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Fri Dec 16 2016: The Killing Fields

We are journeying south, towards the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.

Some of the interesting things we see along the way:

We thought we carried a lot of stuff on our BMWs. This guy is wider than the truck in front of him!

We don't need any signs to realize when we were approaching the city limits. The urban density explodes all of a sudden and we find ourselves surrounded in the hot Cambodian afternoon's traffic stew, thousands of cars with even more tiny scooters thrown in the mix with large trucks. And us, in the middle, being stirred, jostled and bullied by all manner of vehicles.

In the hierarchy of bad traffic, Phnom Penh ranks right up there with the worst. Two-wheelers are definitely the third-class citizens of the road, being cut off and honked at by cars and trucks. Maybe it was because we had spent so much time in the smaller city of Chiang Mai, but we miss the relative calm and politeness of Thai traffic. Even downtown Bangkok was not as bad as this!

Our first stop: Visa Run Duties

We had entered Thailand on a one-month visa exemption and left right when it expired. When we return, our plan is to stay in Thailand for as long as we can, so we are applying for a two-month visa at the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, and then extending it for another month when we are in Chiang Mai. That should give us three months total. And we definitely need that uninterrupted rest!

Unfortunately we had read that the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was very difficult to deal with because they receive so many border runners from Thailand. In order to by-pass all the hassles, we were encouraged to use fixers. In all of our border crossings, we had never employed fixers, but with all the research we had done, it seemed justified in this case.

Our fixer thumbed through our passports, noting all of our Thai entry stamps. Thankfully, we were under the limit that would arouse suspicion from the Thai embassy. As of last year, the new limit is two back-to-back border runs via land per calendar year. We had only done one in Laos last year so we were safe.

The Thai government seems to be cracking down on long-term tourists in their country. Unfortunately, we want to be two of those long-term tourists...

It's such a screwy situation: The Thai border regulations require that our bikes return back to the country very soon. Just not the people who rode them out! They have to beg to be let back in.

Our fixer told us to return in 48 hours for the final verdict on whether we'd be let back in the country or not.

Just like the name of our fixer above, we are keeping our fingers crossed.

Pulling into the relative safe harbour of one of the side streets where our hotel is located.

Ahhh, the peace and calm of our cul-de-sac hotel

The hotel staff actually let us park in their staff garage next door. How nice!

We got a wonderful room on the roof-top. This was our view!

On our street, there are a few restaurants which we sampled over the next couple of days. This roof-top place was one of our favorites

One of the things we wanted to visit in Phnom Penh was the Genocide Museum. It's located right downtown and was only 10-minutes away from our hotel, so we quickly hopped on the bikes and made our way over.

Barbed wire lined the walls surrounded the Tuol Sleng High School

I had just recently watched the movie, "The Killing Fields", and I had done a lot of reading about the history of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's paranoiac genocide of his own people. I went in with a lot of information.

Once this new communist government seized power in 1975, they villainized anything to do with the old regime. Anyone having anything to do with the former government, merchants, doctors, teachers and intellectuals were imprisoned and labeled enemies of the state. Schools and hospitals were closed down. City dwellers were expelled out into the countryside. The idea was to turn everyone in Cambodia into farmers to realize the communist dream of equality. The problem was, nobody knew how to farm and many people in country starved to death as a result.

Hundreds of thousands of "enemies of the state" were sent to torture prisons to confess to crimes of sedition, spying and undermining the new government. This meant anyone who showed any intellectual leanings: a higher education, the ability to speak a foreign language, even those who wore glasses, were sent to these prisons.

In the movie, The Killing Fields, the main character had to pretend to be simple-minded to escape being imprisoned.

One such prison was Tuol Sleng High School, notoriously renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge

This facility held 1,500 people at a time, to be starved and tortured until they confessed to being a spy. Once a confession was extracted, they were sent to The Killing Fields to be exterminated.

An estimated 3 million died during the Khmer Rouge's reign between 1975 and 1979.

A bedframe where prisoners were shackled to and tortured until they confessed

Some paintings on the walls showed the types of torture methods the Khmer Rouge used. Electric shocks were administered to prisoners tongues, their fingernails pulled out with clamps, organs were cut out of the body while the prisoner was alive. Dried pools of blood had congealed beneath these beds when the torture prison was liberated.

I found it deeply ironic that such atrocities were committed on the high-school's cheery yellow checkerboard floor. It felt so incongruent.

A crude and gruesome diorama outside on the former school's grounds depicting torture

Over 17,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng's gates. And only seven known survived.

Many of them were Cambodian, some Vietnamese, a handful of westerners. Of them, a young American Kerry Hamill, was captured when his yacht sailed into Cambodian waters in 1978. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept detailed accounts on everyone they tortured and killed. Hamill was recorded as confessing to serving under Colonel Sanders. He used his home telephone number as his CIA operative number and listed close friends and family as CIA contacts. Hamill's wry confession while under torture was a reminder that the KR needed the flimsiest of reasons to kill their prisoners, no matter if they were innocent or not.

Barbed wire covering the prisoners rooms, preventing escape or suicide

Pol Pot grew increasingly paranoid of anyone who would threaten his new regime. Even high-ranking members of his own cadre were eventually imprisoned, tortured and killed. Towards the end of the regime most of the prisoners were members of the Khmer Rouge itself, suspected of being enemies within the organization.


Part of the torture was being imprisoned in standing cells, unable to sit or lie down

A memorial plaque with some of the victim's names in Tuol Sleng

The sign on the memorial stupa reads, "Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime".

A very depressing but eye-opening visit to the Genocide Museum

Also depressing is this sign... seriously, people?!? *SMH*

In the spirit of also recording what's popular today: Pokemon Go is a thing.

A really big thing.

The next day, we visit another site: the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. It's about 17kms south of Phnom Penh.

Prisoners that had confessed in the torture camps around the country were then taken out to the countryside to be exterminated - "Smashed" in Khmer Rouge parlance, for the preferred method of bashing victims to death with ox-cart axles to save bullets - and buried in mass graves.

Choeung Ek used to be an orchard but is now the site of over 8,000 bodies

Huge depressions in the ground mark where bodies have been dug up. Sometimes during a hard rainfall, more bodies will still be discovered.

This was a part of the ground where 450 bodies alone were discovered

Visitors have left thousands of colourful prayer bracelets to remember and honour the dead

This tree was the most depressing part of the genocidal centre

Part of the KR's policy was to immediately kill children and infants of suspected spies, for fear they would grow up and retaliate against the state. In keeping with the regime's policy of saving bullets, babies were held by their feet and their heads were repeatedly swung against the tree until they died.

Oh my god, that was so disgusting, disturbing and depressing.

A large Buddhist Stupa is erected on the grounds

Inside are over 5,000 skulls of the bodies unearthed at Choeung Ek, categorized by sex and age

Also are recovered fragments of bone, categorized into acrylic boxes

Evidence of the regime's violence on these skeletons are labeled, "Evidence of bullet", "Evidence of iron tool (impalement)", "Evidence of tooth treatment (dental torture)".

The dead stare back at us, both as a reminder and a warning against anything like this happening again

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