Saturday, December 6, 2008

A day of reckoning

Every tourist to Phnom Penh has the ubiquitous circuit to complete to claim that they've really "seen" the city. On it are sites ranging from the National Palace with its Jade Buddha and dress code, the Russian Market with its stalls and stalls of knockoff purses and shirts and two of the most heart-breaking places I've ever seen: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.

It may be hard to imagine that places with unspeakables like "genocide" in the name can be on a tourist circuit, but there you have it. Street corners in the tourist areas of the city are crowded with tuk-tuk (a 3-wheeled taxi/motorbike combo) drivers shouting with a smile "You want to go Killing Fields? Tuol Sleng? See Central Market?" It's slightly unreal.

My morning started off at the Killing Fields, located about 30 minutes outside of the city in the peaceful countryside. Once dropped off, and with ticket paid for, you found yourself confronted with a tall stupa, filled to the top with row upon row of glass-encased human skulls.

Upon reaching the foot of the monument, you walk up a few steps to a sign that instructs you to remove your shoes and hat out of respect. There is a mat, with incense continually lighted, where anyone is welcome to kneel and pray. Up two more steps, you come face to face with the skulls, cleaned but still bearing indentations and marks from being struck. Walking around and around, the obvious and simple emotion is to feel sad or disgusted, or maybe your breath will just catch in your chest like mine did.

The rest of the Killing Fields, so named because this is where prisoners from the torture prison known as Tuol Sleng came to be killed, consists of fields with large craters. You see, people were brought here with one purpose: to be killed, mostly by being smacked in the head with a shovel or the butt of a gun or a stick in order to save bullets, then loaded into mass graves. The craters are those graves that have been excavated, though there are still more suspected farther out in the fields.

Visitors can walk along the well-worn paths around the craters, taking care not to think too much about the pieces of fabric sticking up through the ground, or those white stones that look an awful lot like splintered bone. Through it all, you have a soundtrack from the nearby river and the sounds of dragonflies buzzing around the tall grasses in the bottoms of the craters.

After a very quiet tuk-tuk ride back into town, I found myself at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A high school in a previous life, it was transformed into the Khmer Rouge's most notorious prison and torture site. Consisting of about four different buildings, the top floors have been left unchanged from when they were used as cells or interrogation rooms. The cells were tiny, smaller than even the smallest NYC apartment bathroom, but the interrogation rooms were even more disturbing with their wire beds and stained floors.

The first floor of each of the buildings is filled with chalkboards on which are posted mugshots of every single prisoner to come to the prison. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their records, so each room has approximately nine chalkboards, covered front and back with these small 4"X 2" photos. Of course, the Khmer Rouge were also similar to the Nazis in the extent of their destruction: almost every person who was brought to Tuol Sleng died. Out of an estimated 17,000 prisoners, there were only 12 survivors. So each photo that I looked at, and I looked at every single one, was most certainly of someone long since tortured and executed.

An interesting tourist trap, wouldn't you say?

I suppose now would be the time to insert some moral lesson or wise words of wisdom, but unfortunately, I don't have any. The memories of these places affect me as much in memory as they did the day I visited them. And I suppose that's the best I can offer.

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