Visiting the Killing Fields of Pnohm Penh, Cambodia can be an overwhelming and heart breaking experience. I wrote this blog post the day of my visit, when my emotions were very raw. It has taken me three years to publish it, three years of sitting in my draft folder before I could get myself to press publish. This visit shook me to the core, but often the hardest experiences are the ones that are most important….
Warning: The article below may be upsetting to read. I found it inappropriate to take photos at these mass graveyards so there will be no photos to go with this blog post.
We left Ho Chi Minh City at 7.30am ready for the eight hour bus journey to Pnomh Penh, Cambodia. The visa, which the bus company organises for you upon arrival, cost $25 USD.
As soon as you cross the border you start to notice the differences between Vietnam and Cambodia. We saw our first beggars since arriving in South East Asia, kids walking around half dressed, usually carrying around their baby sibling, begging at the windows of the buses and cars. This is a very standard sight to see in developing countries, one I’ve seen more times than I’d like and one that never ceases to break my heart.
After a short ferry ride across a river the bus continued to drive down the dirt roads, passing shabby houses and rice fields.
At 3pm we arrived at the Pnomh Penh bus station, a hub of chaos at the best of times but double so in the pouring rain. Whilst we’ve been traveling the last two months in South East Asia’s ‘wet season’ we’ve been really lucky. Until this point we’d had a few rain storms hit in the middle of the night and two rainy afternoons that cooled off the normally sweltering, hot days but when we hopped into our tuk tuk en route to our hostel the driver told us that it ‘rains too much, every day it rains.’
The longer I travel the less desire I have to wander the streets upon arrival, carrying my heavy bags on my back, as I walk from one hostel to the other trying to find the best ‘last minute’ price. I now like to travel more comfortably, researching places in advance and reading reviews so I know exactly what I’m in for. Researching accommodation for Pnomh Penh proved quite interesting. Almost every review told of the dangers of Pnomh Penh, of the drug dealers and prostitutues lining every street, of the robberies and rapes that are being reported more and more frequently by tourists. Of the warning to not go out late at night and most definitely not alone. To read this the day before our arrival freaked us out a bit, of course. All I’ve heard for years is how beautiful and magical Cambodia is, how kind the people are and how safe everyone felt, but these reviews were saying the complete opposite. I often refer to travel bloggers for their advice and suggestions, as I know they aren’t amateur travelers that could be exagerating a story but well traveled, well experienced travellers who can compare experiences more accurately. I visited ‘Adventurous Kates’ blog, who is most known for her travels in South East Asia. Whilst her 2011 blogs described complete love for this place her latest blog, from her visit at the end of 2013, was titled ‘Cambodias Changed, And Not For The Better.’
Clearly Cambodia was going to be much more interesting then originally thought…
We needed to get our currencies exchanged so after only two hours we ventured out through the markets in search of a currency exchange. These food markets made my stomach churn. The meats they were selling were chopped up and sitting in baskets on the road, covered in flies, in unnatural, rotten looking colours. It definitely made me consider turning vegetarian for our time in Cambodia. All the sudden a frog, whose head had been chopped off and his skin stripped off, jumped out of the basket of frogs in front of me, trying to escape his future as dinner, only to jump three times in front of an oncoming truck. That frog was a fighter, how he managed to stay alive that long was crazy… yep, Cambodia was going to be different.
Our first stop the next day was to the infamous Killing Fields, about an hours drive out of the city.
The history of Cambodias genocide is very complex, but long story short…
April 17th 1975 was the start of a four year reign by the Khmer Rouge Party and therefore the day the Cambodian Genocide started. Over those four years over three million Cambodians and a handful of internationals, of all ages, were brutally tortured, beaten, raped, forced into slave labour, starved and killed. Three million, of the eight million population, were killed for crimes they did not commit- that’s one third of the countries entire population. They were accused of crimes such as being American spies, accused of not supporting the communist party and accused of stealing food. They were beaten and tortured until they admitted to these crimes (which again, they did not commit) before being transported to one of many killing fields like the one we visited. Once they arrived they were executed immediately.
The genocide occuring in Cambodia was kept very quiet from the outside world, kept quiet even to the Cambodians. The idea of this regime was to create a self sufficient country, to take people out of the cities and turn everyone into farmers. I imagine it to be similar to that in ‘The Hunger Games’ where each state were responsible for either agriculture, mining, architecture etc. They would kill those who were a threat to their regime- educated people, doctors, lawyers, people who were unable to farm… the list was endless.
In order to prevent attacks of revenge the soldiers would capture and kill entire families. Once the victims arrived at the Killing Fields they were killed immediately. Bullets were too expensive so they were killed by machetes, knives, axes, bamboo sticks, rocks, babies heads were smashed against trees- you name it, they did it. They would play loud music in the farm to cover the cries of pain and torture from the victims. They buried them in mass plots, hundreds of bodies shoved into the ground together, covered in chemicals to take away the stench of rotten bodies and to kill those who were on the verge of life and death.
Between twenty and three hundred people were killed each day in this particular killing field. It’s crazy to think that only forty years ago this field was being used for such horrible and horrific acts against humanity, not only because it’s so recent (in my parents lifetime) but because today it’s covered with beautiful flowers, orchards and trees. From afar you’d never guess the horror stories it hides. Their is a small lake at the end of the farm filled with bodies of women and children. The water eerily bubbles continuously as if their were rain falling on it, as if the bodies below were still breathing.
As we walked around this field and listened to the history and brutal stories of the victims that died here (via the complimentery headphones), we both had moments where we broke down in tears. It would be impossible to visit this site and not be moved. Not only do they have some of the skulls, bones and clothing up on display in shrines but if you look closely enough you can see teeth and clothing jutting out from the earth below you. It’s a dreadfully sad place that shocks you to the core.
Afterwards we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S21 and one of 150 prisons used during this period), the former school turned prison where the victims of the killing field were tortured for years. Out of the the 20,000 victims that passed through this prison only seven survived, due to their skills as artists, photographers and their ability to repair machinery. Two men are still alive today, selling their books outside, something that baffles me. I could not spend my days as a free man on the site where I was tortured so brutally for many years.
It was a horrible place to visit, the buildings are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. Beds, chains, food bowls, blood stains have all been left untouched as haunting reminders of their history and as a reminder of the ability of human kind and the terror we can cause to one another. When the prison was found by a Vietnamese photographer seven bodies were discovered, rotting away on the prison beds. These victims were some of the only victims who were built actual graves.
I often couldn’t walk into the prison cells due to the overwhelming sense of fear and death that lingered in these rooms.
Just as with World War 2 and Hitler, it took one man, Pul Pots, to destroy a nation and bring them to their knees. Something that overwhelms me and blows my mind. One man!
Cambodia has experienced more than any country should experience. They have suffered and lost so much and it’s incredible to see them today. They are still a poor and undeveloped country and have a long way to go but they have the strength and determination to fight their way through their adversaries and create a better country and future for themselves, day by day.
Whilst visiting these historical sites were in no way enjoyable it is important to be aware of the history of the word through these educational experiences. We need to know the worlds past mistakes so that we won’t ever make them again. I didn’t love my time in Pnohm Penh but I’m glad I came. I hope that next time I visit I’ll see the Cambodians flourishing.
P.S- You must visit ‘Friends‘ Restaurant during your time in Pnohm Penh, it’s an incredible, non-profit restaurant that has worked to build the futures of former street children and marginalise young people in Pnohm Penh since 1994 by training these young people to run this successful and delicious restaurant themselves. It’s an amazing establishment changing lives throughout Cambodia and the rest of Asia. Check out their website linked for more information!