Killing Fields and S-21

It’s tough to get up for my 8am alarm. I’m still catching up on some lost sleep I suppose.
I wash my hair for the first time in well over a week. It feels so soft!!
By 9am we’re out the door looking for a ride to the killing fields, 15km outside Phnom Penh. The first driver we talk to starts at $15 to drive us there, wait for us, and take us back, and I try to talk him down to $10, but we settle on $12. He also agrees to take us to the market before we leave so we can pick up some fruit for the day. I come like half an inch away from being hit by a motorbike as I’m crossing the street. Playing Frogger all the time is hard, especially when people come ripping around corners. My tuk tuk driver sees my almost-accident and laughs hysterically. I’m just happy to still be standing, so I scoot off into the market and disappear beneath the tarps and where no motorbikes can find me. Safety. We get two large mangoes, three royal gala apples (which are expensive here, but I’m craving a good apple) and half a branch of big bananas, about 10 of them, all for $2.50. I don’t bother bargaining. I’m in love with the market prices in Cambodia!

We are driven out on bumpy dirt roads through what feels a little like people’s backyards. It takes us about half an hour to arrive at our destination of Cheong Ek, Cambodia’s most infamous killing field. The parking lot is pretty empty which means not too many crowds and a more enjoyable experience….if one can call learning about mass genocide enjoyable.
We pay a $6 entrance fee, which has either increased in the last few months or my Lonely Planet author hasn’t done his research. They had it listed for $5. The fee includes an information headset and is available in multiple languages, which is a bonus for Tamara, too. I don’t usually like these headset things, but somehow at Cheong Ek it just works. We follow a path with 19 very hard to see/listen to headset stops. Everyone wanders the grounds in complete silence. The remains of just under 10,000 people are displayed behind glass cases, and sometimes can still be seen along the pathway. Thirty years after the tragedy, the rainy season still brings to surface some bones and teeth that have not yet been exhumed. Large grave sites are marked by huts and have thousands of bracelets laced around the bamboo shoot walls, as what I assume are prayers for those who were lost. One grave in particular had an abundance of children’s remains, and scraps of their small clothing is displayed behind a glass box. It’s surreal and awful to stand in the exact place where so many innocent people were brutally murdered. The headset is very matter of fact and doesn’t hold anything back.

I had met a girl in Kampot who told me she wouldn’t visit the killing fields in her time here because she thought it was twisted for people to do. She said she “passed no judgements” on those who did visit, but thought it was creepy. It momentarily made me question my decision to visit. Clearly, I decided to go anyway, but I’m so happy I did because now I can see just how ignorant she is choosing to be by not visiting. As heavy and hard the information is to absorb, I think it’s really important for people from all over the world to hear, so that we can better prevent something so atrocious from happening again. Not to mention, so that we can see how far Cambodia has come in the past 30 years. Incredible.

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One of the most disturbing but grounding experiences at the killing fields, is the central monument that contains nothing but thousands of skulls. They are labeled with small colour co-ordinated stickers to differentiate between both gender and cause of death. The building is skinny, but a whopping seventeen stories high. I’ll never understand genocide in general, but genocide against one’s own people is even further beyond me.

We walk back, still silent and absorbing the abundance of information we were just given, to our tuk tuk. He tries to ask us for a considerably higher fee to go visit S-21, which is an old prison turned genocide museum. This is kind of my fault, as we planned to visit both today, but I didn’t think to ask the tuk tuk driver about it this morning. I assumed it would be close to the killing fields, but it’s back in the city. We meet in the middle and he agrees to drive us to S-21 for the same price we agreed on this morning, and we will get ourselves back to the hostel.
He hits two separate people on motorbikes on our drive back to the city, so it’s probably for the best that we’re finding our own way back from S-21.

We pay $2 to visit the museum, which is spread out among four buildings that used to house prisoners. Photos of nameless faces are laid out in rows stretching through multiple rooms, and rows of old cell blocks are available to wander through.
Some horrifying stories from survivors are written out in Khmer and translated into English. I don’t read all of them because frankly I fear the nightmares.

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On our way out, we notice a table where one of the survivors is sitting and is available to meet, and it looks like he has photos of himself for signing. He has a translator, and must be at least 80 years old now. I feel torn about going to speak with him. Of course, I admire his strength and bravery for being able to come back to such a place, but I also feel a little bit like he’s being treated like a zoo animal. Just another tourist attraction. Does he do this every day? We watch another tourist interact with him and while I think it would be amazing to meet one of the survivors, this isn’t the way.

We exit out to the street where a motorbike drives us back to our hostel for $2. It’s always a bit of a tight squeeze fitting me, Tam and a driver on one bike, but we have a system now where I put Tamara’s backpack over top of my own, I sit on the back, and then we have optimal amounts of space. It’s a dollar or two cheaper than taking a tuk tuk.

We get out and take a quick walk down the street to find lunch. We find some cheap eats and sit down. I order noodles with vegetables, and then last minute see they’ve got garlic naan bread on the menu so I get one. It’s a buck.
This is what happens when my meal comes.

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That is not noodles nor naan bread. How is it possible for things to get so lost in translation when you’re pointing at a menu? Oh well, at least the rice still tastes good.

Later, at 8:30 a small movie theatre just next to our hostel is playing a movie about the Killing Fields so we show up at 8:20 ready to chow down on some popcorn. Apparently it’s possible to make reservations here, and they’ve got a group of 17 coming in which means no space for us. Nooooo!
Okay plan B, we google movie theatres in Phnom Penh and find one that’s a half hour walk away. We’re too poor to afford transport so we just walk. The movies (Spider Man or Godzilla) don’t start until 9:30. While walking down an empty street I stop to check the map to make sure we’re going the right direction. Seconds later, a motorbike comes ripping around the corner, drives up on the sidewalk and tries to grab my cellphone out of my hand. I lose my grip on it and it goes tumbling down to the ground. In utter fear, oh my god all my pictures, music, and my life are on there!, I rush over to pick it up. The motorbike speeds off, and I tuck the phone safely in my backpack, forever. I can laugh because I got to keep it, but best believe I would be crying if it had been stolen. Ten minutes previously I was talking to Tam about how safe the city feels. Ha! Silly me.
I was also talking about how dirty it is, and oh my god is it ever a mess here. I think Phnom Penh might be the most garbage covered city I’ve ever been too. Delhi, Manila, and Havana included. Phnom Penh takes the cake with it’s stacks of garbage spilling out into the streets every 50 metres. You can’t look in any direction without seeing trash scattered about. The air quality feels really poor here too, but I have just come from beautiful, clean coastal spots like Phu Quoc and Kampot, so my standards might be too high.

We find the movie theatre without looking at my phone again. Tamara uses hers at one point, and I stand guard. Basically ready to kick any motorbike thief right in the face should he come anywhere near this sidewalk.
We get a popcorn and a drink, which are significantly smaller than what you would get in Canada but I’m not complaining. The snacks are also a fraction of the price, and who needs a two pound bag of popcorn like they serve back home anyway?

Godzilla might be the worst film of all time. I love going to the movies, but my lord. So bad.

It’s late now, and we don’t want to walk back, so we decide can afford to spend $2 dollars on a motorbike. The first guy we find tries to quote us SIX dollars. We walk away laughing and go in search of someone more reasonable. He follows us and after some real bargaining and not just insane prices, he agrees to take us back for $1.50. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

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