Friday, 2 March 2012


24th Feb - 1st Mar 2012

Welcoming sign to Phnom Penh
The 5 hour mini-bus trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh ( PP ) was down what is now a good road through the flat rice growing countryside to the east of the vast Tonle Sap lake. It would have taken a whole day along potholed tarmac and dirt track in 1993. It was a Russian helicopter trip in those days. It is indeed very flat and nowt much to see. We stopped in the unremarkable town of Kampong Thom for a coffee break and arrived in PP at 1400hrs. By gosh the place has changed! Just about the only motor vehicles in 1993 were the white painted UN jeeps and Toyota Land-Cruisers, the streets and boulevards were cracked and potholed with weeds growing in and around them and were fairly deserted apart from pedal powered trishaws and motorbike taxis, the buildings were mostly mildewed and often damaged and electricity and gunfire was sporadic. I remember having some amusing races on the trishaws. Much betting was involved and a good prize ( bribe ) was offered to the driver if we won. It produced some exciting races between about 5 'runners' ( trishaws ) down deserted boulevards where bumping, boring and foul play were the norm. Its amazing the dramatic effect that a stout stick thrust through the spokes of a wheel has on a speeding trishaw.

Now the place is full of cars, mostly enormous gas-guzzling 4X4s plus normal taxis and thousands of motorised 'tuk-tuks' ( same as Siem Reap ) as well as motor-bike taxis, buses and big wagons. The streets are immaculately re-surfaced and clean. There are even modern traffic lights at junctions with sensible count-down cocks, and pedestrian lights which feature lit up animated walking green or static red figures on them ( not that many people pay much attention to them I hasten to add ). All very upmarket street furniture. Left: The Independence Monument on Sihanouk Boulevard. As with all my photos, even though I noticed busy traffic, the place mysteriously clears of cars and pedestrians when I get my camera out!

Right: There are still a few remaining trishaws left from the old days. I didn't see many people using them. The motorised variety hang about in large numbers and drivers have an irritating habit of persistently yelling 'uwantuk-tuk' at every passing tourist and ex-pat ( of which there are many ) even when you have loudly said "no thanks" ( politely initially ) to several others next door, and they persist with "uwan tuk-tuk tomorrow, uwan go see killing fields, uwanmassar......etc. etc. I saw a couple of westerners ( probably working here ) wearing 'T'-shirts with the logo 'I don't want  tuk-tuk!' written on the front and "I don't want tuk-tuk tomorrow" on the back. It must have got to them too.

Left: This innocuous looking place hasn't changed too much, except that the grass has been cut, it has been tidied up a bit and old bloodstained clothes and Khmer Rouge uniforms ( Mao style hats and black pyjamas ) which littered the buildings have been removed. It is an old elementary school, Toul Sleng, in the southern part of the city. This was code-named S61 in the Khmer Rouge days and was a secret prison where suspected 'dissenters and spies' were imprisoned, tortured until they confessed and then, inevitably, killed. It is now 'sort of' maintained as a museum, or more accurately a horror show to remind everyone of the Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Right: The school buildings were converted into cells and torture chambers. Even the playground equipment was used to string prisoners up from and they were either dunked in water barrels, beaten or otherwise mutilated. That beam ( right ) was where prisoners were strung up by their ankles and repeatedly dunked into the barrels full of stinking water below, or by their hands tied behind their backs until they passed out. To the right are the graves of the last remaining 14 mutilated corpses, decomposed and tied to bed frames in the attics, found by the Vietnamese when they liberated the place in 1979.

Left: A part of many boards with ID photos of prisoners on arrival at Toul Sleng. There were between 17,000 and 22,000 prisoners held here between 1975 and 1979. These included a few westerners inadvertently caught up in the nightmare. I remember ( and their photos are displayed on another board ) a couple of Australian yachtsmen who ventured too near the coast, were captured, imprisoned and tortured here, accused of being CIA spies. They were forced to sign confessions and were then executed. The camp authorities, under the command of the notorious 'brother Duch', meticulously photographed the prisoners on their arrival and most of these photo IDs ( a few thousand are missing ) were recovered by the Vietnamese. They are on display in seemingly  endless frames in many rooms around the camp.

