Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tears of grief and joy in Phnom Penh - and again some elephants!

I promised you to tell you more about the fateful reign of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge that seemed so much to affect the country - and actually still affects the country. As I wrote before, nowadays there are the remaining landmines, the rotting infrastructure, hell, even the widespread corruption in almost every public branches. But during their short political reign of only 4 years the Khmer Rouge did so incredibly much harm to the country and its people, that they leave other infamous dictatorships of the 20th century look like bloody amateurs.

Khmer Rouge soldiers - squinting eyes of political terror and genocide

The whole problem (again) had its roots in the Vietnam War which sucked in its neighbouring countries (particularly Laos and Cambodia) into the range of communist and western ideologies. In Cambodia the kingdom under King Norodom Sihanouk (and later under the western-oriented regime of Lon Nol, who led a coup d'état against the king) was fighting against Cambodian communist forces that were back then known as the «Khmer Rouge». Those communist insurgents were fully equipped and supported by the North Vietnamese, who on the other side were backed up by the Chinese and Soviets. In return the Khmer Rouge would help the North Vietnamese to traverse the dense jungles in eastern Cambodia to deliver equipment and combat troops into South Vietnam - of course I'm talking again of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail. Sounds pretty much like Laos of that era, eh? At this time the leading head behind the Khmer Rouge was Pol Pot, a Cambodian who once used to study radio electronics in Paris and was oftenly described as «a nice and friendly guy» by some close acquaintances (who later were likely to be killed by him).

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge

On April 17th 1975 his henchmen conquered Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh

In the fateful year of 1975 the communists in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia succeded in their cause and took absolute power of their countries. Most of the higher officials from the defeated governments packed their bags and fled into exile along with most U.S. ambassadors. So after decades of war the international community was relieved to see that the neverending fighting in South East Asia allegedly came to a end - many journalists and wannabe political analysts even saw a new chance for peace and the wellbeing of the local people, now that the countries were «united and liberated». The reality was not that harmonic. In Vietnam and in Laos the former enemies of the communists were sent to already harsh «reeducation camps» - but nobody had foreseen what would happen in Cambodia instead.

Shortly after the Khmer Rouge seized power in the country, the whole population of Cambodia was moved from the urban areas to the countryside and was forced to work as primitive farmers or forced labourers in inhumane conditions. After a matter of a few days (!) once lively cities like Phnom Penh became completely deserted and lifeless - not one person was left behind, no matter what his age, profession or social status was before the Khmer Rouge takeover. The megalomaniac plan of the Khmer Rouge was to build up a completely self-sufficient agrarian society, in which there was no place for classes, modernization, industry, western influences or even slightest indications of any intellegentsia. Quite ironic if you consider that many high-ranking party members of the Khmer Rouge were intellectual by themselves.

As the new leaders of Cambodia set their economic focus on agriculture only, new (and even by that time silly) construction projects were launched. The forced labourers, who originally came from all parts of the country and social backgrounds, had to excavate huge parts of the countryside to build artificial lakes (like Kamping Puoy) or watering canals. Most of those labourers were either suffering from malnutrition, rock-hard work or were badly mistreated by Khmer Rouge guards. It's needless to say that thousands of labourers died on those construction sites.

Cambodians (who were lucky enough not to be executed) tried to survive through forced labour in the countryside
Just like in Orwell's novel «1984» the Cambodian people were standing under constant surveillance of guards, other members of the party or spies among the workers. Anybody who happened to be an «enemy of the state» was first imprisoned, tortured, then forced to write an confession and was finally killed - vanished from the face of the earth. The Khmer Rouge did not hold back from killing the weak or sick, elderly people, foreigners, children or even myopes - just because wearing glasses was making them «looking intellectual». During their reign of four years the Khmer Rouge wiped out over over 2 million people - 25% of the Cambodian population! These are the victims of the so called «Killing Fields», a term which many westerners may recognize from the same-named Hollywood movie from 1984.

However, I want to keep myself short. For the Cambodian people help finally came from an unexptected side - not from the United Nations or much less from the United States - but from communist Vietnam! It may sound utter ridiculous that former allies in the war against the Americans would suddenly turn against themselves, but that's what basically happened. It started as Pol Pot actually tried to claim back some Vietnamese territory that once belonged to the ancient Khmer Empire - such as the Mekong Delta or some islands like Phu Quoc. Vietnam tried to play with all their diplomatic and political cards to stop Pol Pot from further stupidities - but the madman in Phnom Penh simply wouldn't give in. The Khmer Rouge went so far to start smaller military attacks on Vietnamese territory, killing hundreds of civilans and leaving a wake of devastation.

