Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 17: Death and Disco


I showered the sleep from my tired eyes and jumped into Pauli’s tuk-tuk which was waiting for me outside. He whisked me off to my first stop, the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum, aka S-21, a former school turned prison under the ruling of the barbaric Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. As I went to go in I was approached by a guy whose face looked like it had been melted with acid, it was a featureless puddle of muddied orange skin, swirled together in scars which looked like they’d still cause him great pain to this day. His eyes were filled with agony as he gestured towards me with his cap in hand. I dropped a few bills in it and moved along quickly. This was all the introduction I needed to a day in which vast quantities of both pain and suffering were on the menu. I walked into building A, the first floor had ten rooms, each with a rusted iron bed in the middle, some sort of container for excrement, and an array of chains or bars, differing slightly in each. These were formerly used for jailing, interrogating and torturing prisoners who were once high officials. The idea behind this genocide was to eradicate all of the educated Cambodian civilians and turn their nation into one of agriculture and submission, with no intelligent people left to lead the population away from slavery. Apparently even the slight sighted would be killed for wearing spectacles, even though we all know that despite that old stereotype, having a stigmatism is no sign of intelligence. That goes to show both the stupidity of these murderers, and their utter disregard for human life. Each room would only feature one picture, that of the decomposed body which was found there when the area was reclaimed by the resistance. They were in such bad states after being left there to rot that they were unidentifiable when discovered.

Faces or torment
The second and third floors were both split into five large rooms, with a few beds in each and a blackboard still on the wall. These were used for the same purpose as downstairs, except large groups would be gathered here. There was a sign on the bed of this former classroom which read ‘Do Not Touch’. I followed my urge and placed my hand on the frame, instantly witnessing the screams of the death and torture of hundreds of people flash through my mind in that split second, before pulling my hand away. Should’ve done what I was told. It’s not the first time I’ve thought that.

Building B was filled with photographs of the victims, looking under fed and desperately miserable at the fate they had been dealt. None of them deserved this, but like many places, even to this day, thousands of people die for no need due to the greed of their leaders. Building C comprised entirely of very simply built cells, cement and brick shoddily thrown together to create these claustrophobic sections which measured no more than three and a half feet across and had chains cemented at the ends to shackle the prisoners. You could imagine the mass wailing of forty chained people who were slowly dying, away from their families and loved ones. It was breathtakingly grim.

Building D was a whole different kettle of fish altogether, it was now used to display various pieces of artwork from local school children, all of which portrayed a future much brighter than the past that they have been born out of. My favourite piece was a painting which depicted an hour glass with missiles, grenades and barbed wire in the top half, filtering down into water with a single leaf growing out of it. In the background a young child prayed. It was titled ‘A sandglass to the future’. Let’s hope so.

To put this into perspective, approximately a quarter of the population were murdered during this period, which basically means you would be hard pushed to find somebody over the age of 35 that hadn’t lost either a friend or family member under the ruling of this barbaric regime. The youngsters I’ve met have all seemed upbeat, positive and generally happy at face value, however when you look into the eyes of the elders you often get the feeling that there is a lot of darkness behind their weathered smiles, and it is something that constantly made my heart hurt during my stay.

I left and waited for Pauli who was late to pick me up, but I ignored the advances of some other Tony that was trying to steal me away, and after ten minutes, he turned up to take me to the killing fields. On the way there, he pulled over at a shooting range and gestured for me to go inside. I am of the thinking that no human being should ever be allowed to own a gun, especially when you factor in all the drugs, alcohol, aggression and greed that play a part in our day to day lives. However, I played a lot of video games in my younger years, ranging from Goldeneye, to Call of Duty, to Grand Theft Auto, in which I must’ve shot thousands upon thousands of fake bullets, but never in the real world (unless spud guns count). Curiosity had me, and the chance to try out an AK47 saw me pulling $40 from my wallet to cover the cost of this new story in my quest for YES! I realised it was a strange mid-point during my day seeing the exact reason why guns and armies shouldn’t exist, but fuck it, I was there, I had a full clip and a target thirty feet infront of me. I let off some single shots, feeling the force of each bullet kick back against my shoulder, then switched it onto automatic and sprayed my final bullets in a matter of seconds. The guy filming asked me how it was, to which I replied “Fun. Now I never want to shoot another gun again”. The power I feel when coming off stage after doing a spoken word set to a silent room, filled with ears that hear and then cheer, surpasses that of pulling a trigger one-hundred times over. True power comes with love and is given gladly. It cannot be stolen, nor gained through fear via the barrel of a gun. The most truly powerful people throughout history have been those that share knowledge and enlighten the masses with peace, and they remain revered continuously, with people still quoting their thoughts and theories freely, because it makes sense to real life, and makes that life more bearable. Those historical characters that have used force, despite periods of power, always end up condemned for their actions, their entire existence left to fester and stink in the cess pools of time. In a world that’s constantly changing, only one of these paths is worthwhile, even if you do enjoy a spell and the top, sooner or later you will die, and then all that is left behind is the memories you instil in others. Obviously, as we all know, history is often manipulated, but even if you do manage to polish a turd it will still stink like shit.

