The drivers scrambling for our business were waiting for us as we got off the bus. Loud and needy, each one wanted to offer their services. Our hotel was within walking distance but with heavy bags and the “they just arrived here” look, we figured a short drive was allowed. We arrived at the Paragon, checked the bed, chose another room and within minutes again were ready to rest. The bus ride from Siem Reap had been uneventful but long and we were still not feeling 100%. These few days in Phnom Penh gave us a chance to really recuperate.
S-21 and the Killing fields
We knew we could not leave Phnom Penh without acknowledging and visiting the brutal reminders leftover from the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Still struggling to heal from Pol Pots regime, the people of Cambodia are transforming sadness into joy and defeat into healing. During the Pol Pot's regime, in an effort to cleanse Cambodia of foreign blood, the prison was used to interrogate local people and all foreigners, who were then sent to their deaths at the Killing Fields. These are difficult reminders to visit, but important to understanding the history of this country.
S21 prison was housed in an old school building, located within a bustling neighborhood. A visit there is an eerie reminder how such devastation and human violation can exist right next door – in a place that was initially intended to teach young and innocent children. Today the classrooms used for torture stand as they were, with pictures of the human bodies found there. The graves out front represent these last torture victims who were found on the last day. The larger rooms were converted to individual cells by building brick walls – the space is no bigger than a bathtub. The Khmer Rouge photographed and identified each prisoner and these photos are now on display. The faces of women, men and children are void of any emotion – not even fear. Just emptiness.
After a bit of time to digest the atrocities of S21, we took the longer ride to the Killing Fields, the area 30 minutes from Phnom Penh that the Khmer Rouge used for exactly that. Mass graves with hundreds of bodies were unearthed and the land remains a brutal reminder of what humans can do to each other in the name of fear and mistrust. On arrival, you stand before the memorial erected to honor the dead – a large shrine containing the skulls found in the excavated graves. It is a devastating sight.