I spent three nights in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, a city of marvelous architecture and lovely food and the haunting memories of the Khmer Rouge. I stayed with a young woman named Liz, a teacher and radical environmentalist from Ohio. I slept on the hard wooden couch in her bedroom, the only other room in the apartment being the kitchen. The generosity of couchsurfers never ceases to amaze me.
I rented a motorbike on day two and drove out to the Killing Fields, about 15km from the city centre. I weaved my way around the complex, taking in the tower of skulls dug out from the mass graves in the surrounding area. I read all the little signs and snapped photos and sat on benches and was alarmed at the fact that I didn’t feel much. Wasn’t I supposed to be brought to tears, nauseous at the thought of bodies piled upon bodies in these pits? What the hell was wrong with me?
I left the Fields and took a left instead of the right back to PP. I drove, and agonized about why I wasn’t moved enough. I drove for a while and thought about things I’m more comfortable thinking about: cows and peri-urban countryside and rice paddies interrupted by new gas stations sprouting every few hundred years. Then I drove back to PP.
But Tuol Sleng Prison, which I visited later that afternoon, was the most sobering and horrific place I’ve ever been. It hit a core much deeper than the Killing Fields did. Perhaps it was the faces. Boards and boards and boards of snapshots of prisoners’ faces line the rooms. The photos were taken as they entered this jail with numbers hanging from signs around their necks. Their prisoner numbers were often created using multiple placards because they didn’t have single signs that went high enough. Some would wear two around their necks – a ’40’ followed by a ‘6,’ prisoner 406 – since officers reused the tags of those executed in the Killing Fields. How many times did prisoner 406 die?
I met one of the seven survivors. (There were approximately 17,000 prisoners in total over five years.) He was sitting between the buildings, selling and signing copies of a biography recently written and published about his ordeal. I hate the word ordeal, it doesn’t capture a fucking thing. I was motioned over by the translator at this side. What the hell could I possibly say to a seventy-five year old man who was held and tortured in a frightening prison, who only managed to survive because he drew a portrait of Pol Pot in such remarkable likeness that they put off murdering him, who last saw his wife alive when she was dragged to another compound, a man who now sits in that same square meeting tourists. How could I possibly say anything with a little bit of dignity and grace when I have no idea what that must have been like?
So I didn’t say much. I asked him what his wife’s name was, thanked him for the book, and told him to have a lovely day. He smiled, signed it, clasped his hands together and bowed, and I went on my way.
On day four I hauled my things to a local tour operator who put me on a seven-hour bus to Siem Reap, home of the infamous Angkor Wat temple complex. Next post.