Heart of Darkness

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge
[A middle-age Khmer women walks past the row cells at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum]

Tuol Sleng was a high school before the Khmer Rouge set up a detention center here in May 1976, and it has been open as a genocide museum since 1980. During its life as a prison and torture center more than 10,000 adults and anywhere up to 2,000 children were processed through it, spending their final days being degraded and tortured before being taken to the Killing Fields outside town to be murdered and interred in mass graves.

The details of what happened there are horrific, a reminder of what happens when a regime dehumanizes its subjects. As we entered we passed the classrooms on the ground floor, which were used as interrogation rooms. The doors are locked, but looking through the windows we could see the steel framed beds, car batteries, and iron clubs that were used to dole out punishment to “enemies of the Khmer state.”

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge
[One of the larger cells at S-21 that housed political prisoners of the Khmer Rouge .]

On the upper levels, as I walked through the tiny brick cells where more important prisoners were held, the crooked walls seemed to close in on me. I was overcome with claustrophobia, fear and the desire to cry at the uselessness of it all. I’d never experienced claustrophobia before. I wanted to flee and gulp down fresh air under the blue sky.

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge
[The frame of Khmer women and her son through the barbwire fences of S-21]

Despite this I was drawn back in. I wanted to see everything that S-21 had to offer. I wanted to try to understand what had gone wrong here.

But at the same time I felt uneasy. Here I was, a relatively wealthy individual visiting a third world country still suffering from the consequences of the very events whose notorious landmarks I was visiting as a tourist.

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge

By the time we got to the three rooms whose walls were lined with photos of the victims I was numb. Looking at the faces of thousands of Cambodian men, women and children I searched for something that might tell me their story. The Khmer Rouge had been meticulous in keeping records of their acts, including these photos of each of their victims, which now act as a chilling reminder that real people suffered and died here.

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge
[Defaced and Graffitized portraits of former Khmer Rouge soldiers on the walls of the Toul Sleng Genocide museum. Even after 20 years many of the Khmer Rouge have not been brought to justice for their war crimes]

S-21, Tuol Sleng Prison Facility of the Khmer Rouge

Good Morning Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh
[Buddhist monks walk past a giant portrait of the Queen at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh]

Phnom Penh wakes up early to take advantage of the cool morning breeze before the sun breaks through the haze and invades the country with sweltering heat. Already 6 A.M and the people of Phnom Penh are rushing and bumping into each other on dusty, narrow side streets. Waiters and waitresses in the black-and-white uniforms swing open shop doors as the aroma of noodle soup greets waiting customers.Street vendors push food carts piled with steamed dumplings, smoked beek teriyaki sticks, and roasted peanuts along the sidewalk as they begin to set up for another day of business.Children in colourful t-shirts and shorts kick soccer balls barefoot ignoring the angry grunts of food cart owners. The wide French boulevards sing with the he buzz of motorcycle engines, squeaky bicycles, and small cars for those wealthy enough to afford them. By midday, as temperatures soar, the streets go quiet again. People rush home to seek the relief from the heat, have lunch, take cold showers and enjoy an afternoon siesta before returning to work at 2 p.m.

[Food-carts on the streets of Phnon Penh]

Cyclos of Phnom Penh
[Cyclos and other traffic outside Psar O Russei in Phnom Penh]

I'm staying on the first floor of the Hotel Renakse, a bright yellow neo-classical French building looking out at the Royal Palace. As you walk out you notice the streets of Phnom Penh do not have traffic signals; instead, uniformed policemen stand on raised metal boxes, in the intersection directing the sometimes chaotic flow of traffic. I've found my favorite way to travel in Phnom Penh is by cyclos. They're the opposite of cycle-rickshaw in India as they pretty much resemble a wide wheel chair attached to a cycle. You just take a seat and pay the driver to wheel around the city as you bounce and laugh as the driver pedals you the congested city streets.

This morning like mornings in Cambodia I've walked to my favourite noodle soup shop about a block away from my hotel. The tiny confines of the shop come alive to the sound of the clang and clatter of spoons against the bottom of their large bowls, the slurping of hot tea and soup, the smell of garlic, cilantro, ginger and beef broth in the air make my stomach rumble in anticipation. Across from me, a man uses chopsticks to shovel noodles into is mouth. Next to him, a girl dips chicken into a small saucer of housin sauce while her mother cleans her teeth with a toothpick.

Phnom Penh
[A man looks down at the crowded market scene below in Phnom Penh]

This is Phnom Penh in morning and it feels like home.

Also a big shout out to Tharum, Phatry, Geoff and Joe for making my stay in the city so much fun. Thanks guys !