Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia | South West Cambodia | Phnom Penh – Day 17 – The Walkabout Hotel, Cambodia
The circus of local noise jumps through my window here at the soon-to-be- evening-brothel Walkabout Hotel. The almost non-stop drone of motorbikes, interspersed with sharp cries from horns and children amidst the sound of something being dragged along the concrete. Behind it all my ceiling fan whirs away, white noise which helps mute the rest. Evening has just touched down with the last clinging blue-velvet light of dusk.
The day started with a moto-ride over to Tuol Sleng, the one-time high school which was converted by the Khmer Rouge to a notorious prison/torture house, a black station for those who made it out alive, only to be shipped to the killing fields.
Under sunny skies there was only the rusty barbed wire along the perimeter fence which gave any hint of the depravity which once took place within those walls. The green courtyard with flowering trees and stretching coconut palms made it difficult to see the aura of brutality. To be honest, the museum that exists there now is clearly underfunded and you have to stoke up the imaginative coals to see the decaying classrooms as torture chambers. In a couple of the classrooms, poster-size black and white photos, grainy in their enlargements, do provide gruesome almost impressionist evidence: human forms chained to beds on the bedsprings, looking like their heads have been smashed to pulp and bone, over pools of blood. Eerily, the bed in the picture sits right in front of you on the floor, alone and rusty. In building B or C, classrooms were sub-divided into body-length cells about a metre wide. Rules posted required that prisoners not speak to each other, or even defecate without permission. In other rooms, hundreds of black and white portraits, mug shots, perpetuate the forever-silent state which prematurely and horrifically became the fate of their subjects. Yet each photo speaks volumes. On many faces is etched the terror of knowing the brief future as it stood for them at that time. Mostly very young faces, women and men. Estimates say that several thousand people passed through this one prison. Millions more passed from Cambodia in similar slaughter. All madness, all about.
The KR seniors and perps who are still about mock the very notion of human justice — almost an oxymoron here; the argument to be made that putting them on trial could destabilize the relative peace brought about by the de-facto amnesty.
The remains of the day required something simpler so I puttered about in the Tuol Tom Pong (Russian market) and the P’sar Thmei (New Market) and snapped away with my camera from the unique perspective of a passenger on a motorbike between the two. At the markets I looked at wallets but ended getting (for some reason) a sheeney, navy blue cotton table cloth with gold trim and stylized gold elephants. Some day it will either look totally cool as a funky cloth-covering in a room of travel-memories — or it will be worn by my kids when they play dress-up, and they’ll never think about the classy, middle-aged Cambodian lady with whom I bargained in french for this play cloth; or her tiny little fabrics stall hidden away in the stuffy dark market; or her seamstress employees hunched over sewing machines.
Toward the end of the day I squeezed in a visit to the grounds of the Royal Palace. As palaces go, and in spite of the Asian royal penchant for flair, this palace is quite tame. The interior of the throne hall reminded of European palaces except the motifs were all Eastern.
Tonight, at dinner, I met Dave of Salt Lake City, Utah who is participating in the filming of a low budget film on survivors of land mines. He’s come to the right place.
Phnom Penh has a certain frontier-city feel to it. Police presence seems minimal while base-delights wink through the dust which lingers in the city’s exhale. Music is twingling most everywhere — even in the sacred Silver Pagoda of the Royal Palace a guard’s radio was plinking the notes of local tunes. It’s a down-and-dirty circus, maybe one ring, with a distant eye on Bangkok’s Big Tent. But change is rumbling with the silver bullet anvil-heads that roil up into the splatosphere each afternoon. But it’s a long way off — until even every street in this city is paved. Starting over again. That’s what today’s Cambodians are doing, and full-on too.