Wednesday March 20, 2019

We woke on Sunday morning to find that, during the night, we’d tied up alongside Phnom Penh’s bustling waterfront. Going ashore, we were spoiled with another cyclo tour – this time of Cambodia’s attractive riverside capital and former French city. The private quarters of the glittering golden Royal Palace are home to the current king and his family and, therefore, closed to the public. We did, however, visit the famous Silver Pagoda (the floor-tiles are solid silver). It’s the most sacred temple in the country – which probably explains why it was spared destruction by the Khmer Rouge. We also got to poke around in the National Museum, with its outstanding displays of Khmer crafts.

But the next day it all got harder …

If you dig around in enough history books, you sooner-or-later discover that most countries – even the ‘nice ones’ – have their dark chapters. And on Monday, with some reluctance, we got powerfully and emotionally acquainted with what must be Cambodia’s darkest, awfullest, most stomach-churning chapter of all. The death-toll was finally un-countable, but, between 1975 and 1979, some THREE MILLION Cambodians (suspected ‘capitalist enemies’ and their families) were driven out of their cities and towns into the countryside where they were ‘re-educated’, worked to death, senselessly starved, and brutally murdered.

If we didn’t know already, we know now about Pol Pot (the country’s renegade Mao-inspired ex-prime minister) … the Khmer Rouge (his rebel ‘red army’, most of them poor, brainwashed, rural teenagers) … and the Killing Fields, where thousands of ‘worst offenders’ lost their lives under extreme torture. Their only crimes? Having the misfortune to possess land, own a business, be educated (teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants), or have a husband/wife/son/daughter/father/mother/brother/sister/whatever who was (rightly or wrongly) accused.

Our first confronting moment was at the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum – a converted school that became known as S-21, and was set aside for detention, interrogation, torture, forced confessions, and execution. This dark, foreboding place has been left pretty well as it was when the defeated Khmer Rouge took to their heels – and the fading black-and-white photos that cover the walls (in one still barbed-wired block) left us all feeling sick and sad.

Three million dead! You can’t get your head around such an awful number. But you start to understand when it’s broken down, when those victims are seen as individuals-with-names, when the whole thing’s made personal – as it was for us by one of the few survivors of S-21, who was onsite that morning and happy to talk with us. Sadly, pretty much every Cambodian we’ve met has his/her own personal horror-story … including our guide, Phany, who lost family in the ‘killing fields’.

Our second confronting moment was half an hour away – at Choeung Ek, one of more than 350 ‘killing fields’ (more were found just recently), where the murderous Khmer Rouge buried their victims in shallow mass-graves. It was hard to reconcile this dusty, peaceful patch of tree-covered land with the bloody events that took place here in the 70s … but the stories we heard, the simple wooden signs that marked the still-open excavations (like: “Mass grave of more than 100 victims, children and women, whose majority were naked”), and the fragments of bone and clothing that continue to surface on the paths we walked along, made this stark tragedy something we’ll not easily forget.

And, then there was the finale: a towering glassed-in memorial, stacked high with human skulls.

Out of respect for the gentle, soft-spoken, welcoming Cambodians we’ve come to know and love on this truly wonderful trip … the happy, smiling, hopeful Cambodians who have moved on from this dark chapter and are working hard to give their country and it’s beautiful children a bright new future … I’ve chosen to include no ‘killing fields’ photos in this blog.

One night, after dinner, a talented group of youngsters from a nearby orphanage came aboard our boat and entertained us with Cambodian song and dance. They were simply delightful, a breath of fresh-air, and lots of fun.

Just what we needed, I reckon …

COMING UP: We continue our cruise upriver to Wat Hanchey monastery where we get blessed by a local Buddhist monk … and Angkor Ban village where we interact with a classroom full of schoolkids. Stand by, folks – the adventure ain’t over yet!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)

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About John Cooney

John Cooney and his wife Robyn have enjoyed more than their fair share of travel. They hesitate to call themselves ‘experts’ – but they’ve grabbed every chance that’s come their way to explore new countries, cultures and customs. They’ve had the privilege (both on their own and as the leaders of numerous successful group-tours) to sample many stunning destinations: Europe, the UK, Singapore, Vanuatu, the USA, Israel, Egypt, Africa, Dubai, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And their recent (and most pleasant) memories are of the places ancient-and-modern that border the Mediterranean. John and Robyn are at-home in airports, hotels, cruise ships, and the like … and they know how to make the most of a unique travel opportunity. Travel, they reckon, is an all-five-senses experience – a chance to see, feel, smell, hear and taste the world. And they’ve done it often enough to know for sure: sightseeing with a group of laid-back Kiwis is DOUBLE the fun – lots of laughs, great company, and memories that last forever!

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