In the blistering heat, standing in the Choeung Ek killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia, you get a taste of what it would be like to land in hell.
Dominating the dusty site is a glass tower filled to the ceiling with the skulls of men, women and children, which were exhumed from mass graves in the area. Almost 9?000 corpses have been found here since 1980 and this surreal monument pays tribute to the victims who were murdered during the horrific rule of the Khmer Rouge army from 1975 to 1979.
Walking around the fields is a chilling experience and not for the faint-hearted — clothing and crumbling bones that have been washed up from shallow graves by rain protrude from the ground.
Two members of our tour party chose to stay on the bus, not wanting to set foot on this execution ground. Our group was a diverse lot, made up of three high-ranking tourism officials from Swaziland, Zambia and Mozambique, two South African journalists and three Vietnamese academics who had partnered with the Brenthurst Foundation. Its deputy director Terence MacNamee led the tour.
The foundation, which was set up by the Oppenheimer family in 2004, helps to formulate strategies and policies to strengthen Africa’s economic performance. On this occasion it had organised a working trip for African delegates to exchange ideas with their counterparts in Cambodia and Vietnam on developing tourism for sustainable economic growth.
Dealing with a tragic past
On the trip to the killing fields we saw first-hand how Cambodia is trying to rebuild a nation savaged by a brutal regime. You can only but admire the honest way in which the Cambodians are trying to deal with their tragic past.
The barbaric Khmer Rouge regime destroyed the lives of many people in this charming and spiritual country and killed most of the intellectuals and professionals of the period. Most families lost at least one family member and others many more, locals say. In the past few years tourism has boomed and it is all the more remarkable because the Cambodians are not hiding the truth but embracing their terrifying past by honouring the dead.
Yet ask Cambodians about how their families were affected by the Khmer Rouge and they appear to be afraid of talking openly. This is not surprising when you learn that some of the Khmer Rouge occupy key positions in the government today and, despite the fact that in the heart of bustling Phnom Penh four top Khmer Rouge officials are on trial for war crimes, fear still runs deep.
“Don’t use my name in your story if you are going to write about politics,” whispered a Cambodian who, as a child, was sent by the Khmer Rouge to a camp in the countryside. There, he said, he was made to cut grass for years, and lost many years of schooling. Asked why he and other Cambodians appeared to be so happy and how they had overcome the sadness of their past, he shook his head.
“Cambodians smile but they are hiding their pain in their hearts and the pain never goes away,” he said.
Justice at last
It felt good to know that a United Nations-backed tribunal is finally putting some of the Khmer Rouge officials in the dock, despite the fact the four who are facing charges are aged and infirm.
They range in age from 79 to 85 and are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Led by the murderous Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge
killed an estimated two million Cambodians during his five-year reign but, according to locals, the Cambodian government has hampered the trial for months.
We met Bon Meng, one of the few survivors of a torture centre set up by the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh. The wizened 70-year-old man was signing his autobiography outside the Tuol Svay Prey High School, which became the main torture and interrogation centre in Phnom Penh.
Appearing surprisingly upbeat, Meng showed us photographs of those who had not been as lucky as he was to survive the torture. Today the school is known as the Tuol Sleng Museum, or the Museum of Genocide, and tourists flock there in large numbers. Only about nine Cambodians held captive at this school are believed to have survived, simply because their skills were needed by the Khmer Rouge. Photographs of those tortured and murdered at the killing fields have been meticulously collected and put up on display.
Unlike in South Africa, where tales of heroism during apartheid abound, we heard no tales of heroic acts. Everywhere you look, you stare into the eyes of the tortured, captured on film or in paintings around the museum. But somehow this bleak former high school works as a memorial to the dead, ensuring their memories will live on.
Another victim of the Khmer Rouge we met on our trip was Vannavuth Ven, a serene woman whose hair hung down both sides of her face like a silk curtain. For a brief moment she let her guard down while she was leading our group around the collection of Khmer sculpture and art at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
Ven explained how she was forced out of school and into the countryside during the rule of the Khmer Rouge army.
“I lost my education when I had to leave Phnom Penh to go and stay in a residence for girls in the countrysides when we heard the Khmer Rouge were coming,” she said. “Please forgive my poor English.”
