Friday, 3 July 2009

Kings and Beggars ~ Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh could be one of the truly great drinking cities of the world, I am sure of it. The ubiquitous bars and pubs range from the sleek and slick to the raw and crowded, the punters from the gregarious and affluent to the blotchy, desperate drunk of near destitution. In one river front bar we were in, pseudo trendy pop art posters decorated chocolate brown and textured walls, quoting Hunter S Thomson. A couple of blocks down the only colour in the room came from a television set screening a Khmer Boxing match where two men kicked, elbowed and kneed each other around the ring. I have always looked at drinking as an indulgent and carefree past time; the carefree aspect becomes difficult in Phnom Penh. It is a city of contrasts, and the drinking culture is a very base way of illustrating this. As you sit in one of the cafes or open street bars that shimmer with mood lights and bright tables and indulge in a glass of beer (or whatever your poison of choice may be, even absinth is on offer), it will not be long before a young child, cap in hand approaches to beg for food or money. Or to sell you a black market photocopied book or a hand woven bracelet. And then shortly afterwards a landmine victim, on crutches if he or she is lucky enough to still have legs, will approach. And then a young woman with a child on her back. Around this point we look at our drinks in despair and they seem a wanton, frivolous thing. A pleasure-less guilty pleasure. Of course you can retreat into one of the roof top bars or hide behind closed doors, but you know all too well what is waiting outside. Phnom Penh could be one of the truly great drinking cities of the world, but it fails because it is difficult to really enjoy a drink whilst desperation beats on the back door. In the annual poll of the best and worst cities to live in (based on many factors varying from political freedom and economics to culture and quality of life), Phnom Penn came in towards the bottom of the list. My dear Sunshine City, Harare, came in at last.

Phnom Penh is located at the confluence of four rivers, the Lower and Upper Mekong Rivers, the Tonle Sap and the Tonle Bassac. As you look out towards the great body of water where the mud coloured rivers swell and mix it is hard not to imagine that you are near some great coastal port. In fact the sea is still a couple of hundred kilometres south where the Gulf of Thailand extends to meet Cambodia’s shoreline. Arriving by bus in Phnom Penh takes you through the myriad streets and mazes that make up the city, past ultra modern looking office blocks and a swanky stadium and then, conversely, through streets where the garbage lies out in the streets and the smells that greet your nostrils make them flare and your stomach churn. From the moment you step off the bus the cries of “Tuk-tuk,” “Moto” and “Cyclo” are ineluctable. We needed to get towards the river front and within minutes had reduced the price down from $10.00 (extortionate for the distance) to $2.00 (a lot more realistic). And then we were into the traffic of Phnom Penh, swimming upstream against the cars and bikes that came from all sides and then darting across the road into the right lane and in search of accommodation. We eventually found a room that was huge and clean, though the air conditioning beeped incessantly and the free wi-fi proved to be a myth. “When will it be fixed?” Nipun enquired.“Maybe three days” said the pretty girl behind reception.“Maybe three months” her colleague snorted derisively. Our accommodation was comfortable though, with a room the size of a football pitch and air conditioning that beeped irritably throughout the night until I silenced it at about three in the morning, fuzzy headed and cursing silently.

