#24 - ...to the monstrous

Sent: Monday, February 11, 2002 2:33 PM

At least the sleek white boat tied up at the lakeside amongst the tumbledown fishermen's shacks is more deserving of the title 'speedboat' than was that noisy uncomfortable canoe in Laos. This one must be 30m long and features an airplane style cabin that looks temptingly comfortable but which our guidebook warns us converts much too easily into a watery grave if the boat overturns, so we heed the advice to make the 4 hour journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh on the roof of the boat. Unfortunately we are some of the last to board which means squeezing onto the roof towards the back of the boat, very close to the huge noisy engines.

As the boat picks up speed we discover that not only are we in the position most likely to get hit by spray thrown upwards by the bows and chucked backwards by the boat's speed, but the tarpaulins available to the rest of the roof dwellers to keep them dry reach as far as the people sat in front of Sausage and no further. So we suffer a four and a half hour journey feeling like we are tied to a jet-propelled submarine which is trying, but failing, to dive. Our only source of comfort is that some of the glib bastards closer to the front of the boat celebrate their complete freedom from the drenching bow wave by sunbathing in 35 degree heat while cooled by a 20mph breeze and we watch shivering soggily and malevolently smile as they rapidly move through the red spectrum towards sunstroke. It may not be a wholesome coping strategy, but it gets us through. Towards the end of the journey the boat comes to a stop having snagged the propeller shaft on a fishing net and I stand up to dry off a little. Just to put the seal on a memorable journey as the boat picks up speed again my hat blows off! Phnom Penh for Christmas. Time to spend some more of the travellers cheques given to us by Sausage's family before our departure. We have decided to book ourselves into a good hotel for Christmas, but our first attempt is quickly thwarted when the Receptionist at the Renakse Hotel clocks short-cropped Sausage as she enters the lobby and is already saying 'Sorree we full' for the third time when Sausage finally makes it across the expansive lobby to the Check-In Desk. So we take our cash off to the Goldiana Hotel and lash out $35 a night on a massive room with 72 TV channels, a bathtub, aircon, a fridge, recently painted walls, and a swimming pool! (No, the swimming pool wasn't in the room) We feel like millionaires after 4 months of more basic accommodation.

Phnom Penh feels like somewhere that corporate America has got it's fingers into, but only up to the first knuckle, not least because first world goods are beyond the reach of all but the most affluent Cambodians and are here largely to serve ex-pats and those working the many Non-Governmental Organisations whose plush offices litter the business district.

For ordinary Cambodians life appears to be an industrious struggle to get together enough money to buy the completely fake Western lifestyle available off the peg and shelf in any of Phnom Penh's many markets. It is ironic, and unintentionally accurate, that the impression of Western life gained by someone piecing together a cheap fake copy of it would be of terrible clothes and products that fall apart way too quickly forcing you to replace them with another season's new fashions. At least they got that much right when producing the fakes!

The perennial question recurs in Phnom Penh: What income does a local person need to survive? We stay 5 days and during that time there are the same 2 moto drivers parked outside our hotel imploring us to use them every time we go out. We never see them work and they are always there when we go out, so how often do they need a fare to survive and why do they never go elsewhere to find one? > No-one goes to Angkor Wat in search of the history of the recent past, though the Angkor area has as much to say about the events of the last thirty years as any other part of Cambodia. But one of the main reasons for coming to Phnom Penh is to visit the museums and memorials, which bear witness to the Khmer Rouge regime's rule of terror from 1976 to 1979.

On a bright sunny morning we walk half a mile from our hotel zigging and zagging through Phnom Penh's regular but run-down city blocks to reach Tuol Sleng Prison - Security 21, the former Tuol Svey Prey High School now known simply as S21.

In the summer of 1976 when I was 13 and Sausage was 7 Tuol Svey would have been indistinguishable from any other neighborhood high school. Three three-storey blocks stand in a L shape, the class room doors opening out onto landings running along the front of each block.

But in 1976 the Khmer Rouge seized power and in the name of their agrarian revolution forced the entire population of Phnom Penh to leave the city and work in the fields. With the city empty they put the school to terrifying use.

