Interrogation and Torture

The first building we visited in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is the southernmost building called Building A. Right outside the building, the first thing we saw was the courtyard that was turned into a small gravesite. There were 14 tombs there for the victims whose bodies were found in Building A when the prison was discovered.

The former high school was converted by the Khmer Rouge into an interrogation center and prison in 1975, but it was kept a secret to the outside world, and it was not discovered until 1979 when the Vietnamese Army came to liberate the city of Phnom Penh. The classrooms in Building A were converted into interrogation and torture rooms. The rooms were emptied out, and in place there was a metal bed frame with car batteries, and some metal instruments used for torture in each of the room. When the Vietnamese Army first discovered the prison, in the rooms they also found the bodies of the victims. You could see the grisly black and white photo of what the room was like when it was first discovered on the wall of each room. Thankfully the photo prints were old and not crisp, but enough to give the visitors idea of how horrific it was finding out about the atrocities done in this place. I think the image of the interrogation room with its checkered floor tiles, metal frame and torture instruments in the middle of the room, and the black and white photograph on the wall would be one I always remember and it’s the first one that comes to my mind when I hear the name Tuol Sleng mentioned.

Right outside building A, there was a wooden bar that was used for physical education exercise back when this was a school. The Khmer Rouge turned it into another instrument of torture; it was used as a gallows. A person would be tied on a rope and hung upside down on this gallows, and told to confess until he/she lost consciousness from being upside down. Then the person's head would be lowered down into a big jar filled with dirty water and fertilizer so the prisoner would regain consciousness and the interrogation would continue. As I read the description of this torture and interrogation process, I couldn’t help thinking how human creativity could be used for evil. We often celebrate the human ingenuity and creativity to accomplish something using little resources or repurposing an instrument for other use. Here’s an example of doing so for the worst possible reasons.

I took the photo below as I walked through the Building A of Tuol Sleng. It’s interesting that from photography standpoint, these classrooms turned torture chambers with bedframes and torture equipment in the middle of the rooms were nicely lighted with sunlight through their windows, so you could take great photographs of them. I just can't imagine what it’s like to be the Vietnamese photographer who came here, saw the scenes, and took the photographs that were shown on the wall. Often time photographers say that their style is ‘photojournalistic’ as they take the photos that record the moments as they happen. Well, this takes ‘photojournalism’ to a different level…

Interrogation and torture room

Irreverent Tourists

When visiting any new place or meeting people, it’s important to be aware of the background context and the local etiquette. As a guest, you want to show the proper respect for your host and the place you’re visiting, especially those that are historical in nature. Sometimes there are tourists who are ignorant or very arrogant when they’re interacting with the locals or visiting important places, that they leave bad impression and become poor representation of the country they came from.

When we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we observed some of these irreverent tourists. As we were getting ready to tour the grounds, we saw a big tourist group arriving. The group was led by a tour guide who provided information to his group in a language that Kristi and I recognized.. Indonesian. Kristi and I decided to stand near the group huddle to listen to the guide talking while we’re taking photos of the surrounding areas.

From the information given by the tour guide and the comments that some of the tourists made, it was pretty clear to us that many in this tour group did not know about Tuol Sleng and its significance. One of the tourists even loudly made a sarcastic, ignorant comment about how smart the Cambodians were for charging money and making profits from such a rundown ‘tourist attraction.’ Several others were talking and laughing loudly, oblivious to the posted sign with an image asking the visitors to be reverent given the context of what had happened at the place we’re visiting. Some others would go into the rooms that were the interrogation and torture rooms, talked loudly, and had photos taken with smiles as if they were standing in front of something scenic.

Kristi and I didn’t say anything and we slowly moved away from this group as we didn’t want to be associated with them. It’s sad, but that day I felt embarrassed to be an Indonesian after seeing the behavior of these tourists.

The photo below was taken at the grounds of Tuol Sleng not far from where the tourist group was gathering and being very obnoxious. The sign was in Khmer, but anyone could see from the picture that they asked visitors to be reverent to honor those who perished at this place.

