Coming face to face with Pol Pot and his brutal regime.

Like all too many people passing through Cambodia, we didn’t spend enough time here! My usual war cry here, yet again, was next time, next time! Wedged in-between Vietnam and Thailand, most visitors to this small but fascinating country usually whip through as they pass from one side to the other, often not fitting in much more than Angkor Wat. But Cambodia is so much more than Angkor! We should have spent less time in Vietnam, we both kept repeating to ourselves. Hindsight is such a tremendous thing really!

We decided that our first stop would be Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. We also found out very quickly that in Cambodia, pretty much all roads lead to Phnom Penh , or at the very least, pass through it! It was a short boat ride to the border, Vinh Xuong on the Vietnamese side and Kaam Samnor on the Cambodian. The border formalities, well were not very formal, and after passing through both borders, we were left to our own devices. We soon organised a bus, and were on our way to the capital. Although the distance between the border and the capital is not necessarily a big one, the roads in this very poor country are horrendous, making the trip unnecessarily long. We arrived both tired and quite late, and we both dislike searching for accommodation in the dark. Surprise, surprise, someone jumps on the bus and has a “recommendation” for us. So, off we go, and……………it was atrocious! Filthy, dirty and seedy, and I told them so! Needless to say, they didn’t appreciate my getting upfront and personal. Stiff! I wish I could remember the name of the place so that should you ever go to Phnom Penh, you never end up there. We were both cranky and tired, but were adamant about not sleeping in a crud hole. We eventually found Malis Guesthouse, a quiet place run by a lovely local family. We were happy to be able to dump our packs, but we were also starving. Luckily there was a little restaurant upstairs, so we relaxed whilst having a bite to eat, and promptly went to bed! I cannot say that I was overly fond of the area that we were staying in, but I was too tired to care!

We realised the next day that we were in the area known as Boeng Kak, which is a backpacker strip along the eastern shore of Boeng Kak Lake. Most of the guest houses here are built on a seriously polluted body of water. Having said that, we also soon realised that it was an area full of alcohol guzzling foreigners, Cambodian prostitutes, and drug pushers! I would categorically describe the area as a ghetto, and was quite appalled by it. On a number of occasions, Alex and I were offered the whole gamut of illegal substances, from weed to cocaine. Don’t even get me started (as Laura and I would fondly say!). Supply meets demand! It is appalling and unethical that any foreigner should accept any drugs from any of the locals, as they are only doing it to fund those people’s habit or whim! If you want to damage yourself, that is your choice, but please do not damage others through your own selfish choices! When asked (on a multitude of occasions) if I wanted marijuana, I resorted to saying very loudly, “No thanks, I don’t smoke marijuana”, to which I was told to keep my voice down. On one occasion, I lost it, and told the person offering me the drugs that I didn’t do any drugs at all, and that he should take a good look at me, including my profile, and circulate my nationality and looks around to all the other drug pushers, leaving him with, “I don’t do drugs! Don’t ask me again!”. He was flabbergasted, but the tourists watching my little scenario more so! A couple of them were quite taken aback, saying that they did not understand what the big deal was about, and voicing their opinion that perhaps I had been a little OTT (over the top). I took a big breath in, and breathed out slowly, telling myself not to go there; I have recently come to the realisation that I cannot change the world single-handedly (although in essence I would dearly love to) . I breathed in again, and looked at them…..probably the very people whom had bought some drugs only moments before I had passed through. My point had been made!

We spent our first day wandering around central Phnom Penh, observing and checking out the sights. Overwhelming, eye-opening, mind-boggling and paralysing are some of the words that come to mind in a bid to try and describe this city. Whilst each of these adjectives aids in capturing a part of this place, none seem to encompass its entirety or complexity! Children begging and running on the street naked, often pushed forth by their mothers; more Lexus cars than you could poke a stick at; billboards stating that “Sex with children is a crime”; foreigners being offered 7 year old girls for sex; people with no arms, or legs, or neither! Talk about tugging at the heartstrings. I felt like they’d been ripped out completely, and then placed around my neck in order to strangle me! I felt alternate waves of nausea and devastation come over me so many times, as I found myself wondering, yet again, where humanity was really heading!