The perimeter security is not that tight, a fence, some barbed wire. But when a prison regime is a brutal as that at S21 the likelihood of anyone making a break for the fence is remote. Indeed preventing suicide was a greater priority than preventing escape; there is actually barbed wire across the front of the first and second floor landings from balustrade to ceiling put there to prevent prisoners from attempting suicide by throwing themselves off the balconies.

During the 3 years of its' existence over 17,000 prisoners were sent to S21. 7 are known to have survived. If you weren't being tortured then you spent your time either shackled alone in a tiny cell, 7' by 2'6" or kept chained to a bar with other prisoners in the former classrooms. Absolute Silence was strictly enforced. Your torturers choose from a wide range of methods from pulling out your nails and pouring alcohol onto the wounds through electric shocks and water tortures.

We watch a video which follows the story of one young woman from pre-revolutionary normality through imprisonment, torture and death. What comes across with incredible power is that this was a time without reason. The word of anyone, a family member, a colleague, an enemy, a child could see you arrested, interned, tortured and killed. Children and teenagers made some of the most effective agents of the Khmer Rouge regime because they took more easily to the mindless abuse of power which it represented. Inevitably in such a bizarre siuation the madness spiralled paranoically inwards upon itself and the meticulous records maintained by the Khmer Rouge of those they tortured and killed at S21 contain the names of many who worked there before their fall from grace.

The simplicity of museum conveys its' message with moving effectiveness: In the ground-floor classrooms used as torture chambers the few bits of furniture found in each room when Phnom Penh fell to Vietnamese forces in 1979 remain together with a large grainy photo in each classroom of the bloodied and battered corpse it contained when the prison was retaken. Even as the Vietnamese troops closed in on Phnom Penh the torture continued. The blood splattered across the walls, floors and ceilings is now faded but still clearly visible.

Aside from the torture chambers room after room contains large panels displaying row upon row of Khmer Rouge mugshots of those they interned and killed. The many photo's of children from age 6 upwards seem to demand a reaction which isn't dumb and numb but the reality I am forced to confront feels at first to be beyond comprehension.

Towards the end of the video a former prisoner walks around S21 with a former guard showing him his (the prisoner's) oil paintings of prison scenes, scenes of torture and brutality. The guard, laughing out of embarrassment and nerves, admits that the scenes are accurate and adds his backsliding caveat of how little he was involved and then only when following direct orders. And this throws up so many further questions. In 3 years over 1 million people died. If you were alive in Cambodia in the '70's you were involved. You or your family were subjected to the terrors of the regime or you were handing out the punishment, or both. You might have been a power crazed 14 year old handed an AK47 and told to destroy the enemy, or you might have been the 80 year old in the crosshairs of the teenagers sights because you had told off for being cheeky six months before, when the world hadn't gone mad.

In 1979 after the fall of the Khmer rouge there was a general amnesty and some former high ranking Khmer Rouge officers found themselves back in government. The military rump of the Khmer Rouge crossed the Mekong into Eastern Thailand where they were part of an alliance to which the West continued to provide military support out of fear for the Marxist government installed in Cambodia by the Vietnamese. So it is that during the early '80's British mine laying expertise was available to the Khmer Rouge.

All of which isn't news. All of which has been in the public domain for some time. But, in common with the majority of people we have chosen to keep such things well outside our field of vision. Each of the mugshot photos has written on it the date on which the person pictured arrived in S21. One, a young man, maybe 12 years old, arrived on 21st June 1978, Sausage's ninth birthday. As we leave Sausage keeps repeating 'But it all happened in my lifetime.'

On our first afternoon in town Sausage takes to her luxurious air-conditioned bed seeking refuge from the heat and I set off on foot for the main Post Office. The walk takes me through several districts, all the streets are broad, though only the main thoroughfares are tarmac'ed and I'm struck yet again by how boring spread out, low-slung city blocks are. The embassy quarter offers a chance to catch up on the latest thinking in the world of security as high walls are surmounted by even higher fences and cameras swivel behind the razor-wire. This is a town whose foreign community continues to plan for the worst.

The embassies, consulates and NGO offices recede to be replaced by shops and markets. The markets are all tightly packed places of narrow alleys that resound to the calls of the shopkeepers. The main Post Office is an oasis of relative calm, but I am sent to 3 separate desks in order to collect the various cards and parcels that people have sent Poste Restante. When I get back to the room Sausage's eyes light up, but her bottom lip is much in evidence when I suggest that we save opening anything that looks like a card or a present for Christmas Day.

