Monday, 3 June 2013

Cambodia, Phnom Penh: Toul Sleng and Ecstatic Pizza

After the killing fields, we were feeling pretty somber. By the end of Toul Sleng, we’d be downright depressed.

While Choeung Ek is around 12km from the Phnom Penh, Toul Sleng sits Phnom Penh city, nearby the Olympic Stadium. 

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Arriving at the the Toul Sleng genocide museum, Al murmured, ‘it looks like a school,’ as we walked past 4-story cell blocks surrounding a central courtyard. The blocks are weathered, badly peeled, and riddled with holes, while the courtyard looked pretty well maintained. ‘What a waste’, said Al.

Doesn't look like the same compound, but it is.
The overall atmosphere is as tired and hopeless as the worn paint jobs peeling off the walls. And if that wasn’t enough, there are signs that say ‘no laughing’. I kid you not, some tourists (invariably American for some reason) managed to giggle, which probably says more about their nervousness than their sense of humor.

Don't need to read Cambodian to know what that means
An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned in Toul Sleng, including men, women and children; old and young; local and foreign; an equal opportunity hell. Unlike the killing fields however, each prisoner was carefully documented, and rows upon rows of photographs are displayed in the exhibits.

What was the guy in the bottom left smiling about?
Among the hundreds of mugshots, one stood out. It’s a picture of a man, looks about 20 or 30, with one eye. There is no story about him I can find. He stares weakly out of his one eye into the camera, and unlike so many other shots, I don’t see fear, just grim resolve.

'Do your worst, punk,' he seemed to say.
I don’t think it’s necessary to inflict the photos of dead bodies on my gentle readers, suffice to say, they’re rather gory, and you can easily find them online if you’re into that (you sick puppy you). But the gore-free holding cells are equally creepy. The wooden cells on the second floor especially.

Less light filters into the wooden cells, and the cells themselves are tightly packed to maximize holding space. In the 38 degree heat of the Cambodian afternoon, wood creaks, and standing alone in the middle of a dark claustrophobic space with knocking sounds from empty cells is unpleasant at best.

An elderly couple shuffled in and out of the cells silently.
And if an old Cambodian couple sneaks up on you, try not to scream like a little girl.

After leaving, we desperately needed a shot of happiness. And according to Trip Advisor, one of the best places to get highly happy is ecstatic pizza. (Artistic license: we actually went to a swanky restaurant called Latin Quarter, and didn’t hit Ecstatic Pizza until Siem Reap. But it makes much better story sense.)

The pizzas tasted good enough, the crust was good, the toppings generous, and the chef went a little overboard with the herbs. No pink elephants or rainbows, but certainly a few moments that made us go ‘hmm’. All washed down with a couple of banana/mango shakes. Life is a holiday again.

Things that remind you life is still a holiday.
On the way back to our hotel, a freelance prostitute grabbed our crotches a little too enthusiastically for comfort. ‘I want to make you cum’, she said, in a low hoarse voice. I still shudder thinking about it.

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