While I was in Phnom Penn, Cambodia, I experienced the darkest and most sobering day of travel. Although I have a major interest in history (and morbidly I may admit dark history), I haven’t actually gotten to visit many places where tragedies have occurred. I haven’t been to the 9/11 memorial in New York or a concentration camp in eastern Europe. Having learned about these places growing up, I now realize there is nothing like actually walking where it happened and envisioning it like it were happening in real time.
Ashamedly, I didn’t know much about the Cambodian genocide that happened only 40 years ago. It happened at the same time as the Vietnam War which takes up a big part of world/American history in schools. It also explains why America didn’t have much to do with what was happening in Cambodia and why it gets glossed over in schools. Well, after visiting the S21 Prison and The Killing Fields, I was astounded and heartbroken that this happened less than half a century ago. My tuk tuk driver was old enough to have lived through it, the lady running my hostel was old enough, the man making my dinner was old enough. After hearing the stories it sounded more like something out of Game of Thrones or the Middle Ages than something from the twentieth century. In the mid-1970s the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, came into power in hopes of creating a peasant run country. In this way anyone with an education from doctors, lawyers, or teachers were sent to prison camps and ultimately executed.
It took about 30 minutes or so to get from my hostel in central Phnom Penn out to The Killing Fields. The area probably hasn’t changed much in the past few decades. You would think such a horrid place would be out in the middle of nowhere where residents couldn’t witness the horrors going on within the fence, but as I learned once I arrived, there were always people living in the vicinity. The noises of gunshots, screams, and crying were muffled by loud speakers hanging from the trees. Once inside the gate you have the option of taking a self guided audio tour (available in a plethora of languages and HIGHLY HIGHLY recommended!). During this tour you are asked to close your eyes and listen to the song that was played each evening in order to drown out the daily executions. It’s sobering to say the least.
The tour takes you through the entire property and has explanations at each spot along with descriptions to read. The first building you approach is a beautiful stupa, but what it holds is far from the beauty the outside makes it seem. Inside is a square, glass tower with about fifteen levels. Each shelf if filled with the human skulls of the victims of this terrible place. At the bottom are the shovels, hammers, and axes used for murder. Many of the skulls have holes in them where the blunt object made its impact. Beating to death was the common practice at The Killing Fields as ammunition was precious and typically caused more noise and suspicion.
The first hand stories told over the audio tour are harrowing and tragic along with the sites you see throughout the area. You’ll walk past a lake where bodies were dumped, a mass grave of 450 people not much bigger than the average living room, and the tree where children and babies were strapped to and beaten to death as their mothers watched on in horror before meeting the same fate. The soldiers were encouraged to laugh as they carried out executions as to not arouse suspicions of remorse or sympathy.
It is common to this day for bones and bits of clothing to still be dragged up. These items are placed into glass cases for viewers and then buried in graves.
At the end of the audio tour there is a small museum with more artifacts and a detailed history of the aftermath of the genocide and what became of the different Khmer Rouge leaders.
After a few hours at The Killing Fields, my tuk tuk driver took took (sorry, had to) me to the S21 Prison, the place where most who ended up at The Killing Fields began their deadly journey. The Prison also offers audio tours, which I also highly recommend. Honestly, there’s almost no point in visiting the two sites if you choose not to go with the audio tour option. Sadly, I didn’t get to spend near as much time as I would have liked as I was with a couple other people who wanted to get back to the hostel sooner than I did. You can easily spend 3+ hours at the prison if you have the time to spare.
The prison takes you through the horrendous living conditions of those captured and held there. The cells were merely small brick cubicles. There is also a section dedicated solely to the torture methods used at the prison, not for the faint of heart.
Some of the rooms are filled to the brim of photos of both the captives and the guards who made their lives so miserable. The hopelessness and fear found behind their eyes, some only small children, will make your blood run cold.
Also in one of the four – five massive prison blocks is a section dedicated to the women victims of the Khmer Rouge. Although still many women were murdered in the genocide, many were forced into marriages with Khmer soldiers and leaders. The walls are filled with their quotes on the beatings, rape, and torture that they endured.
Although this was by far the most difficult day of travel I have ever experienced and must be equal to visiting concentration camps or battlefields, it is a day I shall never forget. I learned about a dark part of history that shamefully was quite unknown to me but lit a fire inside to fight against this ever happening again. Overall, though, it just made me fall deeper in love with the kind and hospitable Cambodian people. To rise with love and generosity from such extraordinary circumstances is truly a remarkable thing.