No smile sign

Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is located in the Northwest corner of Wyoming and a little bit into Idaho and Montana. It is the first national park ever established in the world in 1872. The park is known for its wildlife (including bison, elk, deer, moose, pronghorn, coyote, wolf, grizzly bear, black bear, mountain lion, eagle, osprey, and many more) and the geothermal features (geysers, mud pots, hot springs, including the famous Old Faithful geyser). This park also has many other features that makes it a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts — forests, mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, canyons, waterfalls.

I visited Yellowstone as part of a road trip to Wyoming along with a visit to the Grand Teton National Park nearby. Yellowstone National Park area is quite large that we decided to cover different areas of the park on each of the two days that we spent in the area. The first day we covered the western part of the park, driving north all the way to Mammoth Hot Springs area (about 51-mile drive). The second day, we covered the eastern part of the park to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area, and then drove back in a loop through the Old Faithful area. We did see some of the major features like the Old Faithful Geyser, the Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, but during the two days we could only do mostly driving around with occasional stops to visit overlooks and sights.

From wildlife viewing perspective, we were so excited to see a herd of bison not long after we entered the park, but by the middle of our first day, the bison were seen everywhere (including some that caused traffic jam as they walked on the road and took their time with a long line of tourists waiting). It’s hard to believe that the bison once roamed around everywhere all over United States (numbered between 25-60 millions by estimates at one point), but in the 19th century they were hunted to almost extinction. The herd in Yellowstone National Park was the last free ranging bison herd in the United States, and at one point there were only 23 of them left. Now there are about 3,700 of them in the park, a testament of how the National Park helped bringing back the bison from endangered species status.

We also saw one black bear from a distance, several herds of elk, and a couple of moose. Unfortunately we did not see any grizzly bear or other animals that you probably have better chance of encountering when you go on a hike into the forest trails. The coolest wildlife encounter was one that was totally unexpected. When we were driving back towards Jackson Hole after dark on the second night, at one point we noticed an animal walked across the road in the distance. We slowed down and stopped, and when we looked to the side of the car, we saw a wolf pausing after crossing the road and looking at our car. For a few moment, we just looked at wolf in awe, and before we could get our cameras to take a snapshot, the wolf continued its trek and disappeared into the darkness.

The photo below was taken near the Mammoth Hot Springs at the north part of the park. You could see part of the geothermal features nearby, and in the distance you can see the resort area in the valley and the wide open country in the background.

Yellowstone Country near Mammoth Hot Springs

Grand Teton

Grand Teton National Park is located on the Western part of Wyoming. Its main features are the picturesque mountain peaks, the nearby Snake River area, its many lakes, and the wildlife that include the elk, bison, and moose. Most visitors stay at the nearby town of Jackson Hole that is also known as a ski destination during the winter time. Yellowstone National Park is less than an hour north of the Grand Teton.

I visited the Grand Teton as part of a road trip to check out both this park and Yellowstone. We stayed in Jackson Hole, and did a river sightseeing trip on the Snake River (much tamer alternative to whitewater rafting). We were able to observe some wildlife (birds) and enjoyed the scenery from the river. We also drove around the park on the way to Yellowstone – stopping by to see some of the lakes with pristine water that you could see reflection of the mountain on the water and the pebbles at the bottom of the lake. And near sunset, we saw a herd of elk out in the distance.

The photo below was taken around sunset from an overlook where you could see the mountains in the distance and the Snake River meandering in front. This is a classic photograph that must have influenced many shots and landscape drawings; I remember when I was little, in the art class drawing mountains included the meandering river coming from the distance.

Grand Teton

Zion

Zion National Park is located in Southwestern Utah, close to the Nevada and Arizona borders. The main feature of this park is the Zion Canyon, a canyon 15 miles long and up to half mile deep, surrounding by large sandstone mountains. At the end of the Zion Canyon, there is the Zion Narrows, a gorge that at one point is as narrow as 20 feet wide but 2,000 feet tall. The east entrance to the park goes through the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which is a winding road that cuts through rocky surroundings and then descends into the canyon.