There’s actually quite a lot to see and do in Cambodia’s capital, let alone observe. We also arrived here in time to go to the Australian Embassy to vote. We didn’t have to, as we had so oft been reminded, but we oh so very wanted to! I am not about to enter a political tirade here, but I will say, yet again, that things do not change due to the masses sitting back and simply hoping that change will actually vapourise, or simply come to be! Remember my thing on complacency? So, off we both went and voted. This was Alex’s first time voting as an Australian citizen. You may or may not recall that Alex became a True Blue (Aussie) in August 2006, just before we embarked on this long adventure. Ask him how much easier life has been travelling on an Australian passport, rather than an Ecuadorian one! So there he was, Ecuadorian born, now citizen of Australia, voting for the very first time….and in Cambodia!

We visited the very interesting National Museum of Cambodia, which is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. It is housed in a beautiful traditional building, with a delightful courtyard, from where one can sit and observe. It was a great introduction to what we would witness later on, especially Angkor Wat. Wat Phnom was another place of tradition and tranquility. Set up on a 27 metre high hill (the only hill in town) it provided some arresting views. Other places of interest were the Independence Monument, built in 1958 to commemorate the country’s independence from France and the Psar O Russei (or Russian market), full of anything and everything you can imagine, from food and second hand clothes, to designer label rip-offs and pirated CDs, movies, and computer programs. My favourite market, however, was Psar Thmei, the mustardy coloured art deco building also referred to as the Central Market. Quite obviously, it’s in the city centre. Whereas the Russian Market was somewhat over priced and touristy, the Central Market seemed to cater much more to the local population. Having said that, it still has a bit of a name for overcharging. Having said this, markets frequented by locals, are an amazing way to help understand a culture. Markets are without a doubt one of my favourite cultural activities! Not bad for buying some unusual and exotic food either.

Coming to Phnom Penh and not visiting Security Prison S-21 or the Killing Fields would be like having a shower after bush walking and not using soap! They are both pretty full on, so we chose to do them on separate days. We decided to go the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 15 kilometres from the city centre first. Our mode of transportation was a motorbike……that’s to say, Alex and I both on the one motorbike behind the driver! Whilst I would not call the drivers in Cambodia aggressive, I would certainly regard them as risk takers! I had seen one too many motorbike accidents in Vietnam and Cambodia, and hoped that we were not about to become statistics ourselves. Nothing could really have prepared me for Choeung Ek, the site of a former orchard. Between 1975 and 1978, approximately 17,000 men, women, children and babies were brought here, after having been detained and tortured at S-21. Effectively, this was an extermination camp, where the excessively cruel and ruthless Pol Pot Regime, often had them bludgeoned to death, so as not to waste precious bullets. Thus the name, The Killing Fields! The area is not large, but the overwhelmingly sad energy is of gargantuan proportions! It’s an instant knot in the throat that brings immediate tears, and leaves many questions unanswered!

On entering, and reading several panels of information the brutal reality of this place slowly unfolds, and along with it a total revulsion! The remains of close to 9000 people, many of whom were bound and blind folded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. What makes the experience so eerie and spine-chilling is that several of the communal graves have been left totally untouched, and fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are still scattered around the pits. Somebody’s mother’s top! Somebody’s father’s pants! Somebody’s daughter’s bones! It was gut wrenching, and I felt a wave of nausea sweep over me as I tried to reconcile the evil before me! How had this happened? What sinister forces had been at work here? We keep saying “never again” after what happened in Nazi Germany, but it did happen again, and continues to do so in a multitude of other countries today. Why, why, why????? Why do we persist in making history repeat itself? How could we allow this to happen? So many questions, yet so very few answers! Funnily, or oddly, enough it was at this very time that Blood Brother Number 2 (as opposed to Blood Brother Number 1, being Pot) was finally being tried. Too little too late!

