Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A harrowing day out

Last time I visited Cambodia I didn't get much beyond the 15th century when retracing its history, with the exception of a small shrine I came across housing jawless skulls and other assorted bones. This time around there was no hiding from the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime, with the country's biggest Killing Fields memorial and execution centres just a short drive from Phnom Penh.

I'd been looking forward to visiting these places, partly out of a sense of obligation to spare a thought for the very unfortunate but also, admittedly, because I wanted to see what lengths they'd gone to in jazzing things up for the sake of tourism. It's impressively plain.

While Seoul's Seodaemun Prison combines wax dummies with Halloween sound effects to help visitors imagine what being water-boarded might have felt like, and Hanoi's Hoa Lo Prison distracted me with its blatant propaganda and covert anti-American sentiments, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields have been left pretty much as they were found by the Vietnamese invaders, albeit with most of the dead stuff tidied away.

Choeung Ek

The mass graves at Choeung Ek have only been disturbed when necessary, meaning there are still plenty of bones beneath the soil in those utilitarian holes, which occasionally pop up to the surface following rainfall. I kept an eye out for teeth and other relics that I could report to the staff, until I realised what a morbid magpie I was being and concentrated on my relevant audiobook instead.

Rather than screening an arty film montage set to sad violin music and narrated by a Morgan Freeman sound-alike, visitors are provided with an audio guide that dispenses academic background information on various points around the site, most of which would otherwise appear to be unremarkable foliage without the hellish context. I waved it away when it was offered at the entrance, assuming it was an add-on that would break my budget as I was planning to swot up on Wikipedia later, but it was included in the $5 entry fee and also meant there weren't any tour guides swarming around like mosquitoes, which I'd normally expect at a major tourist spot like this. It says a lot about my experienced cynicism of South East Asia that I was surprised to see this level of respect.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

I took photos of this sinister looking building from various imposing angles before I realised it actually doesn't look any different to other buildings of its age in this city, I was just projecting my feelings onto it like you would when shown a photo of Baby Hitler. This was borne out when I read that the S-21 prison was originally a school. I wonder which incarnation was worse, eh kids? It was the prison, clearly. By miles. Are you insane?

Just like Choeung Ek, the scenes are presented straight and stark, with no parental advisory labels warning of the sudden shift from ID photos of prisoners to images of the dead and dying. About the only concession to sentimentality is a focus on children in both these sites, which might be the extra emotive push needed to make some people care. There are doubtless still a few desensitised tourists who routinely watch gore videos online and find it hard to empathise with something that only affected brown people living far away, who mainly visited to get an excited photo of themselves appearing to hold a skull through repeated attempts at getting the camera angle right, but fortunately I didn't see any of those people today. Or they were just keeping quiet.

Because I'm a human being, and maybe because my emotions have been reawakened recently, I was affected by my genocide tour, though not as much as the distraught young boy being cradled by his mother as he vomited outside the gates (show off!) But I was also impressed, after being reminded of Cambodia's relentless hassle yesterday, to see the government and travel companies not going to extremes to milk their country's upsetting past. It was great value too, and I forgot how satisfying it can be to haggle prices for hotel rooms and tours down to almost offensive levels, remembering that these drivers need to earn a living and always being sure to tip. I like a bargain but I'm not a prick.

Maybe that's the secret to avoiding stress and irritation when getting pestered by taxi drivers and other salespeople all day and night: maybe you just need to want what they're offering, so you can feel the satisfaction of good value. So next time I walk down a street I'll accept every offer of a taxi, meal and sexy massage I receive until I'm dizzy, gorged and remorsefully satisfied, all for a nice price.


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