The first time I visited Zion was during a weekend road trip with my brother when we went from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon National Park, and continued north to southern Utah to visit Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Parks. The drive through the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway was interesting enough, not knowing what to expect to see when started descending into the Zion Canyon. That’s when we were awestruck seeing the tall mountains around us (and realizing how small we were in comparison). We parked our car at the Visitor Center and took the shuttle bus to the Zion Canyon (that’s the only motorized vehicle allowed into the canyon). At one point of the ride, our driver slowed down and pointed us to a vertical cliff of one of the mountains. There were two specs in the middle — a couple of mountain climbers on their way up. They had been climbing since the day before, and it would take them at least another day to reach the top.

The photo below was taken during my second visit to Zion on another road trip with two of my cousins. We stopped after driving down the canyon on the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway to pause and enjoy the scenery around us. On this photo you could see my cousin in the bottom middle part of the photo looking at the mountains around him. He’s about 5’6″ in height, but in this photo he looked quite small in comparison to the surrounding mountains.

Zion National Park

Grand Canyon

One national park in the United States that is among the most well-known is the Grand Canyon National Park. Located in Northern Arizona, it is a canyon carved by the Colorado River since over 17 million years ago, exposing layers of rock that tell the earth’s geological history from over two billion years ago. The Grand Canyon is 227 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and over one mile deep. It is considered as one of the world’s natural wonders.

The first time I visited the Grand Canyon was during the time I was working on a project for a regional hospital in the Navajo Indian Reservation about one hour north east of the Grand Canyon. One day I decided to leave work early and on my way back to Phoenix, I took a detour into the park. I remembered the first time I saw the canyon after driving on flat lands for a while. I’ve seen photos and TV programs on Grand Canyon before, but nothing compared to seeing it with my own eyes. It’s one of those sights that just took my breath away and all I could say was ‘wow.’ Since then, I’ve been back to the Grand Canyon National Park several times, and it’s still awesome to see the sights and observer other visitors’ reaction in seeing the canyon for the first time. But that first visit was one that I always remember.

The photo below was taken during one of my return visits to the Grand Canyon. It’s a photo of the canyon from the South Rim during the sunset. One of the lessons I learned from visiting the Grand Canyon is that the best time to take photographs of the canyon is either at sunrise or at sunset, when the sun light is soft and not as harsh as in the middle of the day. During the day in the bright day light, your photos of the rocks would look washed out.

Sunset at Grand Canyon

Sequoia

Sequoia National Park is located in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. The national park includes Mount Whitney, which at 14,505 ft is the highest point in the contiguous United States. But it’s most famous for its giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree by volume on earth.

I went to Sequoia National Park on a road trip with my mom and uncle. We drove from LA area where my brother lived at that time. It took about four hours to drive to the national park. We spent an afternoon driving inside the park, starting with a winding road with great view of the Sierra Nevada mountains around, and ended with a drive through the giant sequoia forest among the very large trees. It was quite surreal driving with these giant trees around us; I felt like the scale proportion (between us/our car and the trees) was off. We stopped at a couple of places to observe the trees from up close, and we did the short hike to get to the General Sherman Tree.

The photo below was taken during our hike to see the General Sherman Tree. The tree in the middle is the famous tree from some distance. At a glance, it looked like a normal tree, until you see the little specs at the foot of the tree — those are adult-sized humans around 5′ 5″ – 6′ tall! Here are some statistics that would put this tree in perspective: It is not the oldest, highest, or widest tree in the world, but with a height of 83.8 metres (275 ft), a diameter of 7.7 metres (25 ft), an estimated bole volume of 1,487 cubic metres (52,513 cu ft), and an estimated age of 2,300 – 2,700 years, it is among the tallest, widest and longest-lived of all trees on the planet.

General Sherman Tree