We do open the biggest box though. Mummy Sausage has sent us a disposable Christmas! A blow up tree, baubles, decorations for the room, party poppers, streamers, hats, crackers. We both sit on the bed with a completely unexpected disposable Christmas scattered around us biting our bottom lips. Goodness only knows what the maids made of it when they came in the next day to find a full scale English Christmas going on in room 310! > Our trip out to the Killing Fields begins as a lesson in how difficult travel must be off the beaten track in Cambodia. Choeng Ek is about 15km outside Phnom Penh and we set off scarily slowly on our hired moped. We are within 1km of the city centre when the tarmac runs out and we spend the rest of the journey trying to spot the potholes amongst the dust as the fierce sun bleaches out all the detail. We find our way by following two moto's with Westerners on the back and after 40 minutes we turn off the main dirt track and proceed up an avenue of trees to an isolated rural car park.

Once an orchard the Khmer Rouge chose these secluded fields as the end of the line for the prisoners at S21. When they had finished torturing you they would come for you in the night telling you that you were being moved to another prison. No-one believed them. Instead prisoners would be driven out to Choeng Ek. The best to be hoped for was a quick end. The Khmer Rouge didn't believe in wasting bullets so most of the thousands killed here were bludgeoned to death. Some had to dig the mass graves into which they would later fall.

8985 bodies have been exhumed. 49 of 129 mass graves have been left unopened.

Looking out across the landscape of grassy hollows that look like a collection of golf course bunkers minus their sand it is at first difficult to impute onto the scene the terror and horror that it represents but as we walk amongst the graves we see fragments of bone lie scattered everywhere.

The centrepiece of the small site is the Memorial Stupa where over 8000 skulls, classified by age and gender, are stacked in rack upon rack. The building is a slender, square glass-sided column and the skulls lie on shelves which climb upwards for 20 metres. The Stupa is designed to force you into close proximity with the skulls whose empty eye sockets made me think immediately of the mugshots at S21, ordinary people, many guilty of no greater crime than being a teacher or a manager, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, all dead.


On Christmas Day morning we open all the cards and presents, and THANK YOU to everyone who took the trouble to send something, and then put on our best outfits and went to lunch at the swankiest hotel in town.

Hotel Le Royal for Christmas Lunch comes complete with a pianist and children singing carols and an absolutely lavish buffet which has both of us stretching our stomachs to the absolute maximum. The setting is beautiful, our ex-pat fellow diners a rather smug bunch and we even treat ourselves to a decent bottle of wine. We roll out of the restaurants air-con and into the heat of the late afternoon having had as good a Christmas as it is possible to imagine in searing heat and many thousands of miles away from family and friends, the cards and presents made what could have been a rather lonely day into something we will both remember for a long time. And just to make the day complete we speak briefly to Mummy and Daddy Sausage, Cluckus and Kay and Tara who are on the end of the line when it rings 2 minutes after we hang up on the family. It turns out that Tara and Mummy Sausage are in cahoots!

We try to do some 'old world' sightseeing back in Phnom Penh but to be honest our hearts aren't in it and the sights prove unexceptional. On Boxing Day we check out of the Goldiana Hotel and set off for Thailand. The trip starts badly as we call over two moto drivers to take us to the coach station. Getting onto the back of a moped while wearing a huge rucksack is not an easy proposition. I just about manage it and my driver sets off. Unfortunately Sausage's driver has not figured out where we want to go so he is determined to follow my driver and sets off despite the fact that Sausage has managed to get only one cheek of her back side onto the seat. The inevitable happens and Sausage is pitched off. The driver learns nothing from this and in his haste not to lose sight of my moto driver simply repeats the whole manouevre a second time and dumps Sausage onto the floor again! I know nothing of this whatsoever and on arrival at the bus station five minutes later pay both drivers and set off to find our coach. As we struggle along under the weight of our rucksacks I say to Sausage 'Well that wasn't too bad?' and she dissolves into floods of tears.

What lies ahead is a long day travelling with various connections that have to be made if we are to reach the Cambodia-Thai border before it closes at 5pm. Will we make it, or will the Sausage's transport hoodoo strike yet again?

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages