The Library

The Library
The Library, a photo by alison lyons photography on Flickr.

You know that classic shot that everyone takes of Angkor Wat? The one with the main temple reflected in the lake with the sun rising in the background? ... well this isn't it. This is what you would see if you turned your back to the sunrise.

I have been fortunate enough to have visited Angkor Wat twice now and I am still in awe. This building is one of the library buildings. It probably didn't house much in the way of manuscripts, but was more likely a place of rest and solitude for the monks.

It is hard to convey the scale of Angkor to anyone who hasn't been there. This building is one of two that are all but lost in the vast outer courtyard of the Angkor Wat complex.

Looking at the photo now, I wonder why I didn't climb up and look inside. I didn't last I was there either.

The lure and promise of the main temple is so seductive that this little temple is quickly left behind.

Angkor Wat itself is just one of the temples of the Angkor region that covers an area of 400 km2. The architecture dates from the 9th to the 15th centuries and is now protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

The Suite Balcony with Ancient bed

OK, so I have to admit, the ONLY reason I booked this hotel was for the "Ancient Bed" ... I mean, how could I resist the description "The Suite Balcony with Ancient Bed" and the opportunity to enjoy "a goblet of cocktail drink" on the balcony after a hard day's touring of Angkor Wat.

I suspect the bed wasn't actually that ancient. Call me a cynic, but I think it had been carved relatively recently. It was tremendously comfortable... and just a little bit romantic don't you think?

A monk's progress

We got pretty excited the first few times we saw monks in Cambodia, with their orange robes they made such wonderful photographic studies. By the time we left Laos, however, we had seen so many we'd ceased to photograph them.

Cambodian Cook-out

We saw this on the corner of a busy street in Phnom Penh... just off Sisowath Quay. It was late afternoon, and there weren't many people around... just lots of traffic... I guess they were expecting a crowd to turn up for dinner.

Happiness is a cyclo ride

We spotted these three little cuties as we were sitting outside a restaurant in Phnom Penh... they spotted us too and waved back.


FREEDOM, a photo by alison lyons photography on Flickr.

ree·dom /ˈfrēdəm/


1. The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
2. Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.

Inside S21 the Khmer Rouge held their fellow citizens captive, while little birds were free to flit on the bars of the cells, a glimmer of life on the outside, but no glimmer of hope.


Novice, a photo by alison lyons photography on Flickr.

A young monk attends a religious ceremony at Choeung Ek Memorial, outside Phnom Penh.


“You’re going to Cambodia?” Maria exclaimed. “You must go visit my friend Simon. He has a restaurant called ‘The Livingroom’... its in Phnom Penh.”

I made a note of the name on my iphone, along with other details... Simon’s partner Sophie. Something to do with the Hotel Combodiana... Maria was babbling away amicably, as she always does.

I told Maria that I had already booked our accommodation and assured her we would seek out ‘The Livingroom’. Maria can be very forceful. She is Filipino, married to an anglo and imports gourmet foods from around the world, and specifically SE Asia. We are customers of hers and have known her for years. Maria is a good saleswoman, open and chatty, and always makes us feel like we are long lost friends. I wonder exactly how much of a friend Simon is... after all, she refers to me as ‘her good friend’ as well.

Months later in Phnom Penh we decide to seek out The Livingroom. It has been recommended by another acquaintance as well, but they, and Maria, were sketchy on the address.

Our Tuktuk driver weaves us through the busy streets and we make our way to Street 222. Unlike New York, the numbered streets in Phnom Penh dont seem to follow any kind of numerical sequence. The street before 222 is 214 and the one after is 228. It doesn’t matter because our driver doesn’t have any more of a clue on how to find the Livingroom than we do.

We travel up and down 222 several times to no avail. I suggest to our driver that he asks someone, but the ability of men to ask for directions seems to have evaded this culture too. Eventually he concedes and asks a fellow Tuktuk driver. After much discussion and waving of hands... mine included, we discover The Livingroom on street 306, about 10 streets further away.

It is an oasis. Shady gardens surrounding an elegant French villa. A soft spoken waiter directs us to a table on the first floor on a wide open balcony. We sink into blue and white cushions on white cane armchairs and study the menu. We are somewhere between lunch and dinner, but have lost all sense of time. Ceiling fans whir gently above us.

I mention Simon’s name to the waiter. It is a tenuous connection and I am half hoping that Simon is not available.

“I am sorry.” He apologies. “Simon is not coming to the restaurant today..”

“Its OK.” I respond. “He is just a friend of a friend.”

We order Soy Chai Lattes and Fish Cakes and spicy Sping Rolls and enjoy the tranquility of our surroundings.

Sometime later the waiter informs me that Simon’s business associate is downstairs. I thank him, but we decide not to make contact. The connection has almost disappeared.

