Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Tuk Tuk

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After a quick breakfast, we grab a tuk tuk driver, hammer out a rate, and head for the Killing Fields at Cheoung Ek. Not for the faint of heart, this site memorializes one of the most brutal chapters in Cambodian history. The din of diesel generators and revolutionary songs blaring over hastily rigged loudspeakers drowned out the horrific executions that took place at Cheoung Ek. Some 20 000 victims were trucked in from Toul Sleng, often in the dead of night, to be executed by the Khmer Rouge and dumped into one of the mass graves that dot the landscape.

Khmer Rouge policy was usually to execute the entire family, leaving no survivors who might take revenge. Prisoners were often tortured into giving up the names of family members, who were then promptly rounded up. Executions were managed through precise records; as each truckload arrived, the prisoners would be checked off against the manifest provided by Toul Sleng. Sometimes the prisoners themselves were made to sign the list on their way to be executed.

Prisoners were blindfolded and tied up before the executions, which were often carried out with farm implements to save bullets. To a country where most subsided off less than 1 USD per day, bullets were expensive. Keeping the ammunition flowing meant exporting much of the rice grown through forced communal labor, thus driving the laborers into sometimes fatal malnourishment.

Over 100 such sites have been excavated around Cambodia, giving some sense of the magnitude of the slaughter that took place under Pol Pot’s despotic rule. There is no officially agreed-upon tally, but most estimates fall in the range of 1-3 million in a country that numbered only about 8 million at the time.

Prior to 1975, the Killing Fields at Cheoung Ek served as burial grounds for local populations of ethnic Chinese. There’s not much evidence of that anymore, excepting a couple of areas that have been marked as old graves. The whole thing is a sobering reminder that, despite the well-meaning words of (mostly Western) statesmen, these sorts of atrocities continue to occur around the world wherever poverty, instability, and anger collide. Like many areas of the Balkans that we travelled through on our bike trip, Cambodia is riddled with landmines as a result, especially in the border regions, creating an awful legacy that people here contend with to this day.

Contrast this grisly history, then, with the rapid modernization evident in and around Phnom Penh. Our tuk-tuk driver, Sung, informs us that all the roads we see are less than 10 years old. There’s an election taking place, with some ten or so parties vying for power. Election signs are everywhere, with popular choices being the Cambodian People’s Party and the Sun Party, and the usual chaos of city traffic is punctuated by frequent rallies for some party or another. There are Western-style supermarkets, electronics stores, even a weird Cambodian analogue of Toys ‘R Us. Tap water is potable in Phnom Penh (and, I’m told, in Siem Reap), a luxury not even Saigon could boast of. The Cambodian rial plays second fiddle to the US dollar, accepted everywhere at a rate of about 4000 rials to the dollar. The tuk-tuk industry is a strange holdout in this environment, one of few remaining vestiges of a mercantile spirit that otherwise finds outlet only in the large city markets.

Back in town, we opt for a drop-off at the Russian Market, where we bid our tuk-tuk driver farewell. We like to walk when possible, since you see more of a place that way. The Russian Market itself is so named for the large population of expat Russians that called Phnom Penh home in the 1980s, possibly drawn by the slightly more stable flavor of Communism brought in by the North Vietnamese Army when it liberated Cambodia in 1979. It’s not as impressive as the Central Market, but it has more of an authentic market feel to it: stalls for food, clothing, and other wares crowd the covered area, with some makeshift restaurants thrown in for good measure. You can rub shoulders with fine silks and dried filleted fish alike in the span of a minute.

We’re not looking to buy anything, though, so we head towards our next stop: the Royal Palace. An hour’s walk later, we finally gain entrance, as Valkyrie is now wearing clothing deemed suitably chaste for the palace grounds. Dresses, shawls, short skirts, and the like are right out; only presentable sleeved shirts will do, accompanied by pants or other leg garments of sufficient length. The Royal Palace complex is indeed opulent, and its many buildings are kept in immaculate order, right down (up?) to their magnificent roofs of blue, yellow, and green tiling. Much of the grounds are off-limits to visitors – it is a kingdom, after all, and these areas are first and foremost both residence and official government chambers. We’re a bit spoiled in the palace regard, having visited the spectacular Alhambra in Granada, Spain. By comparison, the architecture here is a bit monotonous; on the other hand, there are several exhibits with examples of royal dress, gifts in various precious metals, and the like.

We round out the day with a dinner of fried frog Cambodian-style and beef with sour ants before heading to The Flicks, a local movie house run by expats for expats. They’ve got a showing of The Killing Fields, which I’d highly recommend seeing – it, too, provides harrowing witness to the horrors of war, and was released in 1984 when Cambodia’s share of that horror was still fresh in the global public mind. The viewing room is like Rialto taken to its logical conclusion: you can still order food and beer, and instead of couches the floor is tessellated with futons for your viewing pleasure.

Full day. Tomorrow should prove more uplifting in spirit: we’re taking a cooking class here in Phnom Penh!