Showing posts with label Phnom Penh. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Phnom Penh. Show all posts

Friday, April 07, 2006

Cambodia: Tuol Sleng is a reminder of Cambodia's brutal past

I was up this morning at about 8 a.m. After packing my stuff, we went straight to the Psah Toul Tom Poung or Russian Market where you can find the best souvenirs and Cambodian products, gems and silver, as well as export overruns! I was not expecting to buy a lot of stuff, but it turned out to be a shopping spree and now I'm low on funds. Haha! After buying some replicas of Cambodian temple bas reliefs and bronze Buddha heads, I checked out the export overruns since Mongkol said there were a lot of designer clothes in the U.S. made in Cambodia. I found the store which sold Gap shirts. They could be counterfeit but the colors were just so nice and so Gap! And the shirts... US$2.50 each!!! So I bought all the available colors. Haha!

After shopping, we had a quick breakfast in front of the market. I had pork and rice and lemon juice for a drink. Nice! It was then off to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

A former high school that became a prison and interrogation center known as S-21 during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, it serves as a grim reminder of the reign of terror, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. They said that once you entered the prison, you will never leave alive.

According to the brochure, "Out of the roughly 14,200 prisoners at the prison, there were only seven known survivors. Only three of them are thought to be still alive: Vann Nath, Chum Mey and Bou Meng. All three of these men were kept alive because they had skills judged to be useful. Vann Nath had trained as an artist and was put to work painting pictures of Pol Pot. Many of his paintings depicting events he witnessed in Tuol Sleng are on display in the museum to this day. Bou Meng, whose wife was killed in the prison, is also an artist." I was lucky to meet two of them (Vann Nath and Chum Mey) since they were shooting a documentary film at the time we were there. In the photo with me is Chum Mey.

Here is some text from the museum brochure about the horrors of S-21 which is also found in Wikipedia: "Quality of life of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng was terribly harsh. Upon arrival at the prison, the prisoners were photographed and required to give complete biographical information. After that, they were forced to strip naked, and all their possessions were removed. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The prisoners had to sleep on the cold floors, while still shackled.

The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison's guards. Likewise, health conditions were awful. The unhygienic living conditions caused skin diseases, lice, and other ailments, and few of the inmates ever received any kind of treatment."

Seeing the individual torture rooms and photos of the victims when the Vietnames found them in 1979 was just horrible. The cells of the prisoners were so small. They were shackled to the floor so they couldn't move. It's hard to imagine how life was for them. At the end of the last building was a shelf with the remains of some of the victims of S-21. Sigh!

Anyway, time was running out. We went back to Mongkol's place for a while so that I could repack my stuff and put in the stuff I bought. With that done, it was off to the bus station. But not before I was able to get a photo at the Independence Monument. Hehe!

We arrived just in time. And after a photo and a short goodbye, I was off to Siem Reap, deep in the heart of Cambodia. The bus ride was going to take about six hours but it was most definitely worth it since one would be rewarded with the best views of the Cambodian coutryside.

The good thing about the bus was it had a bathroom at the back and a bus stewardess who gave us wet towels, a box of pastries, and mineral water. She also made announcements where we were stopping over and gave short descriptions of important places as we passed by. Maybe Victory Liner and other bus companies could learn a thing or two from here. Although I heard that Victory started a new bus service to Baguio which had bigger chairs and a stewardess.

Anyway, I arrived here at about 6 p.m. Since Sok had an uncle who just opened a new guest house in Siem Reap, he made arrangements for me. His cousin picked me up at the bus terminal. The place, Heng Khim Guest House is very new and charges US$10 a night for a comfortable air-conditioned room. Although it's a bit far from the town center, their staff were kind enough to take me here where I had dinner. If you want to contact them, Chea Hak's mobile number is (012) 97 19 79 or (016) 67 77 87.

Dinner was fried rice noodles with pork which I had at a place near the internet cafe. I'm off to bed now. I want to make the most out of the US$20 day pass at the Angkor National Park. Hehe!

Cambodia: Around Phnom Penh

I was off to Suwannabhum. That is the nickname the Khmers call their country which literally means land of gold. The flight from KL to Phnom Penh was quite short. As we prepared for landing, below us was a vast expanse of rice fields up to the eye could see. Wow! I arrived in Phnom Penh at 4:10 p.m. It was a quick transit through the airport and I was out in about 10 minutes. Meeting me outside were SSEAYP batchmates Mongkol and Rathana.