We are loathed to leave the peace and quiet of this lovely villa, but there is still so much we have to see in Phnom Penh... there is a river cruise and dinner. And probably another visit to the FCC for a late cocktail.

Just as we are leaving the garden, I see a young woman sitting at a table. She is slim, attractive and dressed very neatly in black, a laptop and a pile of paperwork spread out across the table. I hesitate.

“Are you Sophie?” I ask.

“Yes.” she says.

“I am a friend of Maria’s, from Sydney. She recommended the Livingroom to us.”

She smiles warmly. And we chat enthusiastically about our travels and Cambodia and Maria. And I am glad. The next time I see Maria, I can tell her I’ve met Sophie.

Who is 408?

Who is 408?
Who is 408?, a photo by alison lyons photography on Flickr.

Faces on the wall

We spill out of the taxi at the Genocide Museum. It is uncomfortably hot.

“How long should we stay here?” we ask our driver. He shrugs. “Its up to you.” he says. He points to a shady spot up the road. “I will wait there for you.” He gestures with his head.

As I approach the ticket office, a man looms in front of me, his face, hideously disfigured... from I can’t imaging what. I turn away, completely confronted. I have never see such deformity. I don’t know what to think. The moment is quickly suppressed from my memory as I focus on what lay ahead.

Inside the gates, the “prison” surrounds three sides of an open courtyard. There is little shade and so we head for the nearest building. This used to be the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, but was converted to a prison during the “reign” of Pol Pot.

The first room I enter is strangely familiar. I have seen photos of it, so the scene comes as no surprise. Images from this prison were featured in the 1992 Ron Fricke film “Baraka”, and it is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. The cheery yellow and white tiled floor was a happy legacy of its schooltime days. The lonely metal bed complete with shackles now a reminder of the horror of its more recent history.

Perhaps because of the confines of the walls, I find this place more disturbing than the killing fields. Perhaps because I find torture so much more disturbing than death. Perhaps because it it is easier to visualise what took place here... or perhaps it is the neverending wall after wall of photos. Photos of real people who were brought here, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured before being carted off in trucks to Cheung Ek to be killed, en masse.

There is one room after another, each one with a bed frame, perhaps a desk, perhaps an instrument of torture. On one wall of each “classroom” is a different photo. Taken by Ho Van Tay, a Vietnamese combat photographer who was the first media person to document Tuol Sleng to the world. The photos are a grisly portrayal of the tortured bodies shackled to the beds.

On the balcony outside, a sparrow flits from wire to wire. Barbed wire that was erected to keep the prisoners in.

We make our way to the second school building. This one was converted into cells. Where the “prisoners” were held captive for months on end.

Beyong the cells, there are rooms and rooms lined with photos. Each prisoner was photographed on arrival. The Khmer Rouge required that the prison staff make a detailed dossier for each prisoner. The original negatives and photographs were separated from the dossiers in the 1979–1980 period and most of the photographs remain anonymous today. Nameless faces. Wall after wall. There is a face of a little girl. She must be about 4 years old. She looks sweet, and of course, innocent of any political crime. The faces stare back. One man appears deranged with terror, the whites of his eyes circling his dark eyes as they nearly pop out of his head. His mouth is a grimace. He must know what fate lies before him. So many people, so many women, so many children. I looked into the eyes of many of the victims to try and see what emotions they may have been experiencing when photographed. Most seem detached and resigned to an unknown fate. A few seem terrified. Not as many as I expected. It beggars belief.

There is a sign on the wall. It is a diagram of a smiling man with red line slashed through it indicating that it is prohibited to smile or make jokes here. I wonder at the need to erect such a sign.

Tuol Sleng Prison

Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.

Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months. However, several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer. Within two or three days after they were brought to S-21, all prisoners were taken for interrogation. The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors.

When prisoners were first brought to Tuol Sleng, they were made aware of ten rules that they were to follow during their incarceration. What follows is what is posted today at the Tuol Sleng Museum; the imperfect grammar is a result of faulty translation from the original Khmer:

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.


On the road to Sieam Reap

I shot this out of the car window somewhere between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia. Not really typical of the landscape, but interesting none the less.

A dark place

A dark place
A dark place, a photo by alison lyons photography on Flickr.

Formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, named after a Royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. Although the official reason for their arrest was "espionage", these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners' families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination center.

In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People's Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.



Skulls, a photo by alison lyons photography on Flickr.

Skulls on display at Choeung Ek Stupa at the killling fields outside Phnom Penh. On some of the skulls you can see the marks where the victims were bludgeoned to death... to avoid wasting bullets.

Choeung Ek Stupa

The Stupa at Choeung Ek (the killing fields) houses some of the bones of the 9,000 people who were killed at this site. Built as a memorial to the thousands of people who died here. There are over 5,000 skulls on display, arranged according to age and sex.