Cambodia was a country that only flashed through as an idea, never truly considered until I realised it would be a convenient way to spend 2 weeks before meeting a friend in Vietnam.
Convenience led me to my favourite country so far.
Post-Bali blues hit in the form of horrendous food poisoning, on a 17-hour layover in Singapore airport. I placed myself strategically between the bathroom and the sleeping area for 15 of those 17 hours. One hour was spent looking for the pharmacy. The other spent looking for the sleeping area. Needless to say, I was moving pretty slowly.
Then I arrived in the insane city of Phnom Penh.
Home to a devastating history, Phnom Penh is a bustling metropolis that felt neither here nor there. Travellers come to enjoy a wild nightlife, to explore the capital, to learn it’s past. For me, it was the Killing Fields and S-21 prison that took me there. So rather than talking about the city (which I wasn’t a fan of by the way), I’ll tell you about my day walking some of the most moving paths of Cambodia.
The Killing Fields
There are a number of Killing Fields all over Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge massacred the Cambodian people, for crimes such as being a musician; being educated; having past connections with any former or foreign governments. You were killed for your ethnicity; Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese. Buddhists and Monks were also considered enemies.
The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the Communist Party in Cambodia. Led by Pol Pot between 1963 and 1997, they were responsible for one of the largest genocide in history. Between 1976 and 1979 he held leadership in Cambodia, a dictator that enforced the deaths of around 25% of the countries population, by murder, starvation, or untreated disease.
The Killing fields now act as a memorial to those who died. When you enter you are given a headset with around 20 stories and descriptions of each station. The first thing you see is a tall white building, clearly made in recent years. As you walk closer, learning the basic history of the area, you become aware that that tall white building is full of skulls. Skulls found buried in the mass graves you are walking on at that moment.
“The Chemical Substances Room”
‘Here was the place where substances such as DDT…etc. was kept. Executioners scattered these substances over the dead bodies of the victims at once after execution. This action had two purposes: firstly to eliminate the stench of the dead bodies which could potentially raise suspicion among people working nearby the Killing Fields. Secondly, it was to kill off the victims that were buried alive.”
“The Magic Tree: this tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims as they were being executed”
Victims, enemies of the state, were transported in trucks to the fields and held together, killed off that day, or held in the dentition prison nearby.
The Teoul Seung Genocide museum was the second destination of this history exploration. A former high school it was turned into a prison of torture and murder right in the capital of Phnom Penh. The museum today holds photographs of the many people held there – children and adults. Once they arrived at the prison they were told to give a detailed biography of their lives before stripping down and being sent to their cells. They were tortured by every means imaginable – electric shock, suffocation, rape, the brutal removal of fingernails, knives etc. in order to get confessions.
Pol Pot, sometimes known as the ‘Cambodian-Hitler’, enforced a communist regime that made agriculture it’s focus. City dwellers – academics, businessmen, creatives – all were sent to rural work or accused of being enemies, later to be murdered. In a 4 year period the Khmer Rouge killed somewhere up to 3 million people – in a country that started with a small population of 8million in the first place.
What shocks me is that, until visiting the place, I was never truly educated about this part of history. It is not as widely known, but is still a horrific and monumental moment that we should all be aware of. Visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 was an eye-opening, shocking realisation. Its incredible that so many are unaware of
NOTE: DO NOT ENTER IF FEELING NAUSEOUS OR WEAK IN ANY WAY. I don’t mean to make light of this whatsoever, but food poisoning before walking into what is a mass grave filled with bone fragments, teeth and massacred childrens clothing is not a good idea. This place is moving, shocking and really pushed you to reassess things. (Proud to say that I did NOT throw up, as close as I was at a couple of the rest points.)