Dark Is The Night


Bracelets given by visitors as a sign of respect for the dead.

Today we went through a tragically sombre enlightenment into Cambodia’s gruesome history. If, like I was, you are not fully aware of the terrors that have taken place here in the 70’s then prepare to be shocked. As a horrific example of the extent of human evil, the years 1975-79 under the rule of Pol Pot could rival the holocaust.

Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar) led the communist revolutionary party called the ‘Khmer Rouge’ who, after thoroughly sowing seeds of forced support for their regime in the countryside, took over Phnom Penh in April 1975, with Pot initiating his dictatorship and the concept of ‘Year Zero’: evacuating the entire city on the pretence of suspected American bombings. These evacuations were actually to push the population further into ‘Khmer Rouge’ territory and to help to stamp out capitalist habits. The people were then made to work in collective farms or forced labour projects inevitably resulting in malnutrition, disease and widespread death. Pot even claimed that only one or two million of the eight million population were actually needed to build his ‘agrarian communist utopia’. As for the others: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

He initiated a mass genocide of any potential or conceived threats to the regime – stretching as far as all the educated individuals such as doctors, teachers and lawyers. All of their families were included (even babies and infants) for fear they may seek revenge themselves for the loss of their loved ones. In order to achieve his ‘utopia’ of a pure Khmer race he also banned religion and purged Buddhist monks, Christians, Muslims, disabled people, people in contact with western countries and any Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese or ‘impure’ Khmers.

Some were put into the S-21 camp here in Phnom Penh where they were subject to obscenely inhuman torture in order to extract, largely false confessions. The camp is now know is the ‘Tuol Sleng’ Genocide museum where you can view the camp pretty much as it was left, with its miniscule cells and torture implements. The site was actually built initially as a secondary school which further heightens the sadistic nature of the use to which it was put.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Some of the many photographs of people kept in the 'prison'

Some of the many photographs of people kept in the ‘prison’

Barbedwire to prevent prisoners from attempting suicide to avoid further torture.

Barbedwire to prevent prisoners from attempting suicide to avoid further torture.

We were taken ten minutes out of the city to one of the ‘Killing fields’ sites. The ‘Choeung Ek’ genocidal centre is much like a Cambodian equivalent to Auschwitz. It was here that vast numbers of people were brought to be temporarily imprisoned then taken out in large numbers to be killed each night. Bullets were deemed too expensive to be wasted on the prisoners so they were instead brutally beaten to death kneeling on the edge of the mass graves with hammers, hatchets, axes or even with the serrated edge of a type of palm tree branch. Music meanwhile was played on loudspeaker to drown out the screams.

Skulls in the 'Memorial Stupa'.

Skulls in the ‘Memorial Stupa’.



The Memorial Stupa displays the skulls, bones and clothes of some of the victims which have been excavated and presented on levels in this building for remembrance.

Walking around the site was a very sickening experience. We walked past graves labelled as ‘Grave of 100 women and children’ or ‘166 headless bodies’. Collections of skulls and bones had been excavated and presented in boxes or in the memorial monument.

Indochinese traditional 'house for the spirits'.

Indochinese traditional ‘house for the spirits’.

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre bracelets

The birdsong and sounds of children playing in the nearby school only heightened the eerie sense of the incomprehensible loss. There are 20,000 mass graves in sites like this one across Cambodia. The total death toll is said to be up to 3 MILLION out of a population of 8 million.  As Nassim Taleb points out in his book on uncertainty ‘The Black Swan,’ at this point it ceases to be a story or something we can relate to and merely becomes a statistic.

Apologies for this thoroughly morbid post – I’m simply sharing what I’ve learnt today. Unfortunately I have a feeling that this is going to be the thing that imprints itself the most in my mind from my brief stay in Cambodia.

In an attempt to lighten the mood I’ll carry on with a little more info about Phnom Pehn. It’s a remarkably easy city to navigate around. Highlights include the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and Wat Phnom temple – you can find plenty of  beautiful temples and monasteries dotted throughout the city.



For lunch I decided not to join my group in one of the many westernised cafés along the river front and headed instead to the buzzing local food markets in the back streets.

Phnom Pehn Food Market

As I’m on a budget, I’ve mostly been eating fried noodles with an egg and vegetables – served at most of the street stalls. Today I had a local Khmer rice noodle soup with a really bizarre plate of ‘salad’ to accompany it and some sort of dried ground fish sprinkled on top. Not too bad!

Khmer Food Phnom Pehn

Sun Rise, Light Flies

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We woke up this morning before the birds. A 4.45 departure time wasn’t particularly welcome considering the long travelling day to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Bangkok yesterday combined with the fact that I’m still on the wobbly side of full health! However, the aim was to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, which seemed worth the effort. The only problem was that every tourist and his dog seemed to have the same idea. Apparently it’s the ‘thing to do’. Unfortunately it does rather diminish the experience being crammed in with a pack load of tourists, ravenous for good photos. It was still spectacular and calming nevertheless.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The crowds didn’t die down after breakfast. We headed first to ‘Angkor Thom’ (Angkor simply means ‘city’) which was a vast collection of ruined temples – like the rest of the site they were originally built in the 12th century as largely Hindu temples but being renovated into Buddhist temples in the late 13th Century. What was striking to me was how much the site reminded me of the various Mayan ruin sites in Central America. The blatant difference being the crowds of people and the hype! Don’t be fooled by my photos – I painstakingly tried to avoid snapping random tourists. There were a lot more people than it seems!

Entrance to 'Angkor Thom'

Angkor Thom



Traditionally dressed Khmer children


Angkor Thom jungle

‘Ta Prohm’ was similarly breathtaking but, again, rather obscured by excessive tourists.  What was so beautiful about this temple (where tomb raider was shot, I’m told) was how the jungle was interwoven with the ruins. Colossal, twisting roots and trunks clung to the walls – simultaneously holding it together and breaking it up as the roots made their way into the gaps in the structures.

Ta Prohm

Monks visiting the top of 'Angkor Wat' (City of Temples)

Monks visiting the top of ‘Angkor Wat’ (City of Temples)

I think you’d have to give up around three days to properly explore the complex as just whizzing round the highlights took us eight hours! A long time when you’ve been up at 4 am!

After heading back into Siem Reap for lunch, a couple of the girls in my group and I decided to visit the local ‘Acodo’ orphanage. It was shockingly small, with just two small buildings for the 76 girls and boys to sleep in and only a couple of English classrooms. However, the people running the place seem to have a clear set of aims and objectives for the project and are doing remarkably well with the money donated to them. Again, I made a comparison in my mind – this time with ‘Goroka’ school in Papua New Guinea where the money isn’t so much the crucial issue as how it is used – with large sums frittered away on teacher’s parties and gifts etc. Here they’ve built several structures including a kitchen, water filter system, a couple of class rooms for English lessons and have separated the boys and girls dorm rooms. They also send the elder children in their free time out to the Acodo farms to learn useful farming techniques whilst helping to reap the benefits of the land to feed themselves and the rest of their fellows.

If you’re remotely interested in volunteer work in this part of the world then I really think Acodo orphanage would be a very worthwhile destination, instead of volunteering through a travel agency. They do take on volunteers on a regular basis but are often short and the results are immediately visible.

We tried to make ourselves useful by bringing along some treats and bits and bobs for the kids and helped some of the older girls to practise their English. The younger children were pretty entertained with our cameras for a while which was amusing.

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
 – Mother Teresa