True power lies in peace
I arrived at The Killing Fields and it was beautiful, from a distance it was just a blossoming landscape in a rural area of Phnom Penh, but when the headphones were turned on and the tour began it soon became ugly and sad. I was led around by numbered signs, walking from spot to spot and sitting to listen to the atrocities which took place. Even with the grass and greenery growing all around you could still see the signs of past terror on the ground, where bone fragments and items of clothing were scattered around, semi buried with the soil but protruding enough to make you aware that they were there. This was the spot where the prisoners from S-21 were brought to be killed off like diseased cattle, in the most efficient and cheapest ways possible. Many skulls found were cracked from blows with axes and hoes, headless skeletons were grouped in mass graves, hundreds at a time, and blood stains still remain on the floor as throats cut with jagged saw-like leaves from trees would have dropped victims to their knees. Death was everywhere. The worst point for me was the killing tree, where soldiers would take the children of the prisoners by the legs, swinging them head first into it to kill or badly injure them, then tossing them into a nearby pit, one by one. The most precious possession of each parent, left as wasted scraps of worthless life. It’s unthinkable to us uninformed westerners, but whilst we were dancing to the early sounds of disco, this was happening on the other side of the globe.
The Killing Tree
The tour concluded at a building which was erected in more recent years to commemorate those lost, and it held many of their recovered remains. On each tier sat hundreds of skulls, assorted bones, and the clothes of the victims. As shocking a sight as it sounds, I was so numb by this point that it didn’t really faze me, the tears had been and gone, and like the beautiful people of Cambodia, I was moving on.
Just as the body is destined to perish, the spirit will never die...

I arrived back at my hostel, threw twelve bucks at Pauli and thanked him, then arranged for him to take me to the airport the next day. I dove into the pool, then swam into the evening, sitting and writing a while whilst the staff set up for a pool party that they were hosting. The manager, an American guy named Eric, told me it was the biggest night in Phnom Penh and would be pumping. I was sceptical to say the least. What with the events of my day, I wasn’t in the mood to party at all, I just wanted to catch up with some work and get a good sleep so I was well prepared for the arrival of my sweetheart the following evening. Then the music started. Hip hop and funk classics were shaking the walls of my room as I wrote, and after an hour I gave up, showered, then went downstairs. There was one person staying there who I’d met briefly in Vang Vieng. Her name was Hannah and she was friends with the other Dion I’d met. She was playing pool with some other early arrivals, so I went and befriended them and stuck my name on the board to play. Over the course of the next hour the place turned from the equivalent of a sedated school disco into a wild party at the playboy mansion. By the time the main DJ, some guy from San Francisco, got spinning it was popping off big time, there must have been about two hundred party people in the place, off their face, dancing wildly, diving fully clothed into the pool, or simply playing pool with me and our new gang. I ended up playing all night, on and off, it was not like I had friends to dance with, nor the need to try and pick up some skirt, so pool seemed the best bet to escape boredom. It was pretty great fun to be fair, bantering and teaming up with both locals and fellow travellers, chatting and getting progressively more inebriated as time went by. Before I knew it, the music was over, and I spent a while hanging with my two remaining pals, Denny from Holland, and Simone from Italy. When one of the locals asked us out for more drinks, we all declined, but something inside felt wrong, so after a few seconds discussion, we all changed our minds. I got chatting to Randy, a fellow Freewheeler from Australia who worked at the hostel and convinced him to show me what Phnom Penh was all about. Whilst devising a plan I got chatting to one of the other managers, a fifty-something Liverpuddlian wide-boy by the name of Anthony, who wouldn’t stop going on about how ‘Cambodia rocks’. I challenged him to show us why, and we headed out with a few of his young staff, Nob, Tona and Randy, along with Denny and Simone.

I had about $10 on me, and the rest of us had the same or less, but it didn’t matter because Anthony was on a big boy buzz and said he’d get the drinks in. “Watch and learn” he exclaimed, as we entered his chosen destination, The Rose Garden, a bar full of working girls and very few guys. I watched from close distance, sipping my free beer, as Anthony was seemingly rejected by every prostitute in the place. It was astonishing. They treated him like his breath smelt of death and they were all rich. It was unimaginable in this kind of environment, or so I’d have thought until seeing it for myself. The rest of us weren’t digging it at all. We wanted to dance, so we managed to drag the money man away from the uninterested brasses and hopped into a tuk-tuk, which took us to a club called Pontoon. This place was kicking, Kanye blasting out from the speakers as we bowled in, ready to move. Anthony got me another drink, followed me to the dance-floor, and then vanished almost immediately. Perhaps the less obvious hookers there had yet to bear witness to whatever it was that soured the mouths of the girls in the last joint. Regardless, we remaining lads all got bopping, shaking down the dance floor as the DJ played an array of genres with no coherency from track to track, the tunes were all decent though and no one seemed to mind. As the last song, ‘I can’t wait’ by Nu Shooz, faded out we gathered our gang and left, except for Simone, who was chatting to a pretty, local girl. It was his birthday, so we left him to it, and shot off back to the Eighty8 without him. Five minutes later as we sat back smoking in the closed bar, he turned up and we asked what happened. He said that the girl wanted money to come back with him, and he wasn’t willing to pay for sex. Out of curiosity, I asked how much she wanted, and he replied “Five dollars”. I don’t know what was more shocking, the ridiculously low figure she had priced her company at, or the fact that our man thought he was gonna get a free fuck at 5am, from a Cambodian chick. Still, I respected his reluctance to pay when he was quite clearly attractive enough to not have to, a stance which I also share. On the other hand, I’ve spent more money than that on a bag of sweets at the cinema, and I didn’t get to ejaculate into it after.

We were all starving, so I went out on the hunt for food and found a little old lady selling bowls of noodles on the street. It was all that was on offer, so I purchased her watery concoction with the odd bits of mystery meat thrown in, and shared it out amongst the three of us in a vain attempt to counteract the booze. The new people that had moved into my dorm for the night were already awake and getting ready to leave. I wished them safe travels, took a shower, nearly slipping over in the process, then drunkenly fell into bed by 7am. I had to check out at 12. Fuck.

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