Khmer rouge

Heart of Darkness


“Paul Potts? Thas the singer innit?”

“No, Pol Pot”.

“Pall Pot?”

“Pol Pot”

I’m listening to two backpackers go back and forth on a bus Rose and I are taking from Siem Reap to the capital Phnom Penh.

“Ok. Pol Pot.”

“He was in charge. Over a 1 million people were killed”.

That number is still being debated. Between 1975 – 1979 when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, the standard estimate is that they were responsible for 1-3 million deaths. Which, to me, seems a ludicrous variance. How is it possible to say, “give or take 2 million people were killed”?

A Cambodian research group, who spent time investigating the graves, and documenting names – claims a figure closer to 2.2 million people, while Unicef has said 3 million. Regardless, assuming the truth is somewhere in the middle – the reality is that in four years, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge wiped out close to 25% of the population in the pursuit of an extreme form of Communism.

His idea was that the educated, or bourgeois class, were capitalist stains on Cambodia, infected with Western ideals that didn’t serve Cambodians (despite that he studied in Paris and apparently had an infatuation with French literature). Instead, Cambodia would become a new country, dependent on no one. It would be self-sufficient, based entirely on agricultural production from a working class who would produce rice for the country with no help or visibility of anyone who had a university degree.

To accomplish this, he went to where most educated people in Cambodia lived – the city – the capital Phnom Penh, and ordered everyone to move into the countryside. The entire city was emptied. Government workers from the previous regime were tagged for execution, authors, intellectuals, any one who had any independent thought and had any kind of previous popularity, even going so far as to include anyone wearing glasses. Why? Because they symbolized smarts. And smarts were on the chopping block.

Pol Pot wanted children or farmers. People who hadn’t, in his opinion, been exposed to ideas, and were malleable and impressionable enough to carry out his will. The rest could go. And, most did, ending up in a mass grave as part of the infamous Killing Fields, a site that lay 15km outside of the city. However, some people, had the unfortunate luck to also end up back in Phnom Penh, here:


Called S21, it was a jail that had been converted from a public school (was the irony lost on Pol Pot?) where inmates were questioned, tortured and then 20, 000 were led out to the Killing Fields where their sentence was carried out.

Now the site is called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and Rose and I are here, walking through the various rooms and grounds. It’s beyond grim. People have died here, in horrible circumstances, while others, who weren’t so lucky had been put through every imaginable torture device by Khmer Rouge leadership to extract a confession, preferably to say they were working for the CIA or the Vietnamese – to help justify the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia.

On the first floor there are rows and rows of photos, showing each prisoner who entered – along with torture devices used, and metal beds where prisoners slept. On the walls of each room are photos taken when the prison was liberated.  Each photo shows a dead prisoner tied to a metal bed.


We moved upstairs where there are rows and rows of rooms:


Brick prison quarters where the inmates were held. Higher up, on another floor, more cells, but these one wooden:


I thought it was pretty horrifying. But it only got worse. In the last stretch of building before we left, there were display cases of human skulls and bones with photographs above showing what the Killing Fields looked like when they were first discovered – a mud pit of skeletons.

Also, to underline the completely twisted and demented acts the soldiers committed, there were paintings on the walls that could have been representations of Dante’s Inferno – as he witnesses people tormented in purgatory. It was unbelievable.

After more light fare in the courtyard showing yet another torture device, Rose and I decided we’d seen enough, and found a restaurant near our hotel to plough into a bowl of noodle soup for comfort.

For me, I’d never truly understood the horrors committed by Khmer Rouge – which isn’t to say that I had always underestimated them – it’s more so that I knew they were bad, but didn’t know the entire, horrible picture.

I know, it’s a heavy duty experience and not the most pleasant to read about.  I just found it incredible – the madness and how the Khmer Rouge actually retained nominal representation in the UN years after they were overthrown.

The whole thing just got under my skin. I also wasn’t big on Phnom Penh – maybe as a hangover from the museum – but Rose too said, even before going to the museum she felt a heaviness about the place that didn’t feel inviting.

So to balance things out, we fled the city. We’d read some good write ups about the south of Cambodia – a beach area known as Shihanoukville, and even better – an island off it called Koh Rong.

We packed our bags, booked a bus ticket, and hoped to find some sun.

Next stop:  big lizards, bigger water buffalo, mosquito nets and an almost deserted island.



Angkor Tenant


This is it.

The reason 3 million tourists, (and growing) come to the otherwise, unassuming city of Siem Reap every year.

Angkor Wat: the biggest religious structure in the world, which archaeologists also now believe was part of the world’s biggest preindustrial city, even beating out the Mayan civilization who normally come up in spades for claims to grandeur.

