A brutal day in Phnom Penh – emotionally spent

Monday, March 7th ~ Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

We started off the day with 12 of us plus Boreth loading into three Tuk Tuks and heading out for our morning optional city tour. Tim and I were joined by Jenny and Dave, the young couple from Wisconsin. Within about two minutes our driver had lost the group. He kept circling around a few blocks, passing by several sites, and I think eventually gave up on finding our group. 

It took us about an hour to locate everyone else, but eventually we were reunited and our tour continued.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Post Office

Post Office

interior of Monk's Temple

Interior of Monk’s Temple

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At Independence Monument (in background) and statue of Norodom Sihanouk

Tiny clams being sold on the street

Tiny clams being sold on the street

In front of the Royal Palace

In front of the Royal Palace

A bright moment in our day

A bright moment in our day

Somehow I managed to slice open my big toe getting back into the Tuk Tuk after one of our stops. I’m now sporting a band aid on my foot, but other than internalizing a couple of naughty words and having to wash the blood off of my sandals, I’ll be just fine.

Romdeng - Training center for former street youth

Romdeng – Training center for former street youth

Back at the hotel for lunch we returned to the culinary school to get a quick bite before our afternoon tour. The highlights of the meal started with this cool beverage:

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Coconut Milk and Lime Shake

and ended with the refreshing dessert.

Fresh fruit and lime pepper sorbet

Fresh fruit and lime pepper sorbet

I knew that the afternoon was going to be emotional and difficult to deal with, but even knowing some of the violent history, I was not prepared for what we were about to experience. This time all 14 of us shared a roomy bus and were joined by a local guide. We were off to visit the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum.

Pol Pot’s birth name was Saloth Sar. He was a Cambodian revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge from 1963 until 1997. The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals.

It is estimated that 2.5 million people were killed or died from starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime. 

Our guide was only a child during the time of mass killings. He lost his father and five brothers due to starvation. His stories based on his own experiences were chilling, sad, overwhelming and stretched the limits of my understanding.

I took quite a few pictures, but decided to only post a few, mainly to document that we were there, and to help jog my memory.

The Killing Fields

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I do not want to share on my blog the extreme measures of torture that were used here. I had thought that the medical experimentation and torture we had learned about when touring Auschwitz and Birkenau were horrendous (and they were), but the methods of torture used here went so far beyond anything I had ever read about.

To say I was horrified would be an understatement.

The brutality that can be perpetrated from one person onto another person seemed to know no bounds. They found great pleasure in causing the utmost pain and cruelty.

The heat was starting to get to me by mid afternoon and my face turned bright red. Tim insisted that I stop and drink some cold water. So glad I did, as that revived me a little.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979.

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As we neared the end of our tour, we were introduced to one of the very few remaining survivors of the prison, Mr. Chum Mey. I asked him how he managed to survive the torture. With our guide translating, he shared some of his story. He also has written a book which I purchased and plan to read while on this trip.

Joanne with Chum Mey

Joanne with Chum Mey

This day left me completely depleted.

GRATITUDE MOMENT: Today I am grateful…

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About Tim and Joanne Joseph

Hi and welcome! We are Tim and Joanne Joseph and we have just embarked on our "next chapter". At a stage in life where traveling the world, taking pictures, and sharing our adventures with friends and family will be our dream come true.
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20 Responses to A brutal day in Phnom Penh – emotionally spent

  1. Maha says:

    But…but…you note nothing that you are grateful for after such a day???

