Our day in Phnom Penh was by far the most emotional of our trip. It is very difficult to explain the mix of emotions we felt after spending half a day visiting the Killing Fields and Choeung Ek Prison. We rented a tuk tuk for a couple hours to visit both sites. I had read a few books on the Cambodian Genocide, but Chris knew a very limited amount (only what I had mentioned while reading).
Choeng Ek Genocide Memorial / Killing Field
There were many killing fields throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge brought prisoners accused of crimes against the regime and executed and buried them in mass graves. Our tour of the Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial/ Killing Field involved an audio tour that gave not only information about it, but also included firsthand testimonies from survivors the genocide. Even though I had read some first-hand experiences of the genocide, it was completely different being at the mass graves and hearing about the way people were gruesomely murdered. The tour passes excavated mass graves and ends with a Stupa (temple) filled with victim's skulls and bones to honor those killed by the genocide. We both found the tour to be informative and very somber.
Tuel Sleng Prison
After the killing fields, we went to the Tuel Sleng Prison, also known as S-21. While the killing field is very sad, the prison is gut wrenching to visit. It was where the accused were tortured into confessing their crimes against the Khmer Rouge. Many times, prisoners were not told why what they were accused of and would be tortured until the interrogators felt like they had confessed enough. Eventually people would list their friends and families as fellow traitors, continuing an endless cycle of innocent torture. There were multiple times we both had to leave a room or skip a part of the audio tour because it was too much. The level of torture of innocent people that took place here was sickening. The walls were filled with pictures of prisoners, alive and dead. It was truly the most disturbing thing we have ever seen, but we both felt that it is something people should visit and know about.
One of the most frustrating parts is knowing that these atrocities are happening currently in places like Syria. We felt hopeless and sick that humans continue to repeat painful history. Not to mention that most Americans in our generation were never taught about the Cambodian Genocide in school. People need this perspective to understand that there are more issues besides the actual killings itself. There are also the issues of refugees and how to rebuild after the genocide ends. It certainly has changed how we view and feel about current world issues. It especially makes us want to take all the political leaders who are spewing ignorance and force them to visit sites where they can see what hate can create. Only a soulless person could see jail cells, shackles on the floor, and torture devices and continue with their simple-minded statements.
We were also surprised by the connection between the Vietnam war and the Cambodian Genocide. It played a lot of different roles in how Khmer Rouge came to power as the war spilled into Cambodian territory. Eventually Vietnam helped remove the Khmer Rouge from power. But because of Vietnam’s relationship with the US and world for 12 years after Khmer Rouge fell from power and Pol Pot fled to Thailand, the United Nations refused to acknowledge the new government. They also claimed refugee’s stories about the genocide were false and refused to send aid. We know the UN’s decision was not black and white with other issues factoring in, but t's easy to understand why Cambodia struggled with corruption and development once Pol Pot fell out of power. It makes us sick to know that after the Cambodian people suffered immense pain and torture the world continued to turn a blind eye. It truly amazing how friendly and welcoming everyone is to foreigners considering all the events happened within the last 30-40 years. We felt so much anger when we left, but seeing the love that Cambodian's have towards the world now reminds us that the only way to move forward is with love.
Chris & Taylor
Read our travel blog as we visit three continents in 2017.