Along with watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the other item on my Cambodia bucket list was to learn about the history. You see, in this country full of the kindest, friendlest people I’ve ever encountered, some of the most horrific events took place just 40 years ago. The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide are the most visited attractions in capital of Phnom Penh so it felt natural to want to know more. But despite being prepared with overview of what happened, our day visiting these two sites was really upsetting.
If you know about the tragic events that happened under the Khmer Rouge, then it won’t be a surprise to know that this won’t be the happiest of blog posts. In fact, it’s going to be pretty damn grim so brace yourself. For those of you who don’t know, here’s a very brief run down of what happened during this time.
The Khmer Rouge was a communist movement led by Pol Pot that began to gain strength in the late 1960s. In 1970, a government coup by Prime Minister Lon Nol overthrew King Sihanouk who was supported by the Khmer Rouge: this amplified the civil war within Cambodia. During the next five years, millions of bombs were dropped on Cambodian citizens by Lon Nol’s government and the US. This strengthened support for the Khmer Rouge who eventually captured Phnom Penh on 17th April 1975.
While the people cheered when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, the reality was quickly revealed. The Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, forcing people out of their homes and from hospitals to work in the countryside. They closed schools and government services, banned family relationships then abolished money, religion and even calendars as they proclaimed it ‘Year Zero’. Over the years, they sent thousands of ‘enemies’ to prisons where they were tortured and executed. Up to 3 million Cambodians were killed until the Khmer Rouge were forced out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979. You can learn more on the memorial website. Because of this genocide, Cambodia has a young population where less than 10% of citizens are over the age of 55.
First, we visited the Killing Fields which left me with a seriously heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Here, prisoners were taken to be executed each day with their names ticked off a list as they arrived. They were killed, not using ‘expensive’ bullets, but clubbed, beaten or stabbed. Inside the memorial building, you look up to see hundreds of skulls arranged neatly in rows.
For a few seconds at a time, it was possible to forget that this wasn’t just a simple memorial. I almost felt at peace with the quiet atmosphere and wide green spaces. But then you move from mass grave to mass grave.
Some are marked – like the pit where all the bodies were found without heads. Or the one where dozens of women and children were thrown without care. Others are simply holes in the ground, marked with a simple sign. But the real horror was when I saw bones still sticking out of the soil. A strip of cloth was wound around a tree, tangled in its roots and half submerged in the earth.
Next, we went back towards Phnom Penh to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Known as S-21 during the Khmer Rouge rule, it was actually a former high school that had been converted into a security prison. Of the 14,000 inmates that entered S-21, only 7 were known to have survived.
Immediately you see former classrooms turned torture cells for inmates, complete with hard, metal beds. They have been left almost as they were found with the addition of photographs showing the almost unrecognisable bodies found in each room. The floors in the rooms, hallways and staircases are still stained with splashes of blood. It’s overwhelming and utterly devastating to see.
What I found particularly memorable was how much everything was documented by the Khmer Rouge. They meticulously photographed everybody entering the prison, kept written ‘confessions’ and made lists of those to be executed. As you walk through the rooms, the faces of hundreds of victims look back at you from the walls. This was a place without hope where almost nobody walked free.
On our way back to the guesthouse, we passed something that unexpectedly drove home what we had just seen. We rode past a high school and it looked just the same as S-21; the same layout, grille design and colours. To see before you, clear as day, how quickly the everyday lives of the Cambodian people were interrupted and destroyed, is an awful feeling.
It would be wrong to say that I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this – I’ve completely depressed myself again writing it. But as horrible as it is, I think it’s important to learn while you travel, so I hope that this post has helped with that in some small way.
Read more about Cambodia:
8 Reasons Cambodia Stole My Heart (Guest Post)