Right: They were even photographed, can't think why, when dead after succumbing to torture. The majority were taken out of the camp, often under the pretext that they were being given some cushy work in the fields, and then herded, roped together around their necks, into an orchard at Choeung Ek 15 kms south of the city where they were bludgeoned to death ( men, women and even their children and babies ). It saved valuable bullets. Their corpses were then dumped into waterlogged pits. This place became known as 'the killing fields' and is now another site open for visitors. Some of the pits have been emptied with bones and more than 8000 skulls on display. Other pits, 43 of the 129, are left undisturbed. Some gruesome tourist attractions here!
As an aside, the Cambodian government has, apparently, and much to the disgust of many Cambodians, sold the commercial rights of this tourist attraction to either a Japanese or Korean commercial concern.

Left: Hundreds of skulls and bones are also on display here in Toul Sleng. There are several glass fronted cabinets like this one ( left ) and also about 15 separate glass cases below containing individual skulls of victims who had been shot, with labels attached giving their sex, approximate age, and a description of where the bullet entered and exited. Most of the bullets, it seems, entered through, or near, the top of the head. At busy periods up to 100 prisoners died of torture or were executed in a day.

Right: The individual cells which were constructed inside the buildings were not exactly commodious. The prisoners were also shackled and chained to a wall or floor ring inside these. There was a barbed wire grill surrounding all the buildings. They were not taking too many chances of letting a prisoner escape. There were also some larger multi-occupancy dormitory style rooms into which shackled prisoners were packed, tied together, lying side by side and head to tail like tinned sardines. In comparison, the individual cells must have been de-luxe accommodation. Room service not so good, I fear.

Left: Some of the instruments of torture. The sloping table on the left is for 'water-boarding' victims whose ankles were tied to the upper end. On the right is the tank inside which they were tied up and nearly drowned, again and again. There were many other ghastly 'persuasive' instruments of the electrical and mechanical variety on display elsewhere.

Right: I met up with an old French friend, Florent, who is now working here ( I mean Phnom Penh, not Toul Sleng ). Here he is, pointing out with the aid of my trusty Burmese walking stick, one of the Camp Rules. These rules were quite strict, I feel. You may need to click on to enlarge in order to read. For example, Rule No 6, 'While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all', seems a bit unnecessary.
Of the 17 to 22,000 prisoners held here between 1975 and 1979 only seven are known to have survived imprisonment i.e. not tortured, shot, bludgeoned, hanged or otherwise put to death. Those seven were kept alive because they had skills like photography and drawing which the authorities needed within the camp. Of the seven survivors two or three are alive today. One works inside the camp and holds forth to anyone wishing to hear about his harrowing experience.
Even many of the guards and torturers were killed because they might have become a 'security risk'. They were easily replaced by others, who had no choice but to do as they were told.

Left: Florent, looking suitably cowed, trying out one of the cells for size.

Right: For those who were around at the time this photo might bring back memories; the old UNTAC headquarters neat the Wat Phnom. It looks exactly the same now as when staffed by the multi-national and highly paid UN staff.

Left: Even from the outside it looks unchanged with the walls and wire anti-rocket mesh still the same colour. The only differences now being the well surfaced road and a lack of waiting trishaws. These pics will be of limited interest to all but a tiny few. The building is now the home of a government development ministry.

Right: This ordinary looking boulevard is the one which runs from the Hotel le Royale where we used to stay while in PP down to the Phnom Wat and UNTAC HQ, behind camera. It was down this 'track' that we held the notorious trishaw races. It used to be weed strewn and potholed. It is now very normal. The US Embassy is on the left side and the hotel at the far end on the right.
The Hotel Le Royale had obviously been an elegant and luxurious place in French colonial days. In 1992 it was a bit of a wreck. I remember having dragged my cases up an old creaking wooden staircase and walking into my room for the first time in those days and seeing a monkey on the bed. Having chased that out of the room, I opened an ancient wardrobe to find two more cuddling inside. The room also hosted frogs, lizards, geckos and a large variety of spiders and other insects. Each room was a veritable wildlife conservation area. The electricity was off more than on, and even when on the pathetic naked lightbulbs only served to darken the rooms, the plumbing made alarming noises and produced little in the way of water. The swimming pool at the back contained a few inches of stagnant black fluid and many dead frogs and other things. In short it was a quaint and interesting hostelry in a state of elegant and total dilapidation.

Left: Imagine my surprise when I saw it recently! It is now owned by the Raffles Group and is an immaculate 5 star luxury hotel again, and well beyond my means ever to stay there. Smart uniformed  doormen, tasteful decoration and haute cuisine par excellence.

