At dawns first light we step out into the streets and are immediately offered tuk tuk services. Eager drivers line the street and upon refusal of one we are immediately offering another, and another. Every five to ten meters we are called to despite them having seen us turn down previous offers. I find it difficult to turn away and ignore them as most other tourists do and I find myself smiling and politely declining each and every one, with Julians comical remark thrown in here and there for good measure. It is certain that at this time of year tuk tuks' outnumber the tourists and securing a job becomes a far more urgent and pressing matter for them which I quickly found overwhelming.
Upon entering the grounds a memorial stupa reached skyward. Glass sided, displaying platforms of human skulls, bones and clothing which had been found at this site as the mass graves were excavated and the ground has eroded away with the rains in the intervening years. We were asked to make a donation to receive an offering of flowers and incense in memory of the souls lost here. I felt it to be a strange way to enter the site at the moment. I had little idea of the horrors that occurred here and felt it would be much more appropriate to be approached with this upon parting. Still, incense and fresh cut flowers in hand we stood before the piles of bones in silence and payed our dutiful respects.
Our audio guide showed us our way around the site filling our ears with information on how the compound had appeared during the brutal regime along with testimonials from some of the survivors. Immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War in 1975 the Cambodian people embraced their new leaders, the Khmer Rouge, looking forward to a new life free of a civil war that had lasted five years. Instead, mass evacuations drove the people from their homes, emptying the cities into the countryside. Here they were forced to start their lives anew by building huts in the jungle and forced into labour camps where they worked 12 - 14 hours per day on one or two bowls of watery rice soup per day, all for the benefit of Angka - The Organization. The Khmer Rouge arrested anyone suspected of connections with the former government as well as professionals, intellects and those wearing glasses. They were driven to more than 350 "Killing Fields" across Cambodia for mass executions. Families in work camps died of starvation, exhaustion and disease whilst dealing with the daily terrors of brutal beatings and rape. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot has been described as 'the Hitler of Cambodia'. Killing Fields such as the this one are found all over the country amounting to approximately 20,000 mass graves sites where an estimated 1.7 million people (almost 30% of the population) lost their lives.
Evenings were spent with cans of beer or glasses of wine and nice food on his balcony. It was a strange perspective and very difficult for me to get my head around. The disparity between the beggars and street vendors was so marked there was a certain amount of guilt in accepting his offer. Only one night ago we were in a tiny closet hotel room. The widow of our neighbours were so close we could have passed them a cup of sugar and we couldn't help but notice their bare, board floors whilst they lay upon tables to sleep. Outside, two men shared a tuk tuk as a home, hammocks strung up over the passenger compartment. Beside them a mans bed was the seat of his motorbike and half a block away the trishaw drivers too, slept in their vehicles, grouped together for security and company. Families slept on the streets struggling to feed their children. Now, here was I, sitting on a balcony, glass of wine in hand overlooking 90 people participating in a nightly two hour aerobics class on the shores of the Mekong, music blaring from large speakers (which occurs twice daily, 5am and 5pm, right outside the bedroom window waking us without fail every morning). It was an enjoyable, entertaining way to spend the evening but it was such a bizarre contrast to the first few days in the city and this new perspective was a surreal reality check.