Yesterday after settling into Hotel Paragon on the quay we went for a walk along the river Tonlé Sap and something to eat. As soon as we walked out of the hotel entrance we were bombarded by the usual requests to take a tuk tuk or sightseeing tour but the big difference from anything else I have seen was the number of children begging or selling books. It’s really hard not to just ignore them as pests but not encourage them either. I find it very difficult. In the end we ended up eating in a place run where half the profits go a local orphanage. The kids selling the books are also allowed to wander in and try sell their stuff, we did not buy anything but had a chat with them and gave them sweets. What you don’t know is who the money they make goes to so we felt more comfortable giving them something they could enjoy.
Today we took a visit to the Killing Fields where Pol Pot had many people executed. As you enter you are stood in front of a huge Stupa which is full of skulls. It’s a little numbing as I couldn’t actually relate them to individuals who were brutally murdered. As you walk around amongst the mass graves you see bits of bones and clothes. I had convinced myself at first I could see tree roots poking out and that someone had dropped a bit of coloured plastic but on closer inspection you are left under no doubt.
It’s such a peaceful place now and without the Stupa and explanations as you walk around it would be like any other park really. I did find myself reading the signs with the explanations in disbelief.
Once we left the Killing Fields we went to the prison at Tuol Sleng where all the people killed by the Khmer Rouge were tagged, tortured and kept before making the 15km journey to Killing Fields. If I was fooling myself about what I was seeing before this place brought it home, the place itself was a School before it was turned into a place a horror and was now full of pictures of the victims. A lot of them were so young including very young children and babies. Just shocking.
Over and above everything else, the thing that finally made it real for me was an exhibition in one of the holding cells of children who had been recruited by the Khmer Rouge and worked for the regime and now live ordinary lives. That made it real as the people who had taken part were now adults, it just sent a chill down my spine.
We decided to walk back from the prison to the hotel and it did amaze me that the people are really friendly, full of smiles and just charming even with such turbulent history only a few decades ago..