Yet another smooth, successful border crossing puts us into Phnom Penh (PP), the capital and largest city in Cambodia. It’s busy and sweltering hot which aids in our decision to employ a tuk-tuk to take us around and look for a cheap hotel. Along with a new friend Jose, a Spaniard currently living in Dominican Republic, and listen to the driver rattle off an impressive list of available services, these guys are like Swiss army knives.
After settling, showering, and redressing we walk around the city. Scotty navigates us to a nearby temple, Wat Phnem. It doesn’t cost much to get in but Jose hesitates. Turns out that our friend Jose, the professional photographer that specializes in children and old people, does not particularly care for temples. Scotty and I share a confused look and wonder why he chose to visit Cambodia, where by far the biggest tourist draw are the temples of Angkor Wat?!? I suppose we all have our reasons. We end up checking out the temple anyway, but rather quickly to accommodate Jose aversion and our collectively growing hunger. Mostly tired from our long travel day we walk around half halfheartedly and end up at a restaurant for some grub.
The next day we decide to go on a tuk-tuk tour starting 15 kilometers out of town at the Killing Fields. Before arriving in Cambodia I read Christopher Hudson’s “The Killing Fields” as well as Dith Pran’s “The Killing Fields: Memoirs of Survivors.” It is so sad to learn about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the awful fate of so many Cambodians during the short, but devastating, period that the Khmer Rouge ruled. It is even sadder still to visit the sights and see first hand the places that these atrocities and crimes against humanity were perpetrated not so long ago. Thus began the tour of depression and astonishment that is PP.
The city fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. Circumstances had culminated perfectly when the Khmer Rouge came in, evacuate the city under false pretenses, and forced its residents into forced labor in rural farms. It was Pol Pot’s vision to return to an agrarian economy and he valued farmers and rural peoples over urban dwellers. He distrusted and therefore killed many people perceived as educated, “lazy”, or political enemies as they did not fit into his vision. Many of the others ended up starving to death as much of the rice they were forced to produced was sold to China for weaponry. Pol Pot’s leadership resulted in the death of over 2 million people, devastating the nation.
What is left now at the notorious Killing Fields is sparse. Where buildings once stood, such as the chemical substance storage building used to hold chemicals that would lessen the smell of all the decaying bodies, now only stand signs to tell the visitor of what once was. There are many shallow open pits that functioned as mass graves. One is sectioned off by a small fence with a sign marking this grave as unique. In this particular grave all 166 of the victims within it were headless. The dark soil we walk over is peppered with white flecks that we learn are bone fragments. More and more are expelled every year when the rains cause them to come to the surface. The project of bone collection is ongoing.
By far the most prominent structure at the Killing Fields is a tall memorial building placed very close to the entrance. Inside the structure are levels as high up as the building is tall. The ground level is full of clothes that have been excavated from the mass graves, washed, and put on display. Each corresponding level is full of skulls, separated and categorized by the sex and age of the victims. The terrible commonality with all the skulls is the obvious way that these people died; blunt force trauma to the head.
To follow up the Killing Fields, we hop in the tuk-tuk and head to the now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Formerly Tuol Svay Prey High School, this site was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and turned into the S-21 prison camp, where Cambodians were sent for detention and torture.
Some say that pictures speak louder than words. Well, this museum does not speak, it screams in more ways than one. Relying heavily the catalog of photos the Khmer Rouge amassed of their “detainees”, a clear story emerges. Some of the photos are gruesome. But the biggest impact, for me at least, were the rows upon rows of black and white head shots. Victims in various stages of detention, with numbers on their chests and pained looks on their faces that pierce to the core. I felt the despair, the helplessness, hopelessness, anger, confusion, and a myriad of other emotions; truly haunting.
One room was dedicated, to what I thought, was particularly powerful exhibit by a Cambodian named Heng Sinith. He had taken old photos of Khmer conspirators, found the person in present day and then photographs their lives as they are now. At the website: http://www.lightstalkers.org/hengsinith Sinith says “I want to make photographic records about the lives of those perpetrators. I do not want to show the history of their murders, but their lives as spouses and villagers.” A where-are-they-now, with comments from the men and women who participated in the terror inflicted upon their countrymen. Amazing!
Eventually the Khmer Rouge were driven out of PP by the Vietnamese in 1979 but not before inflicting so much pain, death and devastation upon the people.
At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to visit these sights. I thought, “I get it. I don’t need to be taken there, into it, to really understand.” But now I see that I really didn’t get it. Well, at least not like I do now. I feel it in a different way having been there. Having stood there. Having really let it connect and affect me. Perhaps it is what I needed for the magnitude of the situation to really sink in. Visiting has made me see how fragile our existence is, and how quickly the pendulum can swing. This visit is one that will continue to reverberate for a long time to come.