Ok. Quick history blurb (just skip to the next photo if you’re already fighting a yawn).

In the 12th Century, Angkor was the name of the Khmer Empire’s city, and “Wat” translates as temple. So, if you’ve watched any Sesame Street, you know how to do the rest.

Built by a Khmer king in the 12th Century, Angkor Wat (“City Temple”, but you already got that) started life as a Hindu temple, but did it in its own unique way. Traditionally, at that time, way back in the 1100s, Hindu temples were built in honour of the god Shiva, but this King decided instead to build it for Vishnu.

If you’re still with me, you now probably want to know: why did el Jefe make the switch?

A few theories: He was pissed off with his parents and wanted to stick it to them a bit? Or, there was something so undeniably incredible about Vishnu that illuminated his mind more than Shiva, that, in the words of a former God (of Rock): “He just couldn’t fight that feeling anymore.”

In other words, I have NO IDEA. I didn’t find anything, but to be honest, I also didn’t spend hours on research, like I might if I was getting graded. Or paid. Unless a cheque rolls in, I’m going to keep this pretty breezy, and the content, really not much deeper than a puddle.

Besides, I’ve got to get our readership up to at least 17 by end of summer. And laying out the intricacies between Hindu gods, while it might appeal to some, I fear may lose our other 17 who are more interested in Rose’s love affair with orange robed monks.

And, learning the very important news that she took her admiration from afar to a-near:

These were Thai monks, visiting Angkor Wat, who were, obviously far from ascetic, and quiet, and were happy to pose, while also taking their own photos.

Now, some of you may wonder: What are Buddhist monks doing here at a Hindu temple? While others are probably wondering: “Are those monks entirely naked under their wraps?”

To the first wonder: After the death of the Vishnu loving King, a new prince came to town, who was even more pissed off with his parents, and decided to shunt Hinduism aside altogether, choosing instead to honour Buddha as THE GUY – and built two temples in honour of his parents in a more Buddhist fashion: one of which I’ll get to in a later post. So, as part of this shift in allegiance, Angkor Wat, then also switched teams to Buddhism too.

And, for the second wonder: from what I researched online (I decided against a quick lift and peek in person) Not naked, but wearing an under-robe.

Okay, enough background. Now the experience. In short, it was amazing. Not least of which were the designs, sculpted all over the walls, including Apsara dancers (King’s dancers):


Seeing, ancient language carved into pillars holding up a section of roof:

image image

Plus, not so ancient language, from the 30ish years ago when the Khmer Rouge took up residence here, and some ingenious soldier, like a dog peeing on a hydrant, decided to say “I WAS HERE” (sorry no photo).

But, at least they didn’t tear down the place like they tried with the rest of the country (More to come on them in a later post).

Also, there were tons of hallways, and doors we walked through, which, reminded me of a certain archaeologist searching for a gold idol (I warned you he’d be back again):

image image

Then coming on to passageways with an entire sculpted wall, illustrating what life was like in 12th Century Angkor:




All of this was amazing, as I said. But, what stood above all of it was this:


We could walk through the entire place. Tourists were allowed to walk through the pillars, duck under the doorways, and enter dark corridors to stare up at a peak of light coming above.

A reality, which I can’t imagine can last, since as much as it was great (and it was) – there’s still a feeling of impact, that shit, I’m not entirely helping the conservation of this place by walking through, even though I paid my entrance fee which goes towards conservation.

Like Chichen Itza in Mexico where people could once climb up its sides, I can only think that the same has to happen here, if they want to preserve it. But, of course, there’s huge forces against it, namely: Cambodia is a poor country. And, one of the concerns by some Cambodians, is that by limiting traffic, you might limit tourists, which might limit money.

Obviously not a great plan for the long-term health of the place. But, looking at it from the point of view of a Cambodian whose struggling everyday just to get by, understandably, he or she is interested in how they can make money to feed their kids, and pay for their school this month, not what’s happening 10 years, 20 years from now. So, it’ll be interesting how the country manages things.

On our exit from Angkor Wat we ran into more orange robed monks – (I make it sound like it was happenstance, when, in reality, Rose made a beeline) this time younger guys:

Interestingly, we spoke to our guide who said that it’s tradition that, as part of growing up, male Cambodians spend time living in a monastery, as a monk – whether, he goes on to stay there is up to him, but the idea is that he gains exposure to Buddhism.

Anyhow, Angkor Wat is only one of three temples we visited, each one had its own uniqueness, which I’ll blab about in some other posts, including a cameo from Cambodian’s own, Angelina Jolie (she was given citizenship in 2005).

Until then, au revoir from Cambodge: