Cambodia, as close as it is to Vietnam, was caught up in the Vietnam War and suffered many casualties in that conflict. Shortly thereafter, Cambodia underwent a brutal war on itself when the Khmer Rouge came to power, led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge was in power just less than four years (officially) when Vietnam showed up, though the United Nations negotiated with Pol Pot until his death in the late 1990’s. It was weird to realize that Vietnam was the saving grace for the Cambodian people, not long after their own terrible war. Not America. Not the Western allies. And yet, in the 3+ years of rule over Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge wiped out between 1 and 2 million people. Pol Pot wanted to create a utopian society – so he promptly killed people that were white-collar professionals, knew more than one language, or even wore eyeglasses – and then forced whoever was left, to work in the agriculture industry under poor working conditions.
Imagine – every grade school teacher in the entire country has been killed by Pol Pot (who was a teacher himself for 10+ years before becoming a politician). How do you educate the next generation of kids? How do you rebuild your society when the war is over?
As should probably be expected, there was a massive rise in birthrates after the war ended, so now the average age of the populace is only 22.
The government did a fairly good job of keeping the records of the Khmer Rouge and memorializing the instruments and facilities of the war. The day after arriving in Phnom Penh, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also called S-21), and later, the Killing Fields. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a high school built by the French that was turned into a prison / detention center under the Khmer Rouge. It is said that those who were imprisoned at this particular prison were military and civilian members of the Khmer Rouge itself who were turned in by other members of the Khmer Rouge (often falsely). One of the first signs we saw when we entered, lists 10 security rules, some of which were:
- Don’t be fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
- While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
- If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Then we went to a series of pull-up bars, presumably used by former high school students in gym class. The Khmer Rouge would tie you up, hang you upside down until you fainted, then try to drown you by forcing your head underwater – then just as soon as you regained consciousness, they’d ask you a bunch of questions designed to make you incriminate yourself.
After being interned at S-21 for a while, if you survived the torture, you were sent to the Killing Fields about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh. There, you were shot in the head within 24 hours of arrival and buried in one of over 100 mass graves. A memorial has been built in the center of the area, housing skulls recovered from the excavation.
Insert by Rachel:
We went on an audio guided tour of the Killing Fields, which not only explained what different parts of the fields were (mass graves, a tree for hitting the heads of infants to kill them before putting them in their mass grave, the place where trucks filled with people would come in, etc.) but also gave testimonials from people who either lived around the time or those who actually worked in the Killing Fields as part of the Khmer Rouge. The audio guided tour was probably one of the best ones I’ve ever been on since it was so detailed and really did a good job of explaining what happened at the Killing Fields from different perspectives. And the memorial building itself was beautiful with both Hindu and Buddhist artifacts decorating it. Sadly, however, it also displays the skulls and other large bones that had been discovered and catalogued at the Killing Fields.
The S-21 Museum was also really good but incredibly haunting to see the faces of those imprisoned there and transcripts of people’s “confessions”. One of the things that struck me most is why the leaders of the Khmer Rouge still haven’t been formally tried – I think only one has been tried and sentenced – over 30 years later! He’s the only one that has actually taken responsibility and admitted what was done during the Khmer Rouge regime. He was the leader of the S-21 prison and basically accepted all fault and said that everyone under him was just following his orders and should not be blamed as much as he himself. The other leaders of the Khmer Rouge claim that they had no idea of the atrocities that were going on in the prisons or any knowledge of the Killing Fields or even that all of it actually occurred. It’s like people doubting the Holocaust happened – eesh.
Back to Samir:
After seeing so much death and history, we stayed in the remainder of the day, though we decided to go out at night. On a tip from a hotel manager, we went to a packed nightclub (on what happened to be a Saturday night), which had a lively vibe. We managed to get greasy burgers at 3am before heading back. The following day, we went to the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Many artifacts were destroyed in the war, but some survived.
And what trip wouldn’t be complete without some current culture? I went to a Cambodian boxing match in a covered arena owned by a news station. The boxers came on stage, bowed before the audience and the judges, stretched and warmed-up. When the fight began, music would play and the boxers would tap their feet to the beat of the music, and use that rhythm to pace their punches. We saw 4-5 matches. It was pretty cool.