Cambodia – Her darkest and richest history

Apart from  the beautiful islands, Cambodia is a country with a very rich and a very dark history. I only spent 16 days in this country, but wanted to see a little of both.
Practically the only reason I went to Phnom Penh was to see the Killing Fields and the S-21 Museum. With not a lot of time, and the advise of most travellers to not spend to much time in Cambodia’s rough Capital, I decided to spent only one night and one day there.

With our personal Tuk Tuk driver and 2 other girls we first visited the Killing Fields. One of the places where unsuspective prisoners were taken to and got executed during the ‘Khmer Rouge’ regime under Pol Pot. In trying to create an absolute socialist agricultural system, everyone suspected of having anything to do with the former government, or practically everyone that was a little educated or just doing anything ‘wrong’ in the eyes of the KR became a victum of the genocide.The whole place is still full with scattered bone fragments, which appear in the sand on the surface. When the rain season causes floods, covered bones and fragments of sculls come up and are gathered for giving them a final resting place. As a memorial, a large monument is made in the middle of the area: a white pilar, inside filled with the bones and sculls of hundreds of people from all ages. Walking around the area, I had an audio guide, which told me the details of this dark history and some personal stories. How they used the sharp barks of a type of palm trees you can still see there to slice people’s throats. Or how they found out that little babies’ heads had been smashed against a certain tree, because they found the theet and skin pieces in the notches of the tree’s trunk. It made it horribly and painfully real. But what I find most terrifying about this thins is the fact that this happened such a short time ago.. in the late seventies! It’s the same when I think about the Holocaust… how is it possible that in a time when we were already só intelligent (?) and modern, this things can happen? And this was even shorter ago. What if this happens again? Or is happening already? In that time, people didn’t know… people just started disappearing, but the execution areas like this one in Phnom Penh where well covered and protected from outside… loud, revolutionary music would play on the terrain so no one could here the shooting or the people screaming. Thousands of people here still carry the weight of the loss of at least a couple of friends and family members. 1/4 of the Cambodian population got killed. 1/4th!!

The ride from the Killing Fields to S-21 it was quiet in the tuk tuk. I remember staring at all the locals we drove past and wondering who they’d lost and if they were still suffering… And then the worst came. For me at least. S-21 was a prison, where people were locked in tiny, dirty cells and tortured until they would admit what ‘crime’ they had done. Most of the time, they didn’t even do anything, but because the Red Army believed they were traitors, they just tortured people until they would admit to have done something, to let the torture stop. Maybe it was because of all the buildings and some of the cells which were still in tact, maybe it was because of even more personal stories and actual photos of the people who didn’t survive … or maybe I just got my worst period exactly at that time and place, but I got physically ill when I was walking around there. I felt sick, shaky and had incredible cramps in my stomach and back. I had a strong feeling I had to get out of there and although I really didn’t feel like being this overly sensitive woman crying in a war museum I couldn’t stop my tears. What an awful place.

So I guess it is time for the more beautiful times of the Cambodian history: Angkor Wat. This is one of the most touristic things I have done during my trip, together with the Great Wall of China. And like I wrote back then, I felt exactly the same about this famous world wonder: it is definitely worth the effort (and the money in this case). Even if you have seen it on thousands of pictures and videos, it will not be the same if you walk around there. Angkor Wat is just impressing. The prices of the heritage area recently almost doubled, so I decided to go for a one-day pass (37$) since normally I am quite done with temples after seeing one after another. But I must admit… I think I could have easily gone with a 3-day-pass, since there is so much to see!

We were a bit unlucky with the sunset and sunrise, which are supposed to be the nicest of all… The ticket lets you enjoy the sunset on the evening before  for free, one hour before the park closes. The sky was already partly overcast so the sun set in the clouds instead of the horizon and the sky didn’t get the nice colour it was supposed to get (nature does what it wants hey). The clouds which were hiding ‘our’ sun became a thunderstorm during that night. So when we woke up for the sunrise at 4 am, it was still raining. Not sure what we had to do we checked the weather forecast and saw it should be dry and even sunny by 6 or 7 am. Since we already had the ticket anyway, we decided to give it a go and get a tuktuk… Even now, in the rain, a row of tuktuk’s was waiting in front of the hostel to get their job of the day. It stopped raining on the way to the temples and when it started to become light, the clouds were slowly disappearing. Like the evening before, we JUST missed the sunrise, because the sun came up just in the last bit of clouds above the horizon. BUT. There is a great but. There were almost no tourists (okay, relatively, but still). I think a hell lot of buses full of Chinese, Japanese and Korean just didn’t go because of the bad weather… and this meant that from the two lakes in front of the most famous temple, the real Angkor Wat, only one of them had maybe 3 rows of people gathering at the water side, and the other one stayed completed empty. We even managed to make photos without people on it. Actually I didn’t really notice how particular this was until later. I just thought it was not at all as bad as I expected with the tourists… since also Angkor Thom (my favourite) only had a handful of tourists walking around. The whole area was calm, peaceful and full of spiritual vibes. When people saw this picture, they told me how lucky I was to see Angkor Wat like this…!

Thank you Cambodia <3

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