We walked across a different bit of the city, picking our way down the badly maintained surface of 113 street, past an eclectic mix of properties, some seemingly better suited in California with their ostentatious stone pillars and sweeping balconies, obviously more money here. But others small and unkempt, a strange mix. But that sums up Phnom Penh entirely.
The second time I went to Phnom Penh I visited a casino. It was in the lonely planet, billed as a must see. It turned out to be on a boat, so I was expecting some glitzy affair, but when I arrived, the boat and the whole dock area seemed completely deserted. I ventured on to find an entrance, still unmanned at this point, but with signs outside the door listing all the weapons you needed to check in before entering. I mean, why would you be going to a casino with a rocket launcher anyway? Then inside it was like falling back in time, huge dark velvet curtains blocking out any possible sunlight, and finally people, but a strange mix of people crowded around gambling stations, some business men, some obviously prostitutes, some desperate looking, roulette, cards, the normal. All doing their own thing, like it was all they ever did. As if they were extras in a movie, you know, people who exist only for their part in the scene. I have to say it was uncomfortable, and gambling is really not my thing, so I had a couple of drinks and left, remembering to collect my rocket launcher on the way out.
We continued along the bougainvillea lined streets to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a collection of run-down buildings containing some of the most harrowing scenes I have ever witnessed.
The first building you entered contained a number of ground floor rooms, the purpose of each solely for the torture of human beings. Steel beds the main item in each, shackles still intact that had been used to secure the victims. The floors were littered with empty ammunition boxes and farmyard implements, the items you could see from the photos displayed that had been used to beat the inhabitants, day after day, breaking bodies and spirits alike. The people in some of the photos were barely recognisable as human beings, so broken were their bodies.
The next room was sectioned into small brick cells, similar shackles here were cemented to the floors, where the prisoners would have laid for days on end. The cells were built in such a way that no one could see anyone else, save when they were being dragged in or out. Fleeting glimpses of the tortured souls around them who they would never see again. The waiting room for hell.
After this they were killed. There was no reprieve, once you entered you died. The purpose of this torture, fear mostly, but a relentless attempt to get those unfortunates to admit they were wrong, that Pol Pot was right. The reality was they were not taken there for dissent, they were chosen because they were teachers, or because they wore glasses, or in some cases because someone just didn’t like them. Children were led into villages, they were allowed to point out anyone they didn’t like, and those people were taken, something like 1.5 million people out of a population of 7 million were tortured and murdered for no other reason that Pol Pot was a sick bastard who feared anyone who might be able to point this out. When he died, and that wasn’t too long ago, the world became a better place.
I guess the macabre irony of this scene was this used to be a school, a place of education, and it was here that the educated were brought to be punished for that education. The ultimate price paid by those who had tried by those who live in fear.
The rest of the museum was largely filled with photos and paintings depicting the horrors of that time. Images of men, women, children, numbers around their necks and faces filled with fear and bewilderment. Wall after wall of wasted life, evidence of the true evil of mankind. The darkness that is within us all. This was a world where men and women were often given a simple choice, kill that person or you and your family will die, and what choice did they have, someone was always going to die. If you could save your own child what would you do? We all have it within ourselves to be both the most beautiful shining lights in the world, but at the same time to act in the name of pure evil. Individuals each act in a different way, but ultimately the light and the dark can be found in us all. But that’s enough. I have made my point. A visit to an old high school had opened my eyes to a side of man I could not previously have understood. I learned so much about Man that day.
The others caught moped rides back to the hotel, Celene and I decided to walk. We needed some time to contemplate this new world we had found out about. As we headed back into the French Colonial streets filled with life and beauty our perspective was brought back into line. Life had and is going on.
So needing a bit of a change of scenery we headed to the Happy Herb Pizza restaurant, where you could order your pizza topped with Marijuana, which seemed like a really good idea considering. The pizza themselves were great, even ignoring the magic ingredient. We ate and then we just hung around and let the pizza do its thing as the day turned to night.
A while later as we sat out front the restaurant looking across the Mekong River as an electrical storm started. Orange and purple flashes lighting up the clouds, like some psychedelic kingdom of heaven. A perfect end to a crazy day. We rode back through the streets of Phnom Penh on the backs of mopeds, the rain pouring down on us as we went, the air too warm to care.
Back at the hotel I still felt to good to go to bed, so I headed out barefoot in the deluge, allowing the rain to cleanse my mind of the trauma of the day. Somethings you can never forget, but you need to get a perspective on them or they will eventually consume you.
The rain had long since soaked me, when it rains in Asia it really rains, and I just walked along the night-time streets oblivious to the faces starting out at me from the comfort of bars and homes. I just walked until the dope started to wear off and finally for the first time in a while I started to feel a little cold.
If you want to read more about this trip or just look at some photos, please click this link.