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Phnom Penh: Reflections of Cambodia’s Resiliency

The dirty, jammed-packed streets of Phnom Penh lined with food carts, restaurants, bars and boutiques were once silenced.  Cambodia’s capital sat vacant, a mere ghost town and a skeleton of what it once was.  As Dan and I sit along the river front sipping our Angkor Beer – it’s hard to imagine.  We struggle to talk over the beeping horns of tuk-tuks, the music blaring from a public dance/exercise class in the nearby park and the children playing across the street. A mother carrying a limp, sleeping child in her arms begs for money from restaurant patrons seated along the street, and only several tables down, a small boy walks by with his hands out and his wide, brown eyes pleading for help. I didn’t know what to expect upon coming to Cambodia.  I knew the country was terribly impoverished, but knew little of the realities of its hardships. I knew nothing of the people or the lives they led, but would soon learn how nearly each and every family is the victim of great tragedy. The rundown of tourist attractions in the capital is pretty short.  There’s the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, Independence Monument and the National Museum of Cambodia, which houses the most awe-inspiring compilation of artifacts pulled from the temples of Ankgor Wat in Siem Reap.   And then there’s the two most popular destinations: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek, also known as ‘The Killing Fields’.  Both “attractions” are the sites of previous horrific, unimaginable terror. We debated greatly over whether to even visit the latter two sites.  We were taken aback by the thought of tragedy turned to tourism.  However, we were pulled by an overwhelming desire to better grasp the gravity and understand the immense loss and hardship endured by the Cambodian people – although in the end, none truly can. Our hearts are heavy, but our minds open as our tuk-tuk driver, hired the day before, arrives to whisk us first to Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, then to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.  The three-wheeled motor cart jerks and jolts its way through the pot-holed, crumbling streets of Phnom Penh eventually coming to a stop outside an unassuming concrete building.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), Phnom Penh

An eery feeling sank into the pit of my stomach as we walk beneath the towering museum entrance and into a concrete compound clad in barbed wire.  A kind woman greets us warmly, and exchanges our money for two tickets before pointing us in the direction of a back building where an educational video is set to begin in ten minutes.  We find a seat inside the barren room.  The old, rusted fan in the corner barely moves the hot air, but the noise from the circulating blades drowns out the faint sound of the small television situated at the head of dozens of empty chairs.  The screen flashes scenes from the time of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s horrific rule.  Pol Pot, a Cambodian Revolutionary who fell in love with the Communist Party while studying in France, led Cambodia from 1963 until his death in 1998 – although the late 70s saw the overthrow of his murderous Khmer Rouge.  In all, he is responsible for ordering the murders of anywhere from 1 to 3 million Cambodians, about 1/3 the country’s population.  It’s a horrific scene very hard to fully grasp until you actually visit Cambodia.  While the US was waging a bloody war against communism in nearby Vietnam, we turned our backs as a ruthless dictator led his people into the very depths of hell.

During the Khmer Rouge rule, Pol Pot forced the evacuation of the entire capital city of Phnom Penh.  Many were marched to their death as Pot Pot believed most city dwellers or anyone with glasses was smart.  He saw anyone with an education as a threat.  He mercilessly murdered doctors, lawyers, professors and the like.  Families were ripped apart and sent to separate rural work camps unaware if their loved ones were able to survive.  Those thought to be scheming against Pot Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime were brought here to S-21 for imprisonment.

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Barbed Wire Lined Buildings Inside S-21 to Prevent Prisons from Committing Suicide

The full stories held within the stained, decaying walls of S-21 will never be known.  Only a few survivors remain, and their vivid, haunting memories are enough to make you weak in the knees.  Today, they sit outside the complex politely signing copies of their books for visitors, while other victims of the Khmer Rouge reign drag themselves across the streets outside the compound, their missing limbs a tragic reminder of the violence inflicted upon thousands Cambodians. S-21 operated as a prison and torture center from 1975 to 1978 when the last 14 prisoners, including one woman, were slaughtered before Khmer Rouge guards fled the compound.  In its three years of operation, approximately 20,000 people were dragged into this living hell to be violently and ruthlessly tortured before eventually being sent to Choeung Ek, better known as the killing fields, to face their death. The gravity and atrocious nature weighs heavily on me as I wander from building to building and room to room..walking by grotesque photographs depicting the bloody and cruel torture that happened here.  It was Pol Pot’s belief that all those suspected of working against his Khmer Rouge should be eliminated, and S-21 was the imprisonment camp where those even suspected of revolting against the regime were tortured until a confession, true or false, was obtained.

