We flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh on an antiquated Lockheed Tristar, there were only ever 250 of these made, and you could see why. Apart from the 1970’s décor (shades of brown and cream), the interior itself seemed to move independently of the plane, a most unsettling experience, but made up for by the giant engine sticking through the tail of the plane, like something out of the Thunderbirds TV series. I’m sure our pilot was called Virgil.
We nearly didn’t make it, getting stuck in the bar at Bangkok airport, we realised too late our flight had been called. Our rather inebriated group ran across the airport to find a deserted departure lounge. Not a soul in sight, but as we are discussing what to do, this guy in a little Jeep thing drives up to the terminal and asks for us by name. He drives out onto the lead up to the runway, where the plane is just standing there. They put some stairs up and in we go. There’s about 9 pissed off looking Germans on the flight. The plane takes 400 passengers. You can see how we were missed. The flight was reasonably uneventful, but you couldn’t help by notice a number of bullet sized holes in the wings. Where were we going. It was the 5th May 1998, and I was going to Phnom Penh.
Our first trip was to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. They had made a film entitled ‘The Killing Fields’ in the 1980’s, but here I was, riding on the back of a moped through the streets of Phnom Penh to visit them. Life had suddenly got a little bit real. This was where the General Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge had taken over a million people to be executed and buried during his reign.
In memory of these events they have erected a glass walled stupor that contains shelves filled with the unidentifiable skulls of the victims. The best they can do is sort them into sex and rough age groups. It is quite a sight, and you can walk inside, pick them up and hold them in your hand. Of course, Kevin, always the clown had photos taken with him holding a skull wearing his sun glasses, in a macabre Shakespearean take. What I noticed was how many of the skulls had split across the top, the effect I imagine of their grisly method of death. Most had been clubbed to death with the butts of guns I found out. Bullets cost money.
We walked around the excavated graves, now just rounded craters in the ground with mud and water gathered in their bases. The whole atmosphere was one of calm and peace, with trees and palms growing everywhere, there was no lingering impression of death, just a renewed fertility. We stayed a long while, Madhu and I kicking back and smoking a joint, imagining the pain and suffering that had dominated this area for so long, the broken dreams of a million souls turned into nothing more than mutilated bodies lying on the blood-soaked land. But it was hard, for all we have now is a memorial garden and the ghosts of the past have blown away a long time ago. The day was clear and warm, a few clouds floating in an otherwise silent sky.
Kev had been excited since we had arrived in Cambodia. Rumours of being able to fire just about any weapon for a few dollars had really got him going, so off he went on the back of a moped with some guy. Maybe I should have gone, but in the face of so much death that day it hardly seemed appropriate.
So apparently, they stop off at some house on the way and but a crate of ammo, because it’s cheaper he’s told, but more likely because it was the cousin of the guy driving the moped. That’s how things work. Anyway, he gets to the range, which is pretty much an open area with a number of bullet-ridden cars littered around the landscape. He fired off a hundred rounds with an AK47, everyone’s favourite gun, then let off a few grenades, but blew his budget before he could have a go anything bigger. Apparently, you could fire anything if you had the money! Not my thing really but Kev got some latent aggression out of his system.
Madhu, Kev and I had gone for a wander around town, looking for a bank. This was before the everyday use of ATM’s , and we still carried most of our cash in Travellers Cheques and US Dollars. Wandering up the Monivong Boulevard we began to really appreciate Phnom Penh. One of the main roads through town, it’s wide dusty tarmac, filled completely with all manner of transport and bicycles, all fighting for space in a chaotic anarchic madness. Crossing the roads is tantamount to suicide, even walking the pavements is like an obstacle course with shops overflowing and bikes parked everywhere, and always so damn hot. Do you remember Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, ‘today is going to be hot and shitty’ yup, everyday. I do love the Asian heat, hot and humid, but after the relative order of Bangkok the rest takes some getting used to. Everything was yet to really be really affected by western influence and retained a feel of Cambodia from the cool movies of the seventies. It really was like taking a walk through history.
Somewhere along the way we lost Kev. Not that Kev ever gets lost. He’s normally just where he wants to be. So Madhu and I headed off towards some huge domes in the distance, winding our way through the streets, admiring the business of the buildings, colonial design, stretching whole blocks, fronted by endless balconies, four or five stories high. They are filled with plants and furniture and drying washing, colourful birds in cages, families spill out form their busy apartments, it is life being lived, but not behind closed doors like in London, but open to the world and the weather. There is so much colour and texture, the city is a work of art.
The domes turn out to be the central market, filled with a rabbit’s warren of stalls and people, jewellery, food, cloths & shoes, a rainbow of fabric and, and well everything. This is the mall, the superstore, there is where you come to get what you need.
But we need to get back as we have more travels planned for the day. We meet up with the other girls and when Kev headed off for his Rambo session we visited the Tuol Sleng Prey High School, renamed the Tuol Sleng Museum. We had come to see the country and it’s people, but you can’t even start to understand Cambodia unless you try and connect with its darkest hour, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were just that. It is their legacy we are trying to understand.
If you want to read more about this trip or just look at some photos, please click this link.