Ven wouldn’t say how many family members she lost during the genocide but she said she returned to the commercial centre only a few years ago when her cousin asked her if she would come back and help to look after her baby.
A new life
Although the war has left its mark, a renewal of culture and energy has taken over in Cambodia, bringing the young and old out on to the streets, day and night. Phnom Penh faces a major shortage of housing because most of its houses were damaged by the Khmer Rouge and people are now flocking back to the city.
Around the capital there are many other places of interest that don’t reveal a sinister side and are stunningly beautiful. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda is a popular tourist destination and was mainly built by the French in 1866. Opulence abounds and the Silver Pagoda is still intact, having been placed out of bounds by the Khmer Rouge, although most of the other treasures were stolen.
If you take a six-hour trip from Phnom Penh to visit the temple complex of Angkor Wat, you pass through extraordinarily green countryside and simple rural villages. Villagers might have houses but they prefer to sit on the floor instead of on chairs at tables.
Discovering Angkor, the ancient capital of the powerful Khmer Empire and one of the architectural treasures of Asia, is like finding a treasure in the middle of a forest.
The small town of Siem Reap near Angkor has shown enormous growth in tourism in recent years. It had only one traffic light when our tour guide first visited it 14 years ago. Today it is a thriving tourist hub.
Angkor is said to be the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia and, although we were travelling in the off season, the temple complex was crowded – a sign of the burgeoning tourism in the area.
A slice of Vietnam
After four days in Cambodia we flew off for a whirlwind trip to Danang in Vietnam, a good showpiece of the vast strides being made in economic development in the country.
Locals will tell you with great pride that, although most people in the area are relatively poor, the government is planning to make Vietnam a middle-income country by 2020.
In Danang and its surrounds we saw what appeared to be an explosion of tourism, with buildings going up everywhere and traffic flowing in all directions without restriction. Danang is Vietnam’s third-largest port and a trading centre where the Han River flows into the South China sea.
As in Cambodia, we put on our jackets to attend another tourism round table, set up to foster greater co-operation between these countries and those involved in tourism in Africa.
Next time I will remember to take more company cards, as I ran short after Cambodia. For every card you are given, you are expected to give yours in return.
At the workshop in Danang, the affable Professor Dr Do Duc Dinh, president of the Centre for Economic and Social Research in Vietnam and the vice-chair of Vietnam’s committee for people’s solidarity of Asia, Africa and Latin America, described how tourism was one of his country’s most important sectors, contributing to a number of factors, including economic growth.
A working strategy
“The reasons for our success include the fact we have nice tourist sites and views, rapid development of tourist services, a stable political environment, effective implementation of tourist strategy and a diversity of products,” he told the gathering.
Although Vietnam has experienced war and revolution in the past 100 years, it now appears to be undergoing a peaceful and prosperous economic revolution. Everything seems to be aimed at looking forwards, not backwards, and there has been a steady growth in tourism, with more South Africans flocking to Vietnam than ever before.
But the most exciting part was seeing the burgeoning tourism market at its best. We witnessed the tourist invasion at Hoi An, a shopper’s paradise near Danang that specialises in clothes and local art. Here you can buy anything from handbags to silk lanterns. The most impressive thing was that you can have your measurements taken and order clothing to fit all shapes and sizes from a number of seamstresses in the area.
Two members of our party were measured for jackets and silk dresses, which would be delivered to the hotel the next morning. We were very impressed when one of the ordered dresses was brought to our restaurant two hours later by a seamstress.
The dress was tried on for fit and we were given a viewing on the balcony of the restaurant, where we were eating a sublime meal of an assortment of dishes, including noodles and spicy chicken.
On the last night of our visit Dinh was wearing a hat emblazoned with the South African Communist Party logo, which had been given to him as a gift.
Friendships had been forged with our group from Africa. Below us in the streets of Hoi An tourists were swamping the streets amid the glowing lanterns.
“The surprising thing about it all is the fit,” said Dinh, raising his glass. “It is perfect, is it not?”
Vietnam was thriving, he said, largely because of the hard work, grit and determination of its people.
Glynnis Underhill travelled as a guest of the Brenthurst Foundation