No visit to Phnpm Penh is really complete without a visit to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, or S-21 (The “S” standing for Security Prison) as it was known. It is a grim way to spend time but I think an important journey to make, as it forms a chillingly real part of Cambodia’s troubled and recent history. The history of S-21 is well known and well documented. It was here that
about 17 000 “prisoners” were bought to be tortured and then executed. They were bought to the prison predominantly because they were suspected to be enemies of the state, or intellectuals who might challenge the Draconian rule of Pol Pot and his grinning gang of idiot thugs. The reality of it is that most of these terrified men, women and children had no idea why they had been bought here. And of these 17 000 prisoners only seven survived. It has been said that the prison was much like the nightmare that Kafka wrote about in “The Trial,” in other words once a prisoner had been arrested they were guilty, otherwise why would they have been arrested. Once arrested life became a hell of incarceration in tiny cells, brutality from guards and torture. It was not uncommon for prisoners to die whilst being interrogated - beaten, shocked, drowned or suffocated until there was no life left in their bloodied bodies. Every prisoner entering S-21 was photographed and their details were recorded, the men, women and most eerily, the children. As part of a photography course I did some time ago I had written about Tuol Sleng and the photographs (or negatives at least) that been discovered shortly after the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnamese arrived they found the 14 mutilated bodies of the last prisoners to have been hastily murdered at the prison, the bodies being too far decomposed for identification. These victims are interred in the grounds of the museum now, which seems a shame. I would rather be buried any other place than the place where I had been tortured, humiliated and callously killed. The greatest irony of the prison though is that it had formerly been a school, populated by happy children and a place of enlightenment.

Walking through the museum you are taken through the torture cells (formerly classrooms) where the steel beds that were used to chain the prisoners too are still in situ. In each of these rooms a picture of the corpses that were found by the Vietnamese hangs from one of the walls. The body, still chained to the bed, displays a puddle of gore and blood beneath the metal slats it rests upon. Outside, what looks like a giant gallows, marks the place where prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and were then hoisted (by their freshly bound arms) into the air. The pressure on their arms pinned behind their backs would dislocate their shoulders and when they passed out from the pain they were dunked head first into giant urns filled with fetid water, until, gagging, they regained consciousness. And then there are the thousands of black and white photographs that show the prisoners who were bought into this hell. Some are mere children, some look terrified and some defiant. Most just look scared and resigned. They were mostly told that they had been bought to this place to be “re-educated,” but I suspect that they mostly knew the truth. Once they had spent their allotted amount of time in the facility they were taken to the Choueng Ek killing fields where they were executed by being beaten across the back of the head or neck and then had their throats slit. There are stories of people being buried in the mass graves before they were fully dead. And at the killing fields itself flourishes the tree where several babies were killed, they were swung by their ankles into the tree trunk. 43 of the mass graves (of which there are 129) have still not been excavated, whilst 8000 skulls from those that have are now placed in the memorial on the grounds of Choueng Ek, The skulls are arranged according to sex and age and placed behind a glass partition.

After a day spent between Tuol Sleng and Choueng Ek a return to buoyant spirits seemed unlikely. We had dinner that night and I seem to remember it was a very early night. In total we spent about six days in Phnom Penn, the other highlight of this time being a trip to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. The Silver Pagoda was a bit of a let down, it’s name being derived from the fact that the floor is made up of 5000 silver tiles. The tiles are however mostly covered by a protective carpet and the ones that you can see looked to me like a raised access floor in an office, waiting to receive carpet tiles. The palace itself is amazing though, ornate and graceful and home to the King. The Khmer style of architecture (not dissimilar to the Thai it must be said) has an imposing grandeur, with high towers and brightly tiled roofs that reflect a dazzling array of colour in every direction. Next to the Royal Palace is the National Museum, and across from this a perfectly kept park where, at dawn and dusk, the Khmers come to play football, badminton and to relax. During the day when the temperature soars the park is completely deserted, but as the temperature drops the park fills up with life.

We enjoyed the buzz of Phnom Penh. It can be exhausting with the constant beckoning of tuk-tuk drivers and kids trying to sell you bracelets and books you already have, but generally once we spoke to these people and had a joke with them, they were lovely. And there was always some distraction, be it kids break dancing on the streets to earn some pocket money or the ubiquitous bars and coffee houses and clubs. And happily there are many community projects on the go in Phnom Penh, such as Friends, the restaurant that recruits former street children and trains them up in the hospitality industry and whose profits are put back into the community. As with so many of the places that we have been to I would like to go back to Phnom Penh. We really only scratched the surface there. So it goes.

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