As if all the fragments of bones and clothes weren’t enough, there is yet another imposing, very brutal reminder of Cambodia’s horrific past. Also at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, is the infamous Memorial Stupa, holding more than 8000 skulls, behind clear glass panels. The skulls of adults, children and babies that had been maimed , killed and destroyed, for some supposedly higher purpose or ideal! It was erected in 1988, lest we never forget the brutality that occurred. It seems that “lest we never forget” , however, is a phrase that falls on deaf ears, as that’s all we seem to have done as well as continue to do….forget, forget, forget! The silence in that stupa was phenomenal. Everyone who stepped in was quite obviously moved. I wept inwardly, and outwardly, as I again pondered the cruelty of man, in his quest for………..what, exactly! It is moments like these that continue to profoundly change my life! The impact has been and continues to be prodigious!

The next day we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, in the heart of Phnom Penh. In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison, known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It went on to become the largest detention centre and torture chamber in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 some 17,000 people were taken from this very place to Choeung Ek, to effectively be executed and annihilated. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of its barbarism. What is now simply an empty shell of a high school, still has an eerie if not calm feel about it. It’s not a place to scream and yell, but one of profound contemplation. Whilst there are still some items of torture laying about, and several cells that would barely fit a single chicken, it’s the room after room of harrowing black and white photographs of each and every person that would later be killed, that is so disturbing. Nobody had a name, but everyone had a number! I was profoundly affected! I was, again, looking at someone’s daughter, someone’s father, someone’s brother! Name unknown, destiny confirmed! I walked from room to room with a lump in my throat. The magnitude of my sorrow was immense. In this place, my tears were not silent; I went from room to room, with the tears pouring down my face!

I must say, after two days of tales of despair and destruction, both Alex and I felt a little shell shocked and emotionally exhausted. We had seen most of what we wanted to, but had to hang around for an extra day as the Australian National Elections were on, and we were definitely going to vote. I make it sound like we had to, but it was very, very much a calculated choice. Overseas or not, Alex and I both wanted a say as to who (or who was not!) going to govern us over the next four years. I was surprised at how many Australians we had met, who simply had said that they could not be bothered to vote whilst travelling! The very ones that probably whinge about the results! Gotta be in it to win it, I say!

What an eye opener Phnom Penh had been! Too much prostitution, too much poverty, far too many people without limbs (thanks to all the land mines….some still undetonated!), and too many lexus cars (thank you corruption)! We’d heard about a place called Sihanoukville, in the west of the country, known for its laid back atmosphere and for its beautiful beaches and superb seafood (that had Alex’s ears pricking up, as a lover of seafood). Sounded too good!


Dedication: To all those people over the millennia who have died so needlessly, in the name of war! And for the many more who will continue to die in the name of war! May we realise, sooner rather than later, that war does not equal peace!

I just want you to know that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace” – George W. Bush. (What a profound statement from a profound man! Sorry, couldn’t help myself!)

(Photos: 1.- Border crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia. L to R: Felipe, Alex, a Norwegian friend. 2.- On the banks of the riverfront which runs through the city centre of Phnom Penh. Houses and clothes lines look very different here, with little comfort and certainly no Hills Hoist! 3.- Near the area where we slept. Although Cambodia is mostly Buddhist, there is still a degree of cultural and religious diversity, Phnom Penh. 4.- One man’s trash is another couple of girls treasure! Phnom Penh. 5.- The beautiful buildings of the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. 6.- How the other half live. Kids on the Phnom Penh streets. 7.- First time Aussie voter. Alex outside the Australian Embassy, Phnom Penh. 8.- The lively markets of Phnom Penh. 9.- Wasted lives! Photos at Security Prison S-21, Phnom Penh. 10.- Can you read the sign under one of the trees at The Killing Fields? It reads, “Magic tree…..the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed”. 11.- The skulls of some of the many people that were executed at The Killing Fields. 12.- The Khmer Rouge fighters. Could have been your young son! Indoctrination started early, and the youth of Cambodia often become bold and ruthless killers! 13.- Whose son? Unknown! Simply, Number 1! Photo taken at Security Prison S-21, Phnom Penh).

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Alex & Ombi

Alex & Ombi

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!

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