Link to photo collection: Cambodia
Disclaimer: OK, this is a heavy one. To parents who share my blog with their children, please read this post carefully to judge its content; I personally don’t think it’s suitable for children. It's educational and it's important, but it's also really disturbing stuff. And since I don't believe in sugar-coating things, I won't be holding back on too many historical details or personal impressions.
Keep in mind that my humble account is condensed and simplified; this isn’t a doctoral dissertation or a treatise in expertise. Please research more deeply if this topic interests you.
To fully wrap your head around present-day Cambodia, there are two sites to visit that reflect its horrific history: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Prison S-21) and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, both located in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Both are equally disturbing in their own right. During my visits, I was all the more shocked and shaken because I hadn’t heard much about Pol Pot; in the West, we are taught very little, if nothing, about his regime. A regime that happened in my own lifetime. So I was totally and utterly suckerpunched by what I saw and heard there. Which is why I think everybody should see it.
Allow Me To Talk History...
After the Vietnam War, Cambodians elected Prime Minister Pol Pot, leader of the communist Khmer Rouge party. He had won favour by denouncing South Vietnamese\US bombings, which had destroyed villages and killed thousands of Cambodians. Unfortunately, his party was xenophobic and oppressive; they were keen to entirely reengineer Cambodian society by reforming agricultural practices and increasing genetic purity through ethnic cleansing.
In 1975, Pol Pot's thugs invaded Phnom Penh under the guise of an impending American bombing. Pol Pot had amassed power by recruiting young, uneducated men to do his dirty work (just like Hitler, and certain armies or terrorist groups, still do today). Within only a few days, the entire population -- including the sick, elderly, children and infirm -- had been marched to the countryside to work the fields and live in squalid conditions. Homes were destroyed so that workers had nothing to return to, and any remaining property was collectivized. Rapid, mass displacements took place across the rest of Cambodia. It was possibly the most radical attempt to reconstruct an entire society, in such a short time, that the world had ever seen.
One of Pol Pot’s dreams was for Cambodia to become completely self-sufficient; he cut off foreign relations, blocking imported medicine and food. Cambodia would be admired as the world’s most productive farming and industrial country, and rice production was intended to triple - a preposterous goal.
Another of Pol Pot’s ambitions was to purify the Cambodian race; anyone found to have ethnic diversity in their blood was immediately massacred. Early victims were the intellectuals, who lacked the manual skills to work the fields and were considered both useless and troublesome. Formal education, commerce, religion and attachment to one’s family were strictly forbidden. Children were systematically separated from their parents and called for their mothers under threat of death. 25,000 Buddhist monks were executed without a second thought. The disabled weren’t given the slightest chance. The upper and middle classes were almost completely wiped out. To speak another language, to wear glasses (!) or to know how to read meant certain death. Despite widespread famine, picking wild fruit or berries was punishable by death, as collecting food was considered a «private enterprise». Precious, expensive bullets were rarely wasted; slow starvation was the preferred method of extermination, as it instilled despair.
The Khmer Rouge relentlessly spread their propaganda over the radio waves: To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss. The only thing to strive for was work; the only thing to worship was the Khmer Rouge. This was beaten into brains and bodies time and time again.
And for four years, it worked - until the Vietnamese army invaded and the Khmer Rouge soldiers went into hiding. The genocide ended in 1979 but the regime fought back, plunging the country into a civil war until well into the mid-90s. Pol Pot himself was put under house arrest and got away with everything. He died in his bed in 1998.
The UN hesitated to charge any of the leaders, mainly because of pressure from a neighboring country who wanted to protect its ex-Khmer Rouge connections. A UN tribunal was finally created in 1997 to bring justice to the surviving ex-leaders; a paltry few were indicted. For example, in 2018, two ex-chieftains (at the ripe ages of 92 and 87) were charged with *insert sarcastic tone here* life in prison.
Between 2 and 2.5 million Cambodians were tortured, starved or murdered during the 4 years of Khmer Rouge rule - roughly 21-25% of Cambodia’s population at the time.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
In 1975, a high school in Phnom Penh was converted into Prison S-21. Upon arrival here, detainees were required to write a short autobiography, which would be used to determine their fate. Those with formal education or military backgrounds were either imprisoned or executed in killing fields (more on that later), and those with technical or farming skills were sent to labour camps or agricultural communes.
Classrooms were restructured into cells; inspections began at 4:30 am every morning to ensure no prisoner had loosened shackles or held objects with which to commit suicide. The balconies were covered in barbed wire to keep inmates from jumping, although most were chained to the floor or to their beds and were too weak to stand. Most prisoners were grossly neglected, and those with questionable connections were tortured to extract «confessions». These stories in particular (coupled with graphic photos) sickened and angered me.
Rape was strongly discouraged by the Khmer Rouge; culprits were usually put to death immediately. One small consolation.
