was meeting the same fate in ‘B’ Block.

Inside S21 and skulls at the Killing Fields

About two hours of this and most people have had a stomach full. Despite our lack of firm commitment our tuk-tuk driver from the morning had waited patiently outside the gate for us and now was keen to complete the standard ‘tour’ by taking us about 12 kms outside the centre to the ‘Killing Fields’, so taking his earnings up from $3 to $20 for five hours of private taxi-ing.

It was certainly tempting to call it a day as far as genocide, torture and death was concerned, but doing so seemed somehow wrong. So once again loaded into the back of our personal moped-trailer, we were whizzed outside the city down incredibly hot, dirty and smelly streets. Until now the view of Phnom Penh had been of the ex-colonial streets, green trees, embassies and bars and restaurants. It didn’t quite tally with the $480 yearly income. About five seconds into this ride, it tallied! Our guide book had suggested we rent bicycles and do it ourselves: another perfect example of guide book writing from the comfort of the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club), happy hour beer in one hand, the other ‘googling’ distances on via Michelin. ‘Bicycle it yourself’? Bollocks more like! If we hadn’t melted, we’d have been hit by any of the following: other mad tuk-tuk drivers, bullock drawn carts, crazy-fast taxis, huge trucks and all these coming down either side of the road, with no respect for traffic lights, one way systems, each other or let alone bike riders. In the food chain that is Phnom Penh traffic we’d not have been plankton, but whatever plankton eats! Oh and mister guide book writer; exactly which ‘plenty of signs’ were we supposed to follow?!

Anyway Mr Tuk-tuk knew the way and took us right to the entrance. Between’75 and ’79 the Cambodians who were taken here and whose shattered skulls now fill the enormous memorial just past the entrance did not have the luxury of strolling round what now looks a little like and park and take pictures, reading signs about it all as we did. Already blindfolded, they were unloaded from the trucks, taken to pre-dug pits and whilst loud speakers blasted out deafening music in a futile attempt to drown out screams and moans, they were shot or later, as bullets became scarce, had their heads bashed in using machetes or poles. If you happened to be a baby and you were taken here, the guards would take you to the ‘baby killing tree’, where they’d bash you against its trunk. There were no survivors at the ‘Killing Fields’.

The 'killing' tree

That was enough. Time to tuk-tuk away, downtown where monkeys play on the streets, there are cheap souvenirs, the FCC serves extremely cold happy hour beer and, guide book writer forgiven, bust out the RG and start planning the next couple of days – Angkor Wat!!! Away from the days horrors, beer in hand it was impossible not to reflect. Less than 24 hours previously we had left the site of an execution where one group of people dressed in red were on the verge civil war with another dressed in yellow. I needn’t have ‘worried’- the world is still messed up and I had the answer to my earlier concerns about the relevance of such places and the importance of visiting them. Rouge, Red, terrorist, the names change but that’s it. So, in the un-edited words of the guidebook at S-21:

“Keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive is the key to build a new, strong and just state. Furthermore, making sure the crimes of the inhuman regime of Khmer rough public plays crucial role in preventing new Pot Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on Earth.”

Seemingly like so much else in Cambodia they haven’t quite got it right (“Pot Pot”?!?), but in a country where not quite getting it right is such a big part of its charm and things just somehow work out anyhow, it simply doesn’t matter. This laid-back attitude suggests the age of tyrants, at least on this side of the border, has vanished. In Cambodia a different, safer, ‘huggier’ kind of ‘Pot’ rules now and he doesn’t care if you’re Rouge, red, yellow or farang coloured. Peace!

(If you want to see more of my pictures from S-21 and the Killing Fields, click here)

~ by 2ndcupoftea on May 20, 2010.

2 Responses to “Rouge or Red – what’s in a name? (Thailand to Cambodia)”

  1. It was a really good place for a coffee, you have to admit…

  2. Sobering insight into what we expect on our visit to Phnom Penh in March.

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