So no, I didn't let off two grenades. Nor did I fire a Colt 45 handgun or watch any of my co-travellers fire Kalasnikov AK47s, so mum you can rest easy.... It's was a bit frightening not letting off the first grenade 'cause it was actually a dud. After not pulling out the pin and not throwing it, it didn't explode. My heart was pumping so fast and then nothing... So I didn't have a second go, and this time when I didn't throw it in the dam, the ground shook and the water bellied up, like the fishing scene in Crocodile Dundee. There weren't any fish there for the taking, but the geese sitting nearby looked a little unnerved. So yes, I had a blast in Cambodia (sorry, had to do it....)
So after our little bit of fun, it was down to business - visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where tens of thousands of men women and children were killed from '75 to '78. There is nothing as sobering as visiting a site where, in my lifetime, such atrocities occurred. Many of the remains have been exhumed, but there are vast areas with are still untouched. It's a haunting reminder of how sinister our past can be, and an insight into what's more than likely happenning around the world in Darfur and Iraq, but goes untold or is ignored by the media. As I walked around the graves I soon discovered how shallow the graves actually were. Looking down I noticed a femur, then a shoulder blade and then bits of cloth. That's when it really hits you. I didn't know whether to feel disgusted that the authorities would allow paths to be formed on human remains, or conversely, whether prettying up the site would take away from the impact; the reality of it's history, and ultimately the lessons to be learnt. As I've heard somewhere before, unless we learn from our past mistakes, we will end up reliving them in the future.
Day two started with more of the same, this time a visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, prevously known as Security Prison 21, or S-21. This was once a large high school near the centre of Phnom Penh which was taken over by Pol Pot and turned into the country's largest centre of detention and torture. There are believed to have been over 17,000 held there with only a handful making it out alive. Inside is a very confronting photograpic gallery of prisoners, pictures from their arrival, and some post mortem lying in what ever position they died in, like some kind of trophy for Pol Pot and his men. Every prisoner was photographed on their way in, and every one photgraphed again after their last breath. One photo I'll never forget is that of a beautiful young woman in her very early twenties, and in her arms a new born baby. Neither made it out alive. I wanted to take my own picture of it so that I could show everyone the reality of what happened, but it just didn't feel right to come in as a tourist and take 'happy snaps' of the atrocities. It'd be better of me to raise awareness of what happened and urge everyone to do some research of your own. Some of the facts are very confronting and best read at your own discetion.
Also among the displays were short biographies of those involved with the Khmer Rouge, from the combatants to some of those who were more highly ranked. It told the stories of why they joined the fight and carried out some of the acts that had happenned. Most lived in fear at the time. They were rounded up and ordered to fight, to take arms and to commit unspeakable acts. Failure to comply was taken as admission to being an emeny in which case they and their families (no matter how large) would have been taken to a detention facility, most likely to be never seen alive again. It's probably one of the toughest questions you can be faced with. Do I kill someone else in order to save mine and my family's lives? A question unfortunately all too frequently asked during Pol Pot's regime - And history has provided the answer...
I certainly took a lot from my visit to Phnom Penh. Looking back at two photographs I took of some grafitti written at S-21 brings the emotions back very quickly. But seeing the locals looking as happy as they are, and as friendly as they are, I felt comfortable knowing that for all the country has gone through there is definitely a brighter future on the horizon.