This blog has a slightly different tone to our usual posts. So apologies if you were coming here from some light relief from the daily grind.
There are some experiences when you travel which are empathetically not fun. They are harrowing, they are moving, they make you grateful to be alive, and they make you angry. We’ve been back and forth for a few weeks on whether to even publish this post, but not everyone is going to make to Cambodia to see this for themselves, and people still need to know.
This is the first of a couple of planned posts about Cambodia, and we don’t want anyone to come away with the impression that we didn’t like Cambodia. In fact, it has been one of our favourite countries on this trip. There is a lot to like. The people are genuinely friendly, not pushy, and happy that you have made the effort to come to their country.
There are some truly stunning sights, not just in Angkor Wat, but elsewhere. You can see the illusive Irrawaddy Dolphins here without spending 8 hours on a boat in the 4000 Islands of Laos. There is coffee, and its good. Wine exists, and its passable. There is cheese – and I don’t mean that fake cheese slice stuff – REAL cheese, and there is bread without sugar in it. All these things make it a country we would rather live in than somewhere like Thailand or Malaysia.
But, Cambodia does have a dark history which we also spent some time understanding. Its not appropriate to make comparisons; but having been to the Genocide museum in Rwanda we thought we knew what to expect from a day spent in the infamous Killing Fields of Cambodia, and S-21, the prison in Phnom Penh, which housed so many political prisoners during Pol Pots regime. We were very wrong;
A brief history lesson for you all. In 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. Overnight they decided to turn the country into a completely agrarian society. Everyone in the towns and cities was sent to work in communes. Their property and belongings confiscated. Families were split up. Intellectuals, teachers, doctors & scientists were all rigorously persecuted. By the time an internal power struggle, and the Vietnamese army had ousted Pol Pot in 1979, nearly 3 million of the 8 million inhabitants of Cambodia were dead through violence and starvation. Unbelievably, Pol Pot would stay the recognised leader of Cambodia by the rest of the world, with a seat at the UN, for another 10 years after.
There are over 300 of Killing Fields in Cambodia, the most infamous is about 45 minutes outside of central Phnom Penh at Choeung Ek. This is the place where prisoners from S-21 prison who were sentenced to die were taken for execution. Often under a pretence of being moved to a better location. This place is filled with the remains of over 20,000 people. There are men, women & children, who either by design or accident, defied the regime and paid the ultimate price for it. There is a tree, where babies were killed, by swinging them against it.
And just when you think it can’t get any more grim, or make you any angrier, there is the central monument, where the skeletal remains of exhumed victims are held, and where people can pay their respects. There are multiple levels, each one split into different groups of skulls based on age and how they were killed. These details somehow make it an altogether more harrowing experience.
High School turned Prison
We didn’t think anything could be more upsetting than the Killing Fields, but we were wrong. In the afternoon, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, which is housed at what was S-21 prison. Originally a school, this set of buildings was used by the Khmer Rouge to house approximately 17,000 political prisoners and undesirable elements.
Here rooms are filled with the photos of inmates. Taken when they arrived at the prison, their eyes filled with sadness, fear, anger, defiance, but mostly, nothing. Some torture rooms have been preserved , complete with blood stains to emphasis the brutality. This is not an ‘attraction’ to tick off your list, and it is not an easy place to visit. There is no sugar coating of the facts going on here.
But it wasn’t the walls filled with photos of inmates, or the very graphic description of torture that most affected us. Though it very definitely did affect us. It was the people we met. Our guide told us that his own father had been threatened with death on more than one occasion. He had somehow, miraculously, survived. He went on to explain that he had asked his father a few times how, but had never got an answer. We both came away thinking that no answer to that question would be a good one.
These are uncomfortable truths that people all over Cambodia face on a daily basis. He even admitted to seeing a therapist to help him deal with being there every day. There were also two of the 7 survivors of S-21 who spend their days at the site talking to visitors, and selling their own accounts. Imagine spending all day in a place you were once tortured, where your friends, and family died.
An Inconvenient Truth
The fact that nothing is sugar coated is in itself rather odd. In Rwanda for example, school children are taken to the Genocide museums as part of the curriculum. This is part of a widespread education process to prevent such a situation every happening again. But in Cambodia, there is an added element of awkwardness for the ruling government. This means that very few children every see these places.
Because the ruling government are the Khmer Rouge insurgency that toppled Pol Pot, with considerable help from the Vietnamese. They are, in effect, part of the group who did this to the Cambodia people. It seems they’d rather people didn’t know about that somewhat inconvenient truth.
Having spent time in both these places we began to look at Phnom Penh, and Cambodia in a slightly new light. It hadn’t escaped our notice that there were few people our own age around. Now we understood why. We were born at the height of the Khmer Rouge’s power. People our parents age were stuck in places like S-21 and dying in the fields from starvation, not having babies.
We are glad we took the time to see both these places, because it is important to go, and see what people are capable of, if we allow it. Its easy when you are travelling to have your rose tinted glasses on permanently. The reality is that very few places are perfect. Its also important to see how very different life could be, and it made us truly appreciate how fortunate we are, by a simple accident of birth to have avoided being victims of something like this.
Planning your trip
Entrance fees: The Killing Field Entrance Fee is $6 per person and includes an audio guide. The fee to go to Tuol Sleng Genocide museum is $3 plus $3 for the audio tour, or you can pay a guide to take you round. We paid our guide $10 and it was probably a little too much..
Getting there: Any Tuk Tuk driver will take you, and should charge no more than $15 to visit both. There are half day tours you can book on for the same price. They do not have the same flexibility to stay in either place for very long, or give yourself some time to assimilate what you’ve seen between stops