The French were repelled from Cambodia on at least one occasion, before being kicked out for good in 1953. This did not bring a happy democracy to Cambodia. In 1970 while the king was visiting Russia, he was deposed. The new government didn’t fare too well either. The war was raging in Vietnam, and as part of the “Secret War” US forces were bombing areas of neighboring Cambodia believed to be communist rebel camps. The Cambodians saw this as indiscriminate and unnecessary, with many thousand civilian deaths, and so helped bring power to their own rebels, who’s aim was oppose invading forces. These new guys were called the Khmer Rouge, led by one Saloth Sar otherwise known as Pol Pot. Support, mainly from the poverty stricken classes, helped build a strong force with some strange political thought. There was to be only one kind of industry – agriculture. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh using the excuse that it was to protect the inhabitants from a US strike. In actual fact it was to force the holders of the countries wealth to a new life of labor, working the fields. Unlike China and Russia, where the communist model was based around the worker, in Cambodia the peasant was the model citizen, working only for food to survive. Those who were likely to cause trouble, mainly anyone with an education, monks (who were considered to be leeches), and the elderly who were of no use to work were either starved or taken to one of the killing fields to be disposed of.
We arrived in our hotel, le Royal, which was the setting of the movie the Killing Fields. It was here that the last of the worlds media gathered as the embassies were closing up shop in the capital. Following the evacuation of Phnom Penh, most of the city was destroyed, but this hotel was used to keep animals such as pigs. In 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, ending the rule of the Khmer Rouge, but the damage was done – the loss of life was vast along with the loss of culture and any forms of education. This causes a problem in that a lot of information on the history of Cambodia has been lost, there is even a considerable amount of uncertainty as to what went on as late as the early 1980’s as the records and record keepers were destroyed. The country had to start again. A stable independent government was only established in 1993 (though there was a coup in 1997, the new constitution remained in place).
There are no high rise buildings in Phnom Penh, in fact a lot of the construction would not look out of place in a farming village. Some of the buildings have been salvaged, and new, modern development is starting to take place. No-one is really sure of how to use a road, and the police aren’t paid enough to care. We had a car take us around town. First we headed out to Choeung Ek, on the outskirts of the city, which is the most famous killing field.
A guide showed us around and explained the atrocities which took place. Small children were held by the legs and had their heads smashed against the ‘killing tree’, or if they were older, were made to hang from branches with spikes placed below until they could hang no more. People were made to dig a pit, then would be beaten or stabbed. The pits would be covered with chemicals such as DDT to stop them smelling and to finish off anyone who made it in alive. A pit of Khmer Rouge soldiers, suspected of treason, has been found – their heads have not. There are over 40 pits of mass graves, not all of them have been excavated, but for those that have, the bones have been transferred to a glass walled stupa which makes for an unforgettable memorial. It contains over 5000 skulls; 2-3million people went missing under the Khmer Rouge.
On our way to Choeung Ek we passed many “sweat-shops” making clothes for many foreign companies, such as Gap, Abercrombie, Dockers and many more. There is always a lot of debate about the use of cheap foreign labour but here is some insight from our driver. Our driver is in the army full time, he only drives as a side job – his monthly army salary is $30. A person working in one of the factories can clear $100 a month, so it is fairly easy to see how the labour can be found to operate such places. Another effect of the many factories is the amount of these clothes available locally, at factory gates or in the local markets for a tiny fraction of what it costs at home; $25 Gap t-shirt for $1.50 anyone?
The following day was the start of a three day boat race, an important holiday to mark the november full moon, when the local river reverses flow. As a result the city is overflowing with people from all over Cambodia (but not foreign tourists as relatively few, by Siem Reap standards, come here) who come to support their local boat team and generally celebrate by the river.The Royal palace was closed, so we didn’t get to see it, but we did visit the rather unloved but still splendid National Museum. We also visited the Russian and the Central markets to buy some of those bargain clothes.
That night we watched the fireworks let off at the river and prepared for our departure the next day.
Andy never did get to try an AK-47, despite driving past the shooting range!