That was the last straw that broke the camel's back - Vietnam finally invaded Cambodia in 1978, steamrolled over Phnom Penh in a couple of a few days, liberated the enslaved Cambodians and drove back the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border, from where Pol Pot and his friends still fought back until 1998. A new government was founded in Phnom Penh and King Norodom Sihanouk was brought back from his exile abroad. Although the Khmer Rouge still existed for a while afterwards, they never were able to take back the country or to inflict any more mass killings as they did in their reign from 1975 to 1978. Furthermore that bastard Pol Pot died in 1998 and left the sad remains of the Khmer Rouge in disintegration - it took that long until peace finally returned to Cambodia. 

Vietnamese «volunteer soldiers» in Cambodia
Khmer Rouge soldiers captured by the Vietnamese Army

Sadly the war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese caused the severe landmine problem, as soldiers from both sides (but particularly the China-backed Khmer Rouge) buried millions of them in the countryside and forests. Nowadays nobody knows for sure how long it would take to clear them all. Furthermore the invasion also lead to another border war between Vietnam and Communist China, as the Chinese were supporting the cause of the Khmer Rouge. It's also noteworthy that Cambodia was also target of massive American B52 carpet bombings during the hot phase of the Vietnam War, and just like in Laos there are still thousands of unexploded bombs somewhere in the Cambodian jungles where once the Ho Chi Minh Trail weaved itself through...

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The year is 2014. The war is long over, packs of tourists and backpackers swarm through the dirty streets of the capital and only the older residents of the city may remember the horrible days when the Khmer Rouge once used to terrorize the very same corners. Somewhere in a riverside restaurant sits a lousy Swiss guy slurping one Mango Shake after another - it's me.

Phnom Penh,...

... a messy but welcoming riverside jewel in the style of Bangkok.

After the lovely days in Kampot and Kep I moved back to the shiny capital of this kingdom - well, «shiny» may be mildly exaggerated. The buildings around me were scarred by the exhaust gas pollution, fat rats were getting comfy in torn up garbage bags and every damn Tuk Tuk driver was just happy to offer you whatever drugs they had in their inventory. However, the city offered me a more than pleasant stay.

Phnom Penh's famous riverside

Some expensive cars here and there - government officials?

One of Phnom Penh's skyscraper - a sign of modernization or just a pompous show-off?

The Independence Monument

Inside Phnom Penh's Central Market - note the architecture

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh - I'd say it's on par with Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew

A royal guardian armed with his old Mosin rifle

The beautiful mural paintings of the Royal Palace

Having some fun is always great, but when staying in Phnom Penh nobody comes around visiting the uncomfortable sites of the past - the infamous «S-21 Prison» and the «Choeung Ek Killing Fields». These two sites count nowadays to Cambodia's most popular tourist attractions and are strong reminders for us what could happen if scumbags like the Khmer Rouge take over a country like Cambodia. At those places it was also the first time when I saw those common party backpackers being shockingly silent and thoughtful. Some of them would even sit down for a while and try to come in terms with what they just had seen. A good lesson that life (and especially history) is not always about flower-power, party and alcohol.

First some words regarding the S-21 Prison. During the Pol Pot dictatorship the city of Phnom Penh was a lifeless husk of a former city - as I wrote before the whole city population was sent to the countryside to work as slaves. But one particular building in town was always highly frequented. It turned out that the Khmer Rouge transformed a former high school complex into a secret prison for political prisoners - Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21.

The former high school complex - abused by the Khmer Rouge as the political prison S-21

Some people that were imprisoned here were actually members of the party that got caught by the Khmer Rouge at small crimes like stealing rice or fruits. But most of the prisoners had never ever done anything at all, they were either accused of being a foreign spy, being an intellectual (just because they were wearing reading glasses) or simply because they were family members of other «enemy of the states». Pol Pot always used to say «to kill the grass, you must also remove the root», and by roots he meant children, wives, parents, grandparents and whoever else could be found in a counter-revolutionary family.

First the victims were brought to this prison and thrown into a cell that once used to be a class room. Then they were tortured so long  until they would confess whatever they were accused for. Sometimes the torture (involving all kinds of methods) lasted days, if not weeks. Rape was also not uncommon.

A «bigger» cell for high-ranking members of the party

These prisoners were also allowed to sleep on beds

The low-ranking members (i.e. everyone else) were «less lucky».

Restrained by barbed wire...

