Wednesday, 6 January 2010


As promised, though somewhat delayed, here's some pictures I took on holiday in Cambodia last year. Be warned - if you deliberately avoided reading my post on Auschwitz, you probably want to give this one a miss too.

Okay, so we flew out of lovely Laos into Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Phnom Penh is not lovely - the poverty, dirt and rampant corruption are right in your face. Mind you, I did myself no favours by deciding to read some books on the local background. There seem to be only 2 types of book written about Phnom Penh: those about the sex trade and those about the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide in the 1970s - both of which make you want to hand in your resignation from the human species and join one with something more positive to offer the planet. Cockroaches, say.

I'm not suggesting that tourists should avoid the place. Cambodia is a country bravely trying to haul itself out of the shit accumulated by a political regime so awful it beggars belief. It has a lot of positives going for it - but the shit's pretty deep, especially for the many landmine victims begging on the streets.

This is our Cambodian guide, pictured in front of the Royal Palace. He's a year younger than I am, I think, which made him seven years old when Pol Pot and his regime took power. He and his family were marched out into the countryside, as were all urban dwellers. His father was executed for being a dangerous intellectual (he was an engineer). He was seperated from his mother and put into a children's work-camp, where he survived starvation by eating snails out of the ditches. His two little sisters both died.

In three years, eight months and twenty days up to a third of the Cambodian population was wiped out, by their own government, through execution and very deliberate starvation.

This is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It looks like a high school because that's exactly what it was before the Khmer Rouge turned it into prison S-21. Political prisoners (that means doctors, teachers, monks, foreigners, anyone who could read or spoke a foreign language or wore glasses) were tortured for "confession" here before being taken out to the Killing Fields for execution. The top floors were wired with mesh to stop prisoners commiting suicide.

This is a translation of the rules which were written up on the walls for prisoners. You can click to enlarge and read, but actually this was the thing I found most difficult to cope with - more so than the bloodstains and the bones, even.

The Killing Fields site (only the most notorious of many mass graves) lies on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and looks like an orchard once more. Possibly around 17,000 were killed here - mostly bludgeoned to death - and buried in pits like the excavated one pictured above. When you walk around you can see bits of bone and rags of clothing sticking up out of the soil, still.

This is the memorial stupa built to the victims. It is filled with skulls.

I'm glad I saw all this as part of our Cambodian visit. History is not all pretty romantic ruins, and not to face it would have been an act of cowardice. But I still feel churned up.

Next (and final) set of photos: the temples of Angkor.


Wintersinger said...

The human race really is crap some times.

*runs off to hug her kids*


Janine Ashbless said...


Craig Sorensen said...

Life is contrast.

We don't know light but for darkness.

Thank you for sharing this, dark though it may be.

Janine Ashbless said...

I see too much darkness sometimes - though yes, it does make me grateful for the (undeserved and unearned) peace and comfort of my life. I see no particular indication that the human race is getting any smarter, kinder or fairer over the years.

Which is one reason - of many - that I'm glad I don't have children. I can cope with my own intellectualised despair; I would not be able to deal with actual fear for my children.

Danielle said...

well..indeed human race is a crappy one sometimes..i often say i love the human race but i hate the people...thats one of the reasons i stoped watching tv 8 years ago...i just cant stand the news about all the terror and darkness anymore..not to speak about the hgorrible things which are veiled and the news never tell about...

still thank you for sharing what you have seen..and reminding us...

neve black said...

I just find this information absolutely fascinating, Janine. I love history. I love reading about history. Thank you. It's gut wrenching, but I can't say that I would have done anything different than you upon my visit.

Janine Ashbless said...

Thank you, guys.

And I thank the world, every time I'm reminded how many decent and lovely people there are out there too. For the hope it brings. For being reminded how important it is for me be one of the good guys as well, because I now know what the alternative looks like.

Emerald said...

Janine, I feel like I relate to so much of the impression I have of what you said in this post and in the comments. I used to feel very similarly to your comments about the human race and cockroaches and in fact found it well stated in that context. The perspective in me seems to have shifted, but I remember clearly feeling that way.

In addition, I also recall feeling that as distinctly related to the desire I have felt to not have kids. I still do not feel a desire to have kids, though at this point it seems more like a neutral lack of urge than a fierce rebellion, which is how I recall experiencing it previously.

Thank you for sharing this.

Namaste and Love.

Janine Ashbless said...

Namaste, Emerald, and a big hug.