I’m no stranger to sad stories for as a lover of history, most of the past is indeed tragic and in many cases, dark. On my trip to Prague in 2016, I took a long day trip to visit Terezín, a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto established by the SS during World War II where tens of thousands of Jews died at the hands of the Nazis. To some people, the idea of visiting a former concentration camp that bore witness to so much horror and suffering is just unfathomable. Vacation to them is wanting a break from reality, a break from their life; in short, they just want to have fun. But to me, being in Prague and NOT visiting a place like Terezín would have been unfathomable. And that’s exactly why on my Mekong River cruise, visiting Cambodia’s dark past was something I had interest in doing and more importantly, learning about.
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During my time in Vietnam, I saw much poverty because as the bartender at the famed Raffles Hotel in Singapore told me (as I was settling up my $40USD bill for my Singapore Sling cocktail), “Vietnam is a whole lot different than Singapore” after I had told him where I was heading next. And it was. Then I got to Cambodia and honestly, the sheer mess and chaos of Phnom Penh’s streets, the capital city of the country, made any past experiences traveling in developing nations (of which I’ve had a fair amount of experience in Latin America), pale in comparison. But Cambodia also has a modern past like no other nation and so much of how the country is today is tied to its very dark recent past.
I’m not about to turn this post into a tedious and boring history lesson but less than 50 years ago, during the years of 1975-1979 (so AFTER the Vietnam War had officially ended), Cambodia was run by a political leader named Pol Pot who led a communist government called the Khmer Rouge. (Khmer is the name of the Cambodian people as well as their language.) During these four years, it’s thought 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease, or overwork because of the Pol Pot regime, nearly a quarter of the population at the time. Many historians regard his regime as one of the most heinous and barbaric in recent history.
Why did so many die? Well, like in many developing countries, income inequality in Cambodia was omnipresent. Those who lived in cities were typically well-educated and well-off while the peasants, those who lived in rural areas working on farms lived in abject poverty. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, cities like Phnom Penh were “emptied,” its residents forcibly removed to the countryside where they were made to work as farmers, digging canals, and tending to crops. Teachers, doctors, bankers were considered enemies of the state and were routinely tortured and/or executed leading to a shortage of qualified individuals in these professions, a legacy still felt today. This is a great site which details more about the Cambodian Genocide.
Today there are two sites in Cambodia that people can visit that show the absolute horrors of the Pol Pot Regime-The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and the Choeung Ek Killing Field which is located about nine miles outside of the capital.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Visitors will immediately discover that the museum was once a school. Before it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1976 and named Security Prison 21 (or S-21), it was a secondary school. Chalkboards still grace some of the walls of the former classrooms, text in Khmer detailing a lesson before it would become a prison to 20,000 people. Although prisoners were routinely tortured here (and at other security prisons throughout the country), few people were actually murdered on-site; that’s what the Killing Fields were for, which I’ll talk about below.
As you walk the grounds that for years had been filled with schoolchildren, you might wonder, how could a place like this have existed right in the middle of the city? With homes and buildings all around? But remember what I said about the capital city being emptied of its residents. During the years that Tuol Sleng was operational, life in Phnom Penh was neither normal nor anything at all. Ordinary life didn’t exist here, only hell.
If you were someone of importance, you got your own prison cell. Otherwise, prisoners were housed in cramped, tiny cells that had once been classrooms. I visited on a day in early March where already the heat and humidity was unbearable. Spending a few minutes walking through the rooms was physically tough. I simply could not imagine being imprisoned there, let alone being shackled to the walls or concrete floor (those held in a larger cell were shackled to long pieces of iron bar). The prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions and on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. And they were forbidden to talk to each other.
For me personally, it’s always seeing the photographs of the victims that gets me the most, knowing that every one of the faces looking back at me was someone’s wife, husband, child, parent, sibling. The Khmer Rouge was very detail oriented, similar to the Nazis in that regard. Upon arrival at the security prison, prisoners had their photographs taken and were forced to provide a detailed autobiography. Although the Khmer Rouge had destroyed most of the prisoner photographs, the ones at Tuol Sleng survived only because the People’s Army of Vietnam arrived to liberate the prison before the Khmer Rouge officials could do so.
Out of an estimated 20,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only twelve known survivors: seven adults and five children.
Choeung Ek Killing Field
As its name suggests, this former orchard is today a mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge where it’s believed that the infamous regime executed over one million people between 1975 and 1979. There were killing fields spread throughout the country during the Pol Pot regime but my Cambodian tour guide said that Choeung Ek is the only one that the Cambodian government was able to preserve and turn into a memorial; it simply doesn’t have the funds to do it for others. So countless others still exist elsewhere with the dead still just senselessly buried where they were killed.
There are walkways and bridges over the fields since many of them were not unearthed and dug up, leaving the bones of the dead to remain where they fell.
Choeung Ek featured a Buddhist stupa and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. It was beyond horrifying to see the color symbol decoder which told how the person had died- for instance, red for a shattered skull, green for being killed with a pick-ax, etc. That man could behave that way against his fellow man…in modern times…
If you’re backpacking Cambodia as a solo traveller, there are countless tour outfitters in Phnom Phen that arrange guided transfers from the capital to the Killing Fields (if you’re not up for renting a car in Cambodia, I know I wouldn’t be and have no desire to go by motorbike either.
There were about six people on my river cruise who opted not to go to these two sites which I thought was a shame. There was nothing fun or enjoyable in the least about visiting these two places. Feelings of sickness routinely washed over me upon reading the graphic descriptions of forms of torture used against the prisoners. But many people will never travel to Cambodia-it’s too far, too exotic, etc. But that’s why I feel for the people who do, it’s vital to see these places firsthand and then let others back home know about them. Let them know that these sites of horror exist, that 30 years after Hitler and his Nazis were defeated, a new genocide was occurring in a different part of the world. And for most of us in the Western world, what happened in Cambodia less than 50 years ago is too recent to be taught about in schools. Travel isn’t always about fun and pleasure, it’s also about being ambassadors to report back on what you’ve seen and experienced, even when it documents some of the darkest moments in history.