I slept fitfully that night, so when I got on the bus from Battambang
to Phnom Penh, I dozed on and off for much of the journey. I
awoke at intervals to random scenes of Cambodia passing by. Brahma bull
in dried out rice paddy. Small boy in the middle distance leaning
against a palm tree. A motorcycle pulling a trailer full of people, all
of them staring intently down the road. Naked children playing in the
river down below the bridge. Egrets. A monk, luminous in his orange
robes, holding an umbrella against the sun. Signs for the Cambodian
Peoples Party, Sam Rainsy Party. Oxcarts. Small dogs. Herds of ducks
gabbling about in their little low enclosures.
An older gentleman was sitting next to me, somber in expression. I
wondered about him. The Khmer Rouge were never brought to justice, they
just kind of filtered back into society. Some of the more notorious
hide out a bit west of here near the Thai border. Was this man a mass
murderer? A survivor? Or (considering how the Khmer Rouge turned on
itself) Both? At one point after I emerged from my travel coma he asked
if I spoke French. Survivor, I think.
I arrived back in Phnom Penh and it was busy, busy, busy. I traded
lodgings to a different hotel. Nothing was particularly wrong with the
other one, but I wanted to try something different and further
south. I had to go by the old hotel though and pick up a few
pieces of left baggage. Once I got all of my errands run, I took
a long walk down to Toul Sleng, otherwise known as S-21. This was a
high school that the Khmer Rouge took over and turned into a detention,
interrogation and torture center. The site is pretty much as it was
when the Vietnamese arrived in 1979. (they found it by following the
stench of rotting corpses.) There were only 7 prisoners left at
that point, out of the 18-22,000 people that were estimated to have
passed through. The High School was converted to a prison by
hastily constructed cells and lots of razor wire. The rooms of
the torture center have bare bed frames with shackles still attached.
In one of the tiny, tiny cells there is an ammo box, and a plate. A
chain and shackle still attached to the wall. Torture
instruments.I felt claustrophobic here, and then immediately guilty. I
got to leave after a few hours, so many never left at all. Or were
taken to Choeung Ek.
A sign shows the 10 rules that prisoners were made to follow, a
perverse bill of rights:
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don't turn them away.
2. Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you
are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don't be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to
5. Don't tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order,
keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do
it right away without protesting.
8. Don't make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret
9. If you don't follow all the above rules, you shall get many many
lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten
lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
The monks place frangipani blossoms on the piles of shackles, on the
bed frames and windowsills. On all of the places, it seems, where the
greatest amount of despair and suffering was felt.
When the Khmer Rouge began to devour itself, and imprison and torture
its own torturers, I wonder what those people felt. Did they beg
forgiveness? Or did they accept their fate with the same mute
resignation that they once demanded of their victims?
Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous track of their
genocide, photographing most of the prisoners. The photos show fear,
I retreated across the street to a really excellent and peaceful
restaurant. Though within sight of Toul Sleng, it is a world
is a hard lesson to learn. Another reminder that society,
civilization is really just a thin veneer over the base inclinations of
survival, savagery and xenophobia.
To prove this to myself I dumped my stuff back at the hotel and took a
walk through the hot, humid night to the Heart of Darkness Bar. It was
quite liberating to not have a backpack or cameras. I got to the
and after a ceremonial pat down before entering (there have been a few
shootings and stabbings here recently) I had a beer and watched with
amusement as a prostitute expertly reeled in a couple of overweight
I walked back to the hotel, zig-zagging at random, declining
invitations for moto rides, drugs, prostitutes, wives, "or somesing