30.01.2013 - 10.02.2013
The four day funeral of Cambodia's extraordinary demi-god-king Sihanouk took place while we were in Phnom Penh, the capital. Crowds gathered in front of the royal palace to burn incense, lay flowers and say prayers. Everything was closed and roadblocks kept all traffic from the city centre - so we saw teeming, hectic, traffic-choked Phnom Penh blissfully peaceful and silent. The roadblocks unfortunately also made it impossible to watch the funeral procession, a giant golden juggernaut lumbering around the city followed by hundreds of chanting monks and nuns, soldiers and marching bands. Although we were a minute away from the route, we had to content ourselves with watching it on tv as roadblocks penned us in the street where we were staying and the ultra-officious police manning the barriers would permit absolutely no-one to pass. Naturally when we were allowed out, we were not allowed back in again.
King Sihanouk embodied all Cambodia's paradoxical through-the-looking-glass absurdity. He was king twice, abdicated twice, and assumed the role of president, prime minister and head of the army at various other times as the mood took him. His great achievement was gaining independence for Cambodia. A king who gave his support to the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge, he disastrously helped Pol Pot take power. Many of his reigning years were spent in exile, mostly self-imposed when things were a bit messy at home, and once for plotting to kill the prime minister. He is revered not only as the father of the nation, but as a deity. Make of all this what you will.
The funeral allowed us to savour the city streets (once our street was un-barricaded), to enjoy the wonderful modernist architecture, to walk at leisure without being accosted by tuktuk drivers every few steps, to have a conversation without shouting to be heard above the traffic, to not risk life and limb crossing the road. The second time we visited Phnom Penh happened to be Chinese new year and also happened to be my birthday. Again the city had closed down (for the former event rather than the latter) so strangely silent streets again, and nothing open again - apart from a very good absinthe bar. Oh well, if we must. There is much else to like about Phnom Penh. The centre was full of life and interest, the armies of NGO staff there mean there's a good range of restaurants and bars, there are bright, busy congenial city people here, and there is a ubiquitous warm yellow colour to the buildings, which looks lovely at dusk.
We also saw the worst sights here. Tiny children, maybe four or five years old, selling trinkets late at night in the tourists bars; even younger children helping their mothers sift through piles of rubbish at night; a white middle-aged man 'befriending' a pretty young teenage boy selling books; endless overweight, badly-dressed white middle-aged men with slender sad-looking young Cambodian women on their arms.
By far the worst of all was the Tuol Sleng museum, also known by its Khmer Rouge codename S-21. A high school in a quiet suburban street, converted to a secret Khmer Rouge interrogation centre, where thousands of people were imprisoned and tortured before their final journey to the mass graves of the killing fields. Three three-storey classroom blocks facing onto a grassed square with a wooden gym frame, shaded by trees. A normal looking school, except the classrooms were prison cells and the gym frame was a gallows. Nothing here is what it seems, yet again.
The absurd Kafka-esque un-logic of the Pol Pot regime was embodied in S-21. If the secret police had ordered someone's arrest, the line went, they must be guilty because the secret police do not make mistakes. Prisoners had no idea what crime they were supposed to have committed and neither did prison officers. The only way to find out what a prisoner was guilty of was through interrogation and torture, so the most horrific methods were applied until a confession was made. The 'confessions' are sheer nonsense: every other prisoner an agent of the CIA, and/or the KGB and all sorts of other impossible activities - anything to make the torture stop, presumably. But they validated the government's paranoid belief in infiltration at all levels by spies and saboteurs, and justified the escalation of massacres and purges - and while the government wanted massacres and purges, S-21 provided the victims. The logic and methods of the medieval witch-hunts reigned.
The cells for the unimportant prisoners were not long enough to lie down in - a classroom partitioned into forty or fifty tiny filthy boxes, leg irons locked to a metal shackle in the floor. The politically significant prisoners had a room with a metal bed, blood spatters still visible on the walls and ceiling, and nameless permanent dark stains on the floor. As in the Nazi concentration camps, each new prisoner was photographed, numbered and documented with meticulous care, bizarre considering they were all about to die. The endless rows of prisoner photographs are exactly although coincidentally the same as those we saw at Auschwitz, everyone numbered and tagged. There are old women, small children, schoolgirls and mothers with babies in their arms - all there as enemies of the revolution. People looking terrified, bewildered, blank, defiant, full of fury. As at Auschwitz there are stockpiles of the victims' clothes and shoes. A terrible deep coldness descends when you enter, and doesn't go when you leave.
I realise it may appear from this blog as though we spent our whole time in Cambodia immersed in horror and misery. As I've tried to highlight, Cambodia is country of extremes, like nowhere else we've experienced. So by way of balance, I should add that we spent our last days here on an idyllic island in a blissful haze. We lazed on the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen, Caroline went snorkelling and saw amazing exotic tropical fish, incredible coral and all sorts of curious sea creatures, and then we celebrated my birthday in a gorgeous hotel in unapologetic luxury. I know I've dwelt on horror and misery more than fun and joy here, but I make no apology. This blog helps me process what I've experienced, and Cambodia was overwhelming. Also I want to tell what we've seen and learned about the desperate suffering and misery this country has endured in recent years and still endures, much of it thanks to the west. And in any case someone else sunbathing and drinking cocktails on a perfect tropical beach just isn't that interesting. You have to be there yourself.