At its height, 100 innocent Cambodians were killed here every day.
Today, visitors to S-21 can search the faces of over 6 000 prisoners, whose photos fill up several classrooms. The portraits here are haunting; they capture the confusion and horror of these inmates’ conditions, and I spent two hours walking through the rows to peer into their eyes. I felt as though it was the least I could do to honor them. Touring the prison was harrowing; it was as though I could feel the weight of their fear. Their eyes stayed with me long after I left the room.
Most detainees were young men in their 20s, some children, and a few elderly. The Khmer Rouge took pride in documenting the prisoners’ torture; they took photos of the squalid conditions and kept photographic evidence of many inmates who died during mistreatment.
Of the tens of thousands of prisoners held at S-21 over 4 years, only 7 survived until its liberation. Seven men were found alive here by Vietnamese troupes in 1979.
Choeung Ek Killing Field
A Cambodian journalist by the name of Dith Pran coined what are now known as killing fields. They are collection sites where people were rounded up, killed and buried. Many had to dig their own graves, only to be buried alive within them.
The most well-known of over 300 separate killing fields is Choeung Ek, where 20 000 bodies have been recovered. Many of those buried in this particular site were prisoners sent from S-21. Others, deemed useless (like the crippled) or politically dangerous (like the educated), were brought here straight from their homes simply to be killed and disposed of.
The toughest thing for me to swallow here : The Killing Tree. During the genocide, a massive pit had been dug up next to it (now fenced in and roofed). Records detail how soldiers would take children and babies by the ankles, swing their heads against trees to kill them, then throw their bodies into neighboring pit. They often made the mothers watch before they themselves were bludgeoned and thrown in. Sickest thing I think I've ever heard. You could still see blood on the tree. My chin wobbled looking at it. Heartbreaking stuff.
This isn't a polished tourist site; it's raw, authentic and immensely impactful. More importantly, it never felt gratuitous or unethical.
At the end of the day, I was left feeling despondent about mankind’s capabilities. I questioned how on Earth some of us could belong to the same species. All of it was so hard to digest; I wanted to hide from the world, to avoid other people. It was profoundly alienating for me and took a while to shake off.
Again, this genocide happened during my own lifetime. So after the visits, I’d look at men and women my age or older, and wonder How did you survive? How can you smile and laugh after that kind of trauma? Were you tortured? Is your family still alive? I wondered how it would be to have my family taken away from me, to have my mother or father or sister beaten to death in front of me. To be forced out of my home, beaten, starved… I couldn’t imagine it. It all felt impossible.
Just like it must have felt impossible to them as they lived each moment.
And what has even changed since the Khmer Rouge’s demise? This level of madness still occurs today. Same old human shit. Syrian refugees arriving left and right. All kinds of atrocities in Darfur, Ukraine, Russia and Venezuela. Humanity can still be so inhumane.
That being said, it would seem that Cambodia has rebounded admirably from this horrendous era. Its people have been to hell and back -- and still, everywhere I looked, they were full of life and laughter. How beautiful is that? I found Cambodians to be incredibly generous; everywhere I went, I was offered food and camaraderie and assistance. The Boat Trip to Battambang remains one of my fondest memories in an entire year of backpacking. Truly, Cambodia is at once the poorest country I’ve ever visited and possibly the most enriching of all. Its people are a real testament to mankind’s capabilities.
Please consider a visit to these two sites on your Cambodian itinerary. So much care has been taken to preserve these areas and genocide awareness is clearly important to volunteers and employees here.
If you’re planning a visit:
* I would very strongly recommend hiring a personal guide. I rented the audio guides, and as great as they were, I regretted not getting a real-life guide (I hadn’t realized it was an option). Two genocide survivors (Chum Mey and Vann Nath) offer tours of Prison S-21; they can sometimes be found talking to visitors in the courtyard. I would have loved to meet them and to have heard their stories.
* The emotional weight of these two sites cannot be overstated; this is NOT the kind of place where speaking loudly or laughing, making jokes and taking selfies is appropriate. Walk around respectfully, keep your voice low, dress modestly, resist the urge to take selfies. Be cool.
* Bring plenty of water and a hat or scarf to protect yourself from the sun.
* Convenient 4.5-hour tours are available with Phnom Penh Hop-On Hop-Off Shuttle. They’ll pick you up anytime between 8 am and 1:30 pm. Tuk-tuks are also an inexpensive way to travel around the city.
* It’s recommended that both sites be visited on the same day, but you might want to consider seeing them on different days. Regardless, start with Prison S-21.
* Looking back, I wish I had taken the time to compose myself and snap more thoughtful photographs to commemorate my visit.
You might also enjoy: Boat to Battambang: Best River Cruise Ever (Cambodia)
Link: Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia
Link to photo collection: Cambodia
Coming soon: Trippin' on Cambodia's Temples