Greetings from Cambodia!
My sadness at leaving Thailand was alleviated by the chance to join back up with another friend from Myanmar in Cambodia. The week and country flew by. I started in Siem Reap and finished in Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap is the jumping off point to visit the incredible Angkor Wat. I had gotten a sinus/eye infection that had the potential to sideline me, but there are some things you just have to suck it up and get through. Angkor Wat is one of them. I met another traveler in my hostel who joined, so we shared a tuk tuk and hopped around the sites. On the ride there I was bumming. It was 4:45 in the morning. I could barely open my left eye and just wanted to sleep. I could see the lights of all the other tuk tuks, meaning that it was going to be C.R.O.W.D.E.D. We waited for the sunrise as other tourists shoved their way around to find the right spot for their sunrise picture. I was annoyed at the tourists and at myself, for being sick and “templed out” at one of the most renowned sites in the world.
Then the sun came up.
And I still felt like hell and hated everyone around me and was miserable, but I was at Angkor Wat. The structures are incredible. You can find moments of solitude and peace. The light sneaks in through windows and crevices in ways that splash across the stone, stopping you mid-stride. TREES GROW ON BUILDINGS.
The second stop was Phnom Penh and the main draw there is the killing fields. Before visiting Phnom Penh, I had heard of the killing fields and I knew that the name Pol Pot was one of a bad guy. But that was about it. Two other girls had arrived on the same night bus as I did, so we decided to have a quick nap and head out. It is very strange to experience something so intense with strangers, but I’m so happy to have had them with me.
THE REST OF THIS POST FEATURES GRAPHIC IMAGES AND DETAILS ABOUT THE CAMBODIAN GENOCIDE. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO READ/SEE, PLEASE HEAD BACK TO THE HOMEPAGE.
We chose to first visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, figuring it best to go to the museum to learn more before heading the killing fields themselves. The museum is the actual site of the former main prison and torture site during Pol Pots regime. It is estimated that 12,000-20,000 people where imprisoned here. 12 survived.
If you go here, do not skip the audio tour. It is worth the $3. If you can’t afford it, I will spot you. The audio is important and impactful.
You walk around the site, previously a high school. And walk into rooms in which thousands were tortured. You see their cells. The iron bars that held their ankles. The barbed wire fencing that was installed to keep them from committing suicide to escape the horror of their lives.
As one of the historians on the audio calls out, one of the most shocking tendencies of regimes like the Khmer Rouge is their tendency to keep incredible records. Which means that there are photos of the prisoners and interrogators (many of whom later became prisoners). Despite the fact that many of the records were destroyed as the Khmer Rouge fell, those that remain are well preserved. You walk around and look into the eyes of thousands of prisoners who never had a chance.
About halfway through the tour I started to feel light headed and sick. At about 3/4 I was physically shaking. I teared up as I watched a Cambodian woman break into tears, her daughter trying to comfort her.
I walked from display to display, reading survivor stories. The most shocking element that was common among all of them was commentary about how younger generations don’t believe them when they talk of the things that happened.
THIS GENOCIDE HAPPENED IN 1975-1979.
The idea that anyone living in the country doesn’t “believe” it is scary. How quickly we can forget or push aside the things that make us uncomfortable.
The audio tour continued on. It ended in a room with glass cases, housing the bones of those who died at the prison itself. Mistakes. They were only to be tortured there. Killed somewhere else.
On the way out, I noticed two different tables. At each sat an elderly Cambodian man. I looked closer at the first. I knew his name. It had been mentioned in the tour. He was a survivor. One of twelve. Twelve of 20,000. He had books for sale, but I had left my wallet at the hostel and couldn’t contribute. All I could do was walk over, and shake his hand. We made eye contact, I closed my eyes and bowed my head to him, his hand in mine.
The tears filled my eyes.
I went over to the other table. Another survivor. How could they come back to this place? Two of twelve. Twelve of 20,000. Again I walked over and I asked to shake his hand. We made knowing eye contact. I bowed my head again, his hand in mine. I thanked him for his stories.
And I wept.
The two other girls were ahead of me and when they saw me on the way out, noticed I was shaken. They hadn’t seen the survivors. Those handshakes were mine to cherish. Mine to mourn.
The second stop was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (the killing fields). This is where the prisoners came to die. 129 mass graves were found at this site alone. In one, all 166 bodies were headless. In another, only the remains of children were found; the large tree beside it was covered in blood and brains from the babies’ heads being bashed against it until their deaths came. On another tree, you can see where a speaker was hung. When it came time to kill the prisoners, music was blasted to cover their screams.
A large pagoda has been constructed and it houses the remains that have been found at the site. Only about half of the graves have been exhumed. The rest remain interred. In the glass case you see the skulls, sorted by age and likely implement of death (shovel, hoe, etc.).
The only small spots of color and light seen are the sunset dancing through the trees and the stacks of bracelets left by visitors in respect for the dead.
The most shocking moments of the day came not at the museum or at the killing fields, but on the ride home. Soaking in sorrow from the day, I couldn’t help but be amazed as we rode through the city – bustling, growing, laughing. To think that every single person in Cambodia 36 years old and older has lived through REAL and HORRIFIC events, yet the country is full of spirit. There are all the signs of a city growing – new construction, traffic, people going to and fro. It was a Saturday and the ride was dotted with weddings. We passed one tuk tuk with 7 women headed to a wedding, all decked out, all smiling and waving at us. Laughing with us. To think about all of what we saw during the day, contrasted with the incredible spirit at dusk, is incomprehensible.
Shaken, but lovingly,