We went straight for Mongkol's place where I was going to stay for the next few days for me to rest and freshen up. We were meeting more PYs for dinner at Lucky Bright Restaurant for my introduction to Cambodian cuisine. Hehe!

For dinner, we had octopus with young pepper seeds, fried fish with pineapple, and green mango salad with smoked fish. Really great! And I had the local beer, Angkor Beer, to go with it. In the photo are Thyda, Sophy, myself, Theary, Mongkol, Lucy, Rathana and his friend Vinh Anh.

After dinner, Mongkol and I went for some coffee at a local coffee shop. I ordered caramel cake only to realize it was leche flan. Hehe! My earlier order was durian, taro and jackfruit ice cream but it was out of stock. Sigh! Then it was late night on the net. Hehe!

I had planned to wake up at 7 a.m. the next day to accompany Mongkol to his workplace but I was in deep sleep when he checked on me so he just came back for me. Hehe! Anyway, for breakfast, we had kuay teow with soup and beef balls, cha kwai which is the Chinese version of churros, and dimsum. Then it was off to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.

The ticket was US$3. I was pleased to find out that US dollars were accepted all over Cambodia and can be used together with the local currency, riels. Prices in establishments are quoted in both riels and dollars and the usual exchange rate is US$1 is to KHR4,000. So I didn't need to have my money changed. Good!

At the center of the grounds was the Prasat Tevea Vinichai or the throne hall which was quite grand inside. However photos aren't allowed inside! Sigh! Beside the throne hall was a Western building which was actually a gift of Napoleon Bonaparte to King Norodom. The adjacent complex is that of the Wat Preah Keo Morokat or the Silver Pagoda which got its name from the over 5,000 solid silver floor tiles that line the vihear or temple. Inside is an emerald Buddha as well as other important artifacts including an 80 kg gold Buddha statue encrusted with 1,086 diamonds, the largest being 25 carats!

Outside the temple where stupas honoring the kings and queens of Cambodia. This is where the ashes of the late rulers are laid to rest. After the Royal Palace, we went to get my bus ticket to Siem Reap.

The ticket to the gateway to the temples of Angkor costed US$9. I was to take the last bus which was going to leave at 12:30 p.m. I should be there in 5 hours or so just in time to watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. Hehe!

Then it was off to the highest point of Phnom Penh which is Wat Phnom. The place marks the legendary founding of the city in 1372 A.D. when a lady named Penh fished out a floating Koki tree from the Mekong River and found four Buddha statues inside. She built a hill and a small temple on what is not Wat Phnom. The area surrounding the hill came to be known as Phnom and its builder Penh which thus became Phnom Penh. At the bottom of the hill, we bought some chook or lotus seeds for me to munch on. Hehe!

Then is was time for lunch. We had pizza at the Pizza Company in Sorya Shopping Center which is among the few modern malls in the city. From there, I was able to take photos of Psah Thmei or the Central Market. Although it literally meant new market. One of the city's unique landmarks, this gargantuan art deco building towers over the vicinity.

After lunch, we went to Mongkol's workplace at the Institute of Foreign Languages of the Royal University of Phnom Penh since he had a class to teach. Since it was very hot outside, I decided to stay indoors and check mail for the meantime.

After class, we took a drive along Norodom Boulevard which had elegant colonial mansions. Some of these mansions have been freshly painted and restored and are serving as offices of institutions such as banks and embassies. We stopped by Sisowath High School which was a complex of large colonial school buildings (above right). Wow!

Here are photos of some of the houses. The one on the left is being used as the UNESCO office in Cambodia. Really nice!

For dinner, we had some lot cha or fried noodles (being prepared below), ku chai which were fried rice pancakes stuffed with vegetables, and sugar cane juice with lemon. Accompanying us was Mongkol's former classmate Sok.

After that we then went for a stroll along Sisowath Quay which becomes so alive in the evening. On one side, you hade dozens of hotels, cafes and bars filled up with foreign tourists. On the other side of the road, you had the locals enjoying street food, playing New Year's games since the Khmer New Year was fast approaching, or just hanging around.

We had a pitcher of Angkor beer at one of the cafes while we enjoyed watching the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh's nightlife. After the beer, Mongkol and I went for a traditional Khmer massage. Hehe! What a way to cap a great day in Phnom Penh. It's off to bed now for me. I still have a lot to do tomorrow before I leave for Siem Reap.
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