“The past is the past and it’s here to stay”

The above lines from a Nick Cave song have been haunting my mind all day. Here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I have visited both the Tuol Sleng museum of genocidal crimes and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek also 15km from Phnom Penh. This is not the place for a detailed historical reprisal of that terrible time in the 1970’s when the Khmer Rouge dominated Cambodia effectively turning the country into a giant penal colony causing the deaths of 2 million people amongst a population of 16 million.

It is a story of a communism revolution led by psychopathic, brutal leadership set amidst the destabilising Vietnam war which radicalised much of the population. The colonial background of the country as well as, strangely, royalist sympathy on the part of the Khmer Rouge added to a complex, combustible mix. But why did it become so bloody ?

The loss of morality echoes  Nazi Germany,  Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Why did the twentieth century produce such horrors? Of course technology plays a part in enabling such atrocities but there is also an appaling moral failure.

Dosteovsky, the great Russian novelist, presaged this. He writes primarily about how people justify crimes to themselves especially when timeless spiritual truths are called into question, usually amongst educated elites who consider themselves too sophisticated for such truths. His novels show this on a personal level, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov. The 20th century bares out this prophecy on a societal level.

The trip to Tuol Sleng was informative and moving. A former high school it became a murderous prison camp during the Khmer Rouge era. Thousands died here along with millions in the country as a whole. It is impossible to take it in. It’s impossible to put it in context. It’s brutal, it’s murdurous. It’s children with machine guns. It’s mass evacuation of the cities. It’s forced labour and torture.


In the afternoon I went to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. It was also very moving. This was where people were murdered and buried as quickly as possible, hundreds in a day. The killing tree is the saddest monument I have ever seen. I dont have the heart to go into it here nor did I have the heart to take a pictureof it or even to stand and look. I walked past it. I took few photos here. I had little desire to. I simply walked around feeling every step of the way.

I had concerns about engaging in disaster tourism before today but I have no concerns now. Everything was very well done, with heart and sincerety and it is so good we take the time to reflect on evil and how it can invade society.

At the end of my time in Tuol Sleng I attended some beautiful chanting. Ill leave you with that

National museum of Cambodia, Wat Ounalom and The Royal Palace

I woke early today and put my trip back on track. By which I simply mean that I accomplished my plans for the day. I went to the national museum and the royal palace. In between I purchased some books and spent many hours in bars and cafes taking an epic amount of time over coffees, teas, water snd meals.

I very much enjoyed the museum which features art from the golden khmer age right through to the present. Naturally it consists mostly of Buddhas, carved out of wood or stone. Indeed parts of rhe museum are more like a temple with offerings to the Buddha being made and “guardians” attending to them.

I must say this was entirely to my liking and added greatly to both the liviliness and beauty of the place. The courtyard too was exceptionally peaceful and felt like a much needed refuge from both the heat and the cacaphony of the street. I sat there in a peaceful stupor drinking in the tranquil morning atmosphere.20171204_085723.jpg

After the museum I went to Wat Ounalom and stopped into the temple. The monks were warm and welcoming and spoke a little English. I meditated a little in the temple just as they were having their mid day meal. It was lovely to hear their affable, happy conversations as I meditated. I am wary of projecting too much onto these monks however. I know little of their lives.

As a solo traveller I am very much at the mercy of books to keep me company and purchased some new books in a gorgeous book store just outside the monastery of Wat Ounalom. I added Steinbecks Of mice and men and Orwells Burmese days to my collection.

I have just completed Herman Hesses Sidartha and am nearing the end of Eamon Kelly’s book Irelands master storyteller. The latter deserves its own blog posting here which Ill get around to shortly but I will mention that it is a wonderful travel campanion full of humor and insight.

After lunch I went to the royal palace and had a wander around. It was a beautiful tranquil space with many beautiful buildings mixing royal symbolism and adornments with Buddhism. I imagine that after the viscious persecution of Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge the easy marriage between royalty and Buddhism is a soothing reminder of a timeless order for the average Cambodian. But I am only speculating as an outsider of course. As soon as I start speaking of “the average Cambodian ” or ” the man in the street” I have almost certainly ceased to say anything usefull and am drifting into cliche and stereotype. Here are some photos and some music I heard there also performed in the courtyard.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.

Day 2 in Phnom Penh

I slept late due to jet lag this morning and my late start upset my plans for the day. Finding the museum and royal palace closed for lunch by the time I was up and about I ended up acceding to one of the many tuk tuk drivers offering lifts around the city.

Having initially agreed to a spin to Wat Phnom and the monkey temple on the far side of the Mekong, I ended up also going to Koh dak or silk island. The whole afternoon took over 3 hours and I was pretty exhausted by the end of it and ready for dinner and a rest. Although mildly irritated not to have gone yet to the museums or palace, I did see alot of Phnom Penh today.

The first temple, Wat Phnom, was very attractive and teeming with ceremonies, chanting and tourists.

And here is an audio of the music from the temple. Very soothing and calm

The monkey temple was nice also and not too heavy with tourists although I did have kids trying to beg money from me which of course is dis-spiriting and  sad.

From there I got the ferry over to Koh dak or silk island as its known. Here I got to see some of the cottage industries and some of the farming and village life too.

As we passed my guide pointed out the China town on the distance across the Mekong. A gleaming modern construction it sat in stark contrast with the Muslim fiahing village on this side of the river.20171203_052607.jpg


This is one of the fishing boats directly above. My guide advises me they are predominantly Muslim and that they live on the boats.

Onwards then to Koh dak or silk island. It was nice to see village life but the pressure to buy was strong. This was a world apart from the main city with farming and cottage industry predominating. It was nice to see it but I was exhausted by the end of it. I eat a delicious curry and returned to my book and then the hostel. But the begging children and the desparate pressure to purchase on the island linger in my mind.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.