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  2. You are brave to comment on this horror. Too often we western/ Northern travellers like to focus on he pretty, pretty and do not let our eyes be opened to the other reality. Thank you

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  3. Having visited both of these sites myself I suspect she is just grateful to not have had to live in Cambodia in the 1970’s. I was in Pnom Penh about 15 years ago and like you found the whole experience devatasting but also humbling. You are surrounded by it, everyone you meet will have been affected one way or another. And it is recent history – we lived in the Phillipines when this was happening and can’t believe I was so close to such horror. One bright note though, when I was there they were desperate for funding to bring the museums and sites up to a decent standard to attract more tourism as it is such a poor country, probably one of the poorest I have visited. So it is good to see from your photos that they seem to have been able to do this? Thank you for this post, it brought back some good memories of Cambodia because the people I met there were very special.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John Love says:

    I left Nam late in 1972 for the last time. I had been in and out several times that year. We were working out of Danang for Linebacker missions. Marines had not been in the area for a while, when the civilians first saw us, thinking we were the front runners of a hoped for build up, they ran up to us and hugged us! They knew what was in store for them after a defeat. I have friends who were in the So. Viet. Air Force who were in the concentration camps after the war. I should say friend, most did not survive. He escaped actually. A lot of them were sent to Cambodia, never to return. But if you mention communism in his presence, you better be prepared to duck! It was a bad time for a lot of people, South Vietnam included. I have another friend who was a civilian and very young at the time, I did not meet him until he was in the States, but he goes back all the time to visit relatives. My best friend, wounded in Nam (lost a leg) goes back and is treated with extra care when they find out he is a wounded Marine! So there are all kinds of stories connected with the conflict there. I am grateful I survived in one piece, I was hopeful we had learned our lesson, but I won’t go there!

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    • John, thank you for sharing this. As difficult and emotionally wrenching as it was for this “outsider” to witness, I can not even imagine how impossibly hard it would be on one who had actually been there during this time. I will now see our own military vets, those who return home forever changed, through more understanding eyes. Hugs to you my friend.

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  5. I want to go to Cambodia, but I’m a very emotional person at the best of times. I think I don’t want to know exactly what happened, it suffices me to know that some people really aren’t human after all….

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  6. I don’t think I could visit such a place: it would haunt me for the rest of my days. You were very brave. I too get horrified at man’s capacity to inflict pain on other human beings and animals. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
    On a lighter note, that coconut and lime drink sounds absolutely delicious, as does the pudding. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

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  7. Ginny Schaw says:

    My first public school teaching job in California was working with Cambodian children who had escaped, spent a year in camps in Thailand, and then were placed in age appropriate classrooms in West Sacramento. Most had never been to school before and all were traumatized. Their stories have stayed with me to this day.

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  8. Jeff Bell says:

    Wow. That sounds like a taxing and tiring day. As you say, it is unreal the amount of violence we can do to each other. I’d like to say that this is a thing of the past but of course it continues today in some places.

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  9. Karen says:

    We have been to Tuol Sleng and read Mr Mey’s book. A fabulous book on the subject is “When Broken Glass Floats.” One of my favorite books of all time.

    Now be prepared for Vietnam Nam and the torture at the Cu Chi Tunnels. They show a movie done by the VietKong which brags about the killing methods they used and you’ll see ground traps which to this day give me the willies. Just an aside — Jan was too short to crawl through the tunnel and be able to get out. And if you do crawl through the tunnel just hope the person in front of you doesn’t fart — because his butt will literally be in your face??. If you’re still in Phnom Pen, go to the famous Elephant Bar for some relief. Is Monk Cialo still giving out food to the poor every day down by the Tonle Sap river? That’s one of the good things you’ll see in Phnom Pen.

    Take care and I hope your hotels get better.

    Love, Karen

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

    • We will be back in Phnom Penh for a few days at the end of the Intrepid portion of our trip. Will try to find the Elephant Bar then. I’m not sure if I can handle the tunnels with being claustrophobic, but thanks for the warning 😩. If you have a copy of that book I would love to read it, otherwise I will get it from the library when we return.

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  10. lonesojourns says:

    I hope your big toe is healing well. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Like you, I have also visited a few Nazi concentration camps and it still puzzles me how cruel man can get by deriving pleasure from others’ sufferings and torture. I have yet to visit the Killing Fields / Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, but will definitely go one day.

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