One thing you notice after spending just a week in Cambodia is just how few old people there are. There seems to be a missing generation and the awful truth is that there is. The brutal Khmer Rouge regime reigned terror on the people of this wonderful country for 4 years between 1975 and 1979, killing over a million people either by murder or through the starvation, disease and chaos that often follows such an abhorrent regime. It’s a sad story. But it’s a story more people should know. And it’s the story of why Emily and I visited Phnom Penh.
Skulls of the dead at the Killing Fields – a macabre sight
A bus journey, some food and a sleep later we woke up to our first morning in Phnom Penh and with the weather on our side we headed the 15km south to the Killing Fields. Real name Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, this should be an integral part of any backpackers Phnom Penh itinerary. Be warned though, it won’t be nice. But the final resting place of 9000 murder victims shouldn’t be. A memorial stupa filled with over 5000 skulls and bones of victims stands tall near the entrance. But even these cleaned bones don’t tell the full story. As you wander around the site of execution and reach the mass graves the full weight of the place hits you. Today, in the wet season, the ground releases clothing and bones of those who are still buried. A gruesome reminder of how awful humanity can be.
A tribute around one of the mass graves
You will listen to first hand accounts of survivors and victims as well as the testimony of guards and war criminals. Then you will see a tree covered in tiny bracelets and your heart will be broken when you learn it is a lasting memorial to the 100+ babies who were beaten to death against its trunk. Pol Pot, dictator of the Khmer Rouge, said “clean from the roots” meaning to eliminate political enemies before they could grow up and seek revenge. The truth was discovered after the fall of the regime by the brains, skull matter and hair matted against the tree. It is the stuff of nightmares. But it is the very essence of what we, collectively as a species, need to learn from and never repeat.
The memorial tree and site of infanticide
We didn’t do much with the rest of our day. After an afternoon of reflection and a sleep we were back at it the following morning. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S21 (Security Prison 21) is another infamous site of the Khmer Rouge – a secondary school that was converted into a detention centre for the torture and conviction of nearly 20000 political prisoners. Many of the dead lie in the Killing Fields we had already visited. There were only 12 known survivors. A horrible figure that sums up ruthless efficiency of the place. For locals it was known as the place you went in but never came out. That’s something I can’t imagine having to live by or live through.
Detainment cell and bed for torture victims, with immobilising irons
An oppressive place, much of the location today is kept as it was in the 70s. Barbed wire rusts atop every wall making escape impossible. The cells are kept in the same dank, cramped and inhumane conditions. As you wander the area and see the various torture methods that were used it is hard not to be amazed at the callous disregard for human life that the Khmer Rouge managed to indoctrinate in such a short period of time. While this was certainly a difficult visit, it was, just like the Killing Fields, an important one. After the splendour of Angkor Wat and Siem Reap it was really important for us to not gloss over the harder to stomach recent history of Cambodia. We definitely managed that in Phnom Penh.
Cell blocks and cramped conditions for those ‘lucky’ enough to not be tortured… yet
But it’s also important not to think of Phnom Penh as just a sad place. The pair of us also really enjoyed our time here and there were plenty of other things to see and do. Trips to the Independence Monument, the Central Market and Wat Phnom were all good to see in their own way and showed us that this is a city that is very much alive and kicking. Healing from the wounds of 40 years ago. It’s because these wounds are healing that we were even able to explore and enjoy the rich Khmer culture of Cambodia’s capital. And it’s because of this progress that our visit was all the more rewarding.
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Independence Monument – celebrating one of Cambodia’s happier memories: independence from France