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A Tortured S-21 Prisoner

S-21 once served as a primary and high school for Phnom Penh’s school-aged children, and the contrast between horror and innocence is haunting.  We walk through rooms converted into torture chambers or small prison cells with chalk boards still hanging on the walls – a startling reminder of the hope these rooms once held. As we continue to work our way through the rooms detailing the atrocities, the faces of the thousands of prisoners who faced such brutality before being ruthlessly murdered stare back at us from the walls.  It’s unnerving, unsettling and above all humbling.  The thought of innocent people facing the barbarity of a life under a violent dictator makes many of challenges and frustrations encountered in our daily lives seem nothing more than a petty joke.  I felt so small.  Why do I worry about what I do when others face fears worthy of serious concern. I pause and stare into each face on the wall and my imagination is left to create their story.  They are just like us.  They are human.  They love their family and work to provide for their children, they want success and safety in life, they fear illness and death, they laugh and smile at the humor in life and their lives were once based in their communities. Unfortunately, by nothing more than the luck of birth, their community fell victim to ruthless regime.

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Khmer Rouge S-21 Victim

 After walking through a room containing boxes full of the skulls and bones of S-21 victims, I just couldn’t take anymore.  I wasn’t overwhelmed or weak at this point, but I was tired of facing the injustice of it all.  Even worse, one of the final rooms detailed the ongoing trials of the top members of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Yes, ongoing.  The Cambodian people have not fully received justice, and to be honest, even if they had..nothing will ever provide compensation for the viciousness brought upon them.

I felt a strange freeing feeling as I walked from S-21.  Still, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of Cambodians who only four decades before left the compound by truck, under the hopes they may be taken back to the fields and put to work.  Instead, they were driven to the nearby killing fields to face the grimmest of fates. Who knows, our tuk-tuk may have followed a similar path as those trucks full of prisoners as we made our way outside the bustling city to the Choeung Ek killing fields.  We were whisked through a rural neighborhood near the site of terror. Here, children played in the street, women worked the fields or cleaned clothing in large tubs outside their modest homes.  It’s as if life has returned to normal.

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Woman Working Near Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields

We pull through sparse food stalls sporadically situated outside Choeung Ek and make our way to the entry gate.  The $5.00 US entry fee is nominal, but apparently still too much for a man in line ahead of us.  He asks for admittance without the audio tour and is given a ticket for $3.00 US.  We pay for our full $5.00 tickets and take only a few steps to pick up our audio guides nearby.  To our dismay the meek, French foreigner who opted to pay $2.00 less for his entry follows us to the audio guide station as if he’s with us.  As he reaches to take a guide, Dan snaps.  “He didn’t pay for that.” The worker shrugged his shoulders and flashed a confused grin.  He was lost in translation.  “You said no guide,” Dan said directly to the surly little man.  “You didn’t pay for it.”  “It’s none of your concern,” the man replied in the most hateful of manners.  “Come on man, are your really going to rip these people off,” Dan pleaded.  The man tucked his audio guide deep into his pocket, his earphones at the ready and trotted off to the first tour point. My heart sank.  How could someone be so awful.  The Cambodian people have endured so much, and here he is trying to cheat his way out of two dollars to tour the site where thousands of innocent people were ruthlessly slaughtered.  Evil people parade the world wearing different masks and committing varying frauds, and while this misstep doesn’t rise to the level of so many others – a lie is still a lie and only leads to more wrongdoing.  The man tried his best to dodge us the remainder of the time at Cheok Ek, but it seems Phnom Penh is a small place in a big world and we happened to bump into our dear friend again, this time outside the Royal Palace where he was paying a young beggar clutching a sleeping baby for a photograph.  He dropped the money into her open hands then waited for her to tuck away the bills and stare forlornly into his camera lens.  Sickening, but I digress.

