Warning: This post contains images and content of a sensitive nature
I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I decided on Cambodia as a travel destination. A few years ago, a co-worker’s raves of her visit to the fast-developing country in Southeast Asia sparked the idea. After watching several stunningly-shot Cambodia-centered episodes of The Amazing Race, it rocketed up my travel wish list. I envisioned magnificent ancient temples, vast rice paddy fields, picturesque remote fishing villages, and bumpy thoroughfares teeming with tuk-tuks.
Bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east, Cambodia’s culture, traditions, and cuisine are a unique amalgamation of the influence of its neighboring nations, as well as India, and the Khmer – a civilization which dates back to the first century. In the past decade, Cambodia’s made tremendous progress recovering from a tumultuous recent history that includes a civil war, genocide, and tyrannical political rule.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”
Phnom Penh – Cambodia’s capital city and the first stop on our Cambodian tour – is considered the Nation’s cultural, commercial, and political center. In fact, residents of less thriving surrounding towns flock to the city seeking educational and job opportunities, in a country where the average citizen earns less than $80/month.
It is also home to a former high school which was turned into a detention and torture center and renamed “S21“, during the vicious reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime – the main goal of which was to rid Cambodia of its intellectuals, the elite, or any sort of hierarchy, and instead carry out a warped vision of a self-sustaining peasant-ville – it’s estimated that over 1.7 million Cambodians (1/4 of the population) died in these years as a result of starvation, disease, or execution by the Khmer Rouge. S21 has since been turned into a genocide museum and renamed Tuol Sleng.
Upon arrival at S21, new prisoners – women, men and children – were photographed, given a unique number, stripped of their clothing and possessions, and held captive for several months, before eventually being executed. Several rooms in the museum display victim’s photos. Cambodians made up the majority of victims, though a small number hailed from other countries like Laos, Vietnam, Australia, China, Britain, Thailand, Canada, and the United States.
Throughout the museum, graphic paintings reflect the inhumane conditions under which the prisoners lived. Some of the devices and instruments used during the guards’ Nazi-level torture methods are also exhibited.
Initially, those executed at S21 were buried on the property – until they ran out of space. Later on, prisoners were transferred from S21 to a larger site less than 10 miles away, Choeung Ek – one of several mass burial grounds or “killing fields” throughout the country – where they were sometimes forced to dig their own graves.
Now a memorial site, the grounds at Choeung Ek are well-manicured with an expansive green field dotted by robust shade and palm trees, and interspersed with large dirt pits – remnants of the mass graves – where fragments of bone and clothing poke out from beneath – even more so after a fresh rain washes away the soil.
We had an additional guide for our visit to the genocide memorials, a lovely young Cambodian woman whose grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Without a trace of bitterness or anger in her voice, she implored us to share our thoughts and experiences from that day with others so that collectively we can actively work to prevent such atrocities in the future.
In 2014, I toured Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp just outside Berlin, Germany, and I wondered then how humans can be so evil to each other.
It’s the same thought I mulled over in Tanzania while standing on the site where hundreds of years ago people were auctioned off like animals.
Again, I wondered why, as tears streamed down my face at the September 11th museum in New York, listening to the gut-wrenching audio recordings of the terrified who didn’t make it out of the Twin Towers.
It’s a question many have asked and for longer than I’ve been alive. I know there’s no pat answer, nor a quick solution for evil-deflection. What I do know is the importance of acknowledging all of the past, no matter how difficult or upsetting, and doing better! We can be better humans.
There’s a saying in the Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back.’ If you do, it means you are mad, too.
– Chum Mey, in Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide
A Royal Palace and a Riverfront View
With a free afternoon to explore Phnom Penh, after an emotionally taxing morning spent swimming in horror and death, I headed straight for the riverfront, Sisowath Quay. I’d already seen it at night, a lively area along the Tonle Sap River, the promenade populated with groups of teenagers; families lounging on the grass in the park; street vendors peddling drinks, snacks, and whatever else they could offload; scores of motorbikes buzzing about; tourists and locals alike filling the restaurants, shops, pubs and hotels lining the boulevard, all with the Royal Palace – where the Royal Family lives – as a backdrop.
Walking back to the hotel from the river, I got lost, despite the city being laid out like a grid – a French influence – and having a map. I spent the late afternoon wandering from street to street, down dusty alleys overflowing with small market stalls and throngs of people, with a different man calling out to me “Tuk tuk, lady? Tuk tuk?” every few feet (‘No thanks, I want to walk.”), attracting many curious stares with my “exotic” appearance, dodging vehicles with no intention of stopping for pedestrians, growing more and more disoriented (and agitated), sweat pouring down my face like rain (and this was the “cool” season), as my hearing overstimulated with the noise of dogs barking, roosters crowing, horns honking, and the general din of many voices speaking at once in a language I didn’t understand.
I consider myself an ambivert, but that afternoon, I never felt more introverted. I just wanted to go hide inside my hotel room and away from people! I think the weight of the morning’s visit to S21 and Choeung Ek had caught up with me. Finally, after almost two hours of wandering, and clueless how to get back to the hotel, I made one lucky tuk tuk driver’s day and asked him for a ride. Thank God one of my tourmates had handed me the hotel’s business card with the address before we split up. I showed it to the driver. “Yes, I know; I will take you!” Hallelujah.
Did you know about the Cambodian Genocide? What are your thoughts on it? Have you ever been to Cambodia?
Read Part I in my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!