When was the first time you heard about Cambodia? Are you (very) old and remember the ‘Golden Era’, mature enough to remember the Nixon/Kissinger policy of B-52 diplomacy, when most people were concentrating on TV news showing college drop-outs and black Americans merking Vietnam and in turn being delivered (what was left of them) back Stateside draped in a Stars n’ Stripes?
Was it the Pol Pot era that brought your attention to this small, mysterious country, did The Killing Fields pique a sudden interest?
The more youthful may have heard the news paedos, prostitutes, drugs and guns, or read them laid out bare in the supposedly factual ‘Off the Rails in Phnom Penh’ book.
The first time I heard of Kampuchea (as it was known then) was in 1988. As all school kids did back in the 80’s, I’d watch Blue Peter – a cultural icon needing no explanation to Brits. Other nationalities need only know it was (and still is) a ‘faggy’ children’s edutainment show, where impressive structures and feats of engineering are constructed out of bog rolls, yogurt tubs, sticky back plastic and decorated with fancy stuff from art-shops which Mum would never buy.
Every year Blue Peter do a fundraising campaign for needy causes: guide-dogs for the blind, lifeboats and that sort of thing. In 1988, it was to raise money to help rebuild and assist refugees after the (at the time) promised Viet withdrawal.
Have a look at this 1988 Blue Peter interview with the Iron Lady herself, Maggie Thatcher.
Around this time The Killing Fields movie was shown on TV. Suddenly, at least around middle class British dinner tables and school assemblies, Khampuchea was the season’s talked about issue – a fad to distract Tory Britain, a kind of pity-the-poor, ‘at least it’s not that bad here, Merry Christmas Everybody!’ sop to be replaced in the new year by kids with leukemia, church roof restoration and Romanian babies in orphanages. I seem to recall the Killing Fields was on over the festive film period.
As the 80’s morphed into the 90’s I watched Platoon for the first time on VHS, followed by the rest: Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now. I remember a TV series about Tim Page – ‘Frankie’s House’ (the name the internet tells me, but was broadcast so long ago, I have forgotten the title, but would love to watch again, if there’s a torrent link out there). I did, however take Page’s book Page After Page from the local library, which, with the story of a good old fashioned British head-case and gruesome photography affected my newly pubescent mind. SE Asia looked mad, bad, dangerous and really cool.
Two decades of decadence passed before finally stepping off the plane in Bangkok. Finding myself in Phnom Penh a short time later, I was slightly disappointed that the world of Page and Sydney Schanberg were but distant memories. Even ‘Off the Rails in Phnom Penh’ didn’t seem to strike a chord; perhaps I was doing it wrong.
I trudged around Choeung Ek with hundreds of fellow foreigners listening to number guided narratives in a Tower of Babel array of languages, as we stared into empty holes.
As a natural cynic, it was difficult not to consider the notion of Pol Pot tourism as a money spinner, catering to the crowds who had heard of these horrific crimes, thought them ‘simply awful’ and now came to have a gander and cross it off the bucket list of gloom. However moving the atmosphere and sad the stories, overall the experience was sterile as if Cambodia was milking the profitable teats of a genocidal cash cow.
My quest continued on a cheap Vietnamese Honda style motorbike, taking in Anlong Veng, the final burning place of Saloth Sar, close to the house of ‘The Butcher’ Ta Mok. This was less touristy but with limited information. These places left more to the imagination still had a chap asleep in his hammock, pouncing into life at the sign of a white face shrouded in dollar signs. The giant casino being built next to Pol Pot’s shed was a grave disappointment.
There are of course countless sites from the infamous era of idea(il)logical maniacs, with each town and village having some story, either told or forgotten. Battambang itself has an interesting monument to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge – informative, respectful and free from Scambodia style entrepreneurship.
Wat Somrong Knong/ Somrang Knong is an ancient Buddhist site, 6km or so outside of Battambang town, with parts of an original more ancient temple standing close to the abandoned building and the pagoda under construction.
It was at this site, commandeered and transformed into a prison by the KR, that the local officials, professional classes, foreigners and other undesirables were taken for questioning and summary execution.
The building formally used as a prison is now locked, doors and windows barred; covered in dust and pigeon/gecko shit- a place for ghosts if ever there were one.
Behind the ancient columns and spires to mark the graves of deceased monks, there is a group of wooden houses where novice boys, shaved and orange attired live and study alongside a gaggle of geese, puppies and a gigantic pig. Beyond this sits The Well of Shadows.
Founded by Khmer communities abroad, the tower of human skulls rises behind thick glass. No guides rush from the rice paddies to offer tours or sell mementos, perhaps visitors can receive a wave from a student in the adjacent school or a shy glance from a young monk sweeping his cell.
In a two tiered square running beneath the bones are a series of bas relief images, explaining in pictures and few words the story of this place: forced evacuation, execution, child killing, forced marriages, confiscation of bicycles, forced labour, rape, cannibalism are all shown, chipped and weather worn, yet still disturbing.
Around the perimeter is a wall, large concrete skulls and bones filling in gaps and cows chew cud and scratch themselves against the stones.
Behind the monument are written the following words
In May 1976, the Khmer Rouge seized the Buddhist temple Wat Somrong Knong, turning it into a prison, and the surrounding area turned into a killing field where 10,008 people were put to death. The prison warden was Son, alias Sot, the executioners were Korlot and Plet. In 1977, Yom became the warden, under whose administration cannibalism was introduced. Poisonous snakes were used to terrify and kill their prisoners, while others had their skulls or chests split open with hoes. This monument portrays still other torturers used by the Khmer Rouge to subjugate district 41 and region 4.
The full extent of Cambodia’s tragedy will never be known. The remains of some of the victims of this genocide may never be recovered, nor their murderers identified. But, the gentle and forgiving Khmer, an energetic and optimistic people, will now walk confidently though the well of shadows to reclaim their ancient culture, and restore this beautiful land to become again, the legendary paradise of celestial Apsara’s.
Another testament to the not so distant past: simple, yet more effective than the macabre tours of Phnom Penh.
I once took a German girl there.
“How could people do this to each other?” she asked tearfully.
“30 years before this you lot were doing it” I replied glibly.
The British did it, as did French, Spaniards, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Yugoslavs. Every nation is made up of men and women who would and do commit such acts, even in the age of modernity. ”
Sometimes it pays to be reminded and all the better to be on a sunny day with crickets chirping in a garden of peace where ghosts still sing on the breeze.