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The Tourist Who Does EVERYTHING Wrong

The stories wafting through our audio guide as we wandered the killing fields were equally as terrifying if not worse than those of S-21.  The killing fields are rolling mounds of mass graves situated on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.  A beautiful old tree, the branches the witness to such horror, stands near the entrance.  Its branches once housed a loudspeaker that blared beautiful music, not for the enjoyment of those nearby, but to mask the blood-curtling screams of those being slaughtered by Pol Pot’s soldiers.  As we wandered to the next point on our audio guide, human bone fragments line the narrow pathway.  They’re collected every-so-often and placed into a memorial box, but rain and other natural elements help them make their way to surface from the mass graves below.

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Mass Grave at The Killing Fields

We stop at yet another tree.  This one is enough to nearly make me physically ill.  The solemn voice leading us through the killing fields describes how the tree was turned into a murderous weapon.  It was here women and children were beaten to death, their skulls crushed against the wide, hardened trunk.  After the fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, hair, blood and fragments of skull were found trapped in its thick bark.  Again, these innocent victims all randomly selected at the hands of a ruthless, communist dictator.  Remaining pieces of clothing are collected from the dirt and placed into a nearby box for tourists to see.  Bracelets hang on the bark of the tree and along the wood of the mass graves representing small mementoes of remorse, regret and remembrance.

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Box of Victim’s Clothing Surfaced Over Time

I am again reaching my breaking point as we make our way to the final stop on our “tour of tragedy” – the memorial.  Inside the temple sit 10,000 skulls once pulled from the mass graves and catalogued before being put on the display for tourists.  While I find it slightly disrespectful to use them as part of an “attraction”, I can’t help but be moved by the powerful monument.  Yet, I don’t want to walk up to it or take photographs of the bones stacked inside . Instead, I honor those killed from afar, and scoff at the smiling tourist snapping a photo of himself standing beneath the thousands of human skulls.

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Memorial Temple at Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields

There are so many things I wanted to photograph at the killing fields that day, but I just couldn’t bring myself to hold my camera steady and simply push the button.  It felt wrong. I needed to honor the victims and their surviving families by simply learning about and understanding the evil inflicted upon innocent people.  Yet, I know the mission of Cambodians is to spread awareness of the atrocities they endured (although strangely Choeung Ek is now run by a Japanese company), but still something stopped me from fully photographing this as a typical tourist attraction.  Yet, I feel the world needs to know what happened in Cambodia and why the country is caught decades behind the rest of the developing world.  I knew nothing of this before setting out on my travels, but I feel it’s by far one of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far. I know there is absolutely no way I could have understood the tragedy unless I walked through the school-turned-torture chamber or wandered the bone-ladden killing fields of Phnom Penh. But, while it is hard to grasp these brutal acts of violence, it can still happen in today’s “modern” society.  It’s even harder to grasp that the United Nations, the United States included, recognized Pol Pot as Cambodia’s leader until the late 90s.  This man was driven out of “power” years before, finally with the help of the Vietnamese, yet global politicians still recognized him as the rightful ruler of Cambodia for years to come.  How can the United States justify action in Vietnam or wage a secrete war on Laos (more on that to come), yet allow a cold-blooded, communist leader to murder his own people in an effort to create a weak, peasant, agricultural society?

Still, with all the vindictive violence the Cambodians have endured, they are some of the most welcoming, kind-hearted and open people we’ve encountered on our travels thus far.  Yes, the government is corrupt – and I can say that from first-hand experiences with police officers (we were bribed yet AGAIN by an officer offering to get our visas outside the Vietnam Embassy), but the people are working to promote somewhat honest democracy and NGOs are helping to promote growth and progress within Cambodia.

The country is far from perfect and has the Mount Everest of uphill climbs to summit, but they are working to better themselves and move forward, all the while refusing to forget about the deplorable past.  They will forever honor the victims of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and we can help them by simply acknowledging the atrocities they survived and recognizing and respecting their resiliency.

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  • Phnom Penh, CambodiaRoyal Palace
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • Phnom Penh, CambodiaNational Museum of Cambodia
  • Phnom Penh, CambodiaNational Museum of Cambodia
  • Phnom Penh, CambodiaNational Museum of Cambodia
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  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia River View
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  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia S-21
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  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia S-21
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia S-21 Prison Cells
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  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia Killing Fields
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia Killing Fields Memorial
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia Killing Fields
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia Killing Fields
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia Killing Fields
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