The deafening quiet in the midst of a chaotic city has a profoundly moving effect on you as you walk into the The Tuol Svay Pray High School. Unlike other schools in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the sound of playing children doesn’t ring out from the gates.
40 years ago, in the year I was born - 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a secret centre of torture, interrogation and execution.
Like the Nazi’s before them, the Khmer Rouge meticulously documented their genocide; they carefully transcribed interrogations and created an incredibly haunting archive of inmates’ portraits. The photographs and confessions were collected by staff at the prison, fearing for their own lives, in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out.
Between the years 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million Cambodians. At least 16,000 went through the gates of the converted school, including women and children; it’s believed that less than 20 people survived.
S-21 is now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide.
In 1979, after the regime was removed by Vietnamese forces, two photojournalists entered S-21 to discover bloated, decomposing, tortured bodies chained to metal bed frames. The resulting photographs, which are on display, act as a stark reminder of the atrocities that happened here.
In the courtyard, the playground equipment, which was converted for torture, reveals a dark secret about the interrogators methods. The guards, interrogators and other prison staff at S-21 were generally between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. The Khmer Rouge generally discouraged torture that ended with death, this was discussed at length in a torturer's manual found at S-21.
Of the information and displays around the building, the photographic portraits are the most haunting. Each one tells a story of confusion, fear, defiance and resignation. The innocence of a child’s eyes are lost as they stare straight into the camera lens. One photograph features a shirtless young man whose number tag has been safety pinned into his pectoral muscle.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the leader Pol Pot retreated, but continued to lead the Khmer Rouge as an insurgent movement until 1997. He died in 1998 in a tiny jungle village, never having faced charges.
Like the Perm-36 Gulag camp in Siberia that closed in 1987 and the numerous sites we visited throughout the Balkans that had witnessed ethnic cleansing in the 1990’s, what is so shocking about this is the fact it all happened during my lifetime. A sobering thought.
Sadly the world has not learnt from it's mistakes… and probably never will.
The overlanding market has grown at an exceptional rate over the last 5 years and this is reflected in the increase of events being held globally. The Adventure Overland Show is the UK’s only dedicated show to cover all aspects of overlanding. It was however mostly attended by 4x4 owners and rather lacking in attendance from cyclists and motorcyclists.
Photo by Tony Borrill
We had the pleasure of giving two presentations and sitting on one discussion panel which was expertly hosted by Overland Sphere whose website and Facebook pages are fast becoming the ‘go to’ resource for overlanders.
The show featured many trade stalls and showcased numerous clubs and associations from around the UK. Mooching about the car park and admiring the extensive variety of vehicles led to meeting some interesting folk. Seemingly, the show was predominantly attended by people who’d made the first step of purchasing and prepping an overland vehicle. Most people I spoke with were in the process of planning their first trip outside of Europe, this again reflecting the recent growth within the community.
The real highlight for me though was finally meeting many of the people who have followed our adventure from its inception. We made many new friends and even found the time to interview a few of them for our Overlanding Podcast.
A great weekend, hopefully we’ll be within driving distance of it next year!
Emma and I have been talking about and planning this project for a long time, and finally, we are pleased to announce it... The Overlanding Podcast is a new series dedicated to self-reliant vehicle dependent travel. In each episode we’ll be meeting the adventurous people who have chosen to travel the world by bicycle, motorcycle, car and truck.
The format of the show will consist of 1 hour, unedited, informal “conversations” - The aim is to discover what motivates people to embark on life changing journeys, why people choose to travel in this manner and to hear some incredible stories along the way…
The podcast is recorded, researched, edited and hosted by myself and Emma. Over the coming weeks we’ve got some amazing interviews lined up with bicycle, motorbike, car and truck based overlanders. In the first episode Emma and I talk about our history and our trip.
This is obviously a new endeavour so please feel free to share it with your friends and help spread the word. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter.
If you are an overlander yourself and have an interesting story we’d love to hear from you. You can email us at email@example.com subject heading podcast interview.
Be sure to subscribe and review us on iTunes and please check out our website….
Ladies, have you ever wanted to own an outfit that seamlessly transitions from day to night?
Well, you need to move to Cambodia (or the north of England) where it is totally socially acceptable to wear your pyjamas 24/7.
The abundance of ladies in their PJ’s is astounding. At first we were bewildered, did they actually know what they were wearing? Maybe they thought they’d purchased a co-ordinating two-piece trouser/blouse combo!
Actually most Khmer ladies are fully aware that they are wearing pyjamas, but who cares? They are incredibly practical. The comfort factor plays a significant role in their nocturnal daywear. Elastic waistbands allow for a little expansion after lunch, the baggy light cotton is cool in the baking sun and Khmer woman are fairly conservative; a pair of pyjamas allows them to modestly cover up.
Pyjamas are available in a whole cornucopia of colours and designs, allowing the ladies to express their personality. Occasionally and rather ironically we’d spot Cambodia’s most stylish trendsetters parading around in the sweltering heat covered in penguins. Very occasionally we’d spot a sophisticated lady modelling colour coordinated pyjama/crash helmet chic!
Whether this colourful display is a subconscious stand against the communist Khmer Rouge who notoriously dressed all in black is not known. Either way Cambodia’s fascination with nocturnal attire is somewhat amusing but totally endearing. To be honest we are slightly envious!