Posted by: powellpjc | August 23, 2012

A Side Trip to Cambodia

To stay in Thailand any length of time (over 30 days) requires some forethought. In Canada one can apply for a 6 month stay in the Kingdom and like many other countries, if one is over a certain age, e.g. 55, 60 years—depending on country, one may apply for a ‘retirement’ or ‘white-haired’ visa which means indefinite stay with certain restrictions. For instance, you cannot work. Whoa.

Applying from Malaysia, I initially received a 3 month visa and was able to extend it for one more month whilst in country. My 4 months were up so I had to leave the country and I did. I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia by air. A guy could sail, but the coastline of Cambodia is a large mangrove swamp and enough of that, already.

So, Phnom Penh.

I’ve read some history. I knew about S 21. I knew about Mr. Pot and Ankor Wat but a guy still likes to put eyeballs on the ground. And I wanted to see the Mekong River. Oh, yah, and get a new 3 month visa.

There are more motoscooters than cars in Phnom Penh (PP). There is no public (civic) transportation.

No motor but she has plenty of mojo.

She’s selling some sort of dried sea critter. Give me a shrimp, already.

There are, however, tuk-tuks, the odd taxi and a 2-up ride on a scooter. I tried them all and the tuk-tuk was to my liking. Slow enough to see things passing by, apparently safe enough due the enclosure and the drivers sort of know where they are going.

The universal tuk-tuk. A simple scooter with a trailer hitch and room for at least 4 passengers, but not much oomph. Fine by me.

Not all passenger conveyances are motorized. Notice the umbrella handle over the back wheel? That’s the hand brake.

I stayed at a downtown hotel, usually full with Vietnamese group tourists. The placard beside each elevator door read, ‘No Gun, No Dog, No Spitting’. No real hardship for me. The ambient cigarette smoke was tough, though.

The visa process took 3 days. So, what to do?

I wanted to swim in the Mekong. I have a thing about swimming in famous rivers. When I was motorcycling I swam in the Mighty Mississippi, the muddy Missouri, the Powder River, Wyoming (where the first cattle from Texas were driven to start the grasslands beef trade), the Wind River, the Rio Grande, the Little Big Horn, the Arkansas. The famous Lady Albany in Ontario and a hell of a lot of others. Usually for the historical sake, mostly because I’m a bid odd.

One look at the Mekong struck it from my list. Muddy, cement embankments, no place to get in or out and just no appeal. It remains an important river in history but Pete Powell ain’t getting his hairs wet there.

Kurtz was up this river somewhere. But this is as close as I got to the mighty and muddy Mekong.

Small shops abound, selling the usual. The architecture is late Soviet block-buildings. Square and uninteresting. The temples and shrines have the only interesting and colourful features and were very impressive.

The National Museum. But when you’ve seen one grey Buddha or grey clay Vishnu, well you’ve pretty much seen all you need to see.

Some very nice ornamental gates.

But I guess I wanted to get a handle on what happened 22 odd years ago when the teacher, Pol Pot and his gang of Kymer Rouge thugs went amok. You know the history. I went to S 21 just to see.

And some not so ornamental gates. This is the infamous S 21 prison now turned into genocide museum.

S 21 was an elementary school converted into a jail/holding tank/torture chamber of 3, 3 story buildings. The innocent, the guilty, the unaware, the unlucky ended up there to confess their ‘crimes’. 20,000 entered and 7 remained alive in S 21 when the ‘Army of Liberation’—the Vietnamese, imperialists in their own right—forced out the remaining Kymer Rouge. They weren’t killed in S 21 intentionally, although many died of the torturing. After ‘confessions’ the prisoners were marched off 15 km to the Killing Field, a mass grave. I chose not to go there.


One block held prisoners chained to a mattress-less spring bed, alone in a cement room. Leg irons. A .50 cal ammo box served as toilet. One bowl for the daily feeding. There might be a grain of rice in the soup broth. These rooms were the torture chambers. Paintings of fingers being amputated with pliers; whippings; electric shock treatment to any and all parts of the body.

Leg irons and not much else. Just lie around and wait for the next round.

The torture was too much for many.

Another block held the prisoners waiting for their round of hell. Tiny wooden cells with no bed. Ammo box and bowl. The balconies where the prisoners were taken out for punishment were barbed-wired completely to prevent suicide jumpings.

The wooden holding cells.

With barbed wire everywhere, no chance to jump and get it over with.

An especially gruesome device was the schoolground swing apparatus. There, the swings were removed but the hooks remained. The unfortunates were shackled, hands behind back, hoisted up and left until unconsciousness. Then, they were lowered into a bucket of sewage for revival and repeat.

The ‘Gallows’,but not for hanging. For torture.

House rules, part I.

Part II.

Photos were taken (before) of all the unfortunates.

For some, this was sweet release.

When I left the S 21 and the souvenir shops I saw two old boys sitting at tables signing books. They were two of the seven that survived. I didn’t have the guts or the heart to talk to them.

I guess Cambodia has recovered some. I’m never going back.



  1. Another compelling piece of writing and this time not even about boats or sailing. Cambodia. It summons up black thoughts for those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam war and its collateral damage. Thanks for sharing your visit. Your response to this visit is likely to be my own. I’m never going. Much less back.

  2. Good to see your still out there. I enjoy your blog very much.I appreciate your incites into what your experiencing on your travels. Bravo. Keep it up. Fair winds Peter Steve Richards

  3. Disturbing images.I can feel the quiet that must have taken hold as you toured this haunted piece of history. I will never journey there I’m sure. xo to you.

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