... they were barred into tiny solitary cells, worse than animals.

... they could do in here.

Awaiting certain and slow death was everything...

A wide collection of the tools that the guards used to...

... torture their victims until confession and beyond.

Only a few victims of the many. The Khmer Rouge held all prisoners perfectly archived and documented.

Once the guards got their «official confession» from their tortured prisoners, they blindfolded and tied the victims and loaded them onto trucks. The trucks would drive a few kilometers out of the city to a place called Choeung Ek, a former Chinese graveyard. Here the victims were killed off one by one, as is if it was a bureaucratic process. Because ammunition was expensive, the guards always used machetes, hoes, axes or even sharp palm branches to cut the victim's throats or to smash their skulls. After the Vietnamese Army liberated the area around Choeung Ek, they discovered over 8800 bodies buried in mass graves - and this was only one of hundreds «Killing Fields» in whole Cambodia.

Choeung Ek today - one of the world's most important genocide museums
Some former mass graves are clearly designated
Palm branches that the guards used as throat cutters

Some bone and teeth fragments still emerge from the soil

Also scrap of clothes were found here before

The former mass graves in which the Khmer Rouge buried over 8000 bodies
... and even infants were not spared.

Pol Pot's «formula» was to wipe out the victim's whole family...

In this memorial stupa most of the...

.... found bodies hopefully find their final peace.

The Choeung Ek mass graves shortly...

... after their discovery.

So what else is there to say? Only that some Khmer Rouge genocide planners and executioners are still awaiting their sentence in a tribunal - or even worse, some of them are still freely walking around in Cambodia, living in freedom by paying bribes to the local government to protect them. Pol Pot, the mastermind behind all this extermination, peacefully died in 1998. He was never sentenced to anything. I wonder if he ever felt any remorse of wiping out 25% of his own country's population...

Before I moved on to Vietnam, I still wanted to pay a visit to the eastern side of the country. With some other backpackers I visited the very remote province of Mondulkiri, not very far from the Vietnamese border. In the town I landed, Sen Monorom, it was said that 70% of the population consisted of so called Bunong hilltribe people, an ethnic group different to the regular Khmer people. Those natives speak their own language, have their own culture and even look different than ethnic Khmers.

On the bus from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom the countryside already gave me a foretaste of what was to come

Most roads here were not even paved

Sen Monorom, I can't imagine a more remote village

But the nature here...

... is still mostly untouched.

In this place I found a great bungalow resort called Tree Lodge, where I rented myself into a $3 jungle hut. But the owner, Mr. Tree, also leads a welfare project for local elephants that were once used for work by the local Bunong tribes. The same «Mondulkiri Project» also offered trekking tours, of which I and three other backpackers joined one. The 2 days trek offered a visit to the local elephants, a night in a jungle shack and an intensive walk guided by a local Bunong tribesman. This was one adventure!

Our trekking group with the local Bunong guide - this picture is pure gold

On the first day we went to check out the local elephants...

... that were more than happy to be fed by us.

Where else can you take a refreshing bath with one of those awesome animals?

...that first lead us first through green plains.
The second day we tackled the jungle trek...

For one second I was thinking I landed in paradise

Inside we were offered some Bamboo soup
A farmer's residential house of the local Bunong

There was no shortage on local ...

... animals neither.

... indeed adventurous bridges.

Some parts of the trek lead us over...

Most passages went through the jungle...

... but some even behind waterfalls!

One natural spectacle after...

... another surprised us!

At the end of the (surprisingly far) trek our guide invited us to his humble house and introduced us to his family

I must say I haven't expected the trek to be that far and awesome - anyone who happens to stay in Sen Monorom should absolutely check out the treks offered by the «Mondulkiri Project». It not only introduces backpackers to the astonishing jungles in the area, but also gives an idea how the local Bunong hilltribe people live. Even if they may live in all humbleness (even compared to Khmers) they were always happy to see foreigners like us and to treat us with best hospitability. I really wanted to see more of Eastern Cambodia, but my Khmer Visa was soon running out.

And so ended my Cambodia trip. How should I sum it up? Apart from some disappointments like the area around Sihanoukville or the whole subject on corruption and commercialization (Angkor Wat and Bokor), I think I still experienced enough positive sides of Cambodia. After I've seen so many corners in this country I can imagine that big changes in terms of eononomy, culture and development are coming - if they change the life of the locals to the better or to the worse, I don't know.

But I do know for sure that I'd love to visit Cambodia one day again - to finally see the jungles of Koh Kong or Ratanakiri!

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