Right: The swimming pool has been somewhat revamped and I didn't spot even a live frog, let alone a dead one. Just lots of affluent looking guests sipping drinks and lounging on deckchairs.

Left: But they have shown remarkable taste and style by keeping the ancient wooden staircase which still creaks when you walk up it. It brought back memories. They now have lifts as well of course.

Right: ...and those long marble chequerboard landings which looked remarkably familiar if much shinier and with no monkeys in sight. In those days you passed more monkeys in the passageways than guests or staff.

At the bottom of the road, near the wat, was a line of the old trishaws ( left ). They too brought back memories. Perhaps some of the drivers were involved in the races 20 years ago having recovered from their injuries. They looked about the right age and still willing and able although probably not so fit and speedy nowadays.

Right: Anyway there were no other riders, but I had to have a ride, even at a very sedate pace.

Other smart luxury hotels have sprung up. Left: This one is the Cambodiana on the riverside where an old ship/restauarant used to be moored. The city is benefitting from a lot of investment in hotels it appears.

Right: The Tonle Sap river is host to many river 'booze' cruise boats.

Left: They queue up for willing takers along the banks and touts patrol the nearby streets looking for customers. They reminded me of the old Royal Navy press gangs ( not that I ever met a Royal Navy press gang ). I thought there were many more boats than there could possibly be passengers to fill them.

Right: Down the riverside promenade, Sisowath Quay, were lines of 'get yourself fit' machines which were in constant use. The lady here was hard at it having hung her handbags on the front. They take their exercise quite seriously.

Left: Of course, in amongst hundreds of well populated bars and restaurants along the riverside is the inevitable Oirish bear. I stopped at this one for supper but they produced a deafening ( Irish ) live group which made your ears ache and conversation impossible. In fact self and Florent ( who is a keen rugby man; he plays for a French ex-pat team in PP and even knows all the modern rules ) found a bar in which we watched live ( 7 hrs ahead of GMT ) both the Ireland/Italy and France/Scotland 6 nations matches. The England/Wales match was way after my bedtime.

Right: The Wat Phnom which is a popular meeting place with a floral clock which actually told the correct time, and another welcome sign, in French.

Left: In the middle of the bar/restaurant riverside street is this shop, selling coffins. I thought it rather an incongruous location; or perhaps they get a lot of trade after chucking out time.

Right: The French built main Post Office which, along with its counterpart in Saigon, is a beautiful spacious building. It does not have endless queues and the service is efficient and polite.

Left: The Throne Room inside the Royal Palace. The palace area is a large walled compound consisting of some formal buildings, shrines and temples open to the general public and other restricted areas for official buildings and the private residence of King Sihamoni. No photos allowed, for whatever reason, inside the Throne Room.

Right: Or, for that matter, inside the Silver Pagoda which is the other main building of interest. It is so called because the floor is covered by solid silver tiles. Most of these are covered, for protection, by a carpet and those  few that you can see are tarnished nearly black. Lots of bejewelled Buddhas and gold objects abound. Another shoes-off experience.

Left: This is inside the Pavilion containing what is advertised as Buddha's footprint. All I can say is that he must have had bloody big feet!
To be honest, I found the Royal Palace visit a bit boring.

Right: A bevy of monks. Anyone know the collective noun for a group of Buddhist monks?

Left: On the way out they had a model of a large white elephant and lots of howdahs on display. Not as impressive as the ones I saw in Inja.

Right: On the final night I spent in PP I was joined by Florent and an amusing Irish girl, Lauren, who is a journalist with the English language daily, the Cambodian News. We took part in a pub quiz at the Willow Hotel, not far from mine. We came a respectable 5th out of about 12 teams, some of which had seven or eight members! I know we would have won if they hadn't had a section on pop music.
Incidently, other than tourists, it is surprising to note how many ex-pats are living and working in Phnom Penh as evidenced at this pub quiz. I saw lots of Australians. I think it is because there are many of these so called 'Non-Governmental Agencies' ( NGOs ) operating in the country which are, effectively, charities and get good tax breaks for the work they do. They started to appear in big numbers in 1992 to fulfil many jobs such as drilling for water, providing food, healthcare, de-mining and many other humanitarian tasks. I think some of them do a good job. I have a feeling some just aim to attract money to pay themselves a decent salary.
Off next to visit old haunts and ex-colleagues in Saigon ( Ho Chi Minh City ). Stand by for further riveting revelations.


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