As if on cue, those who love Cambodia tend to unanimously cite the same reason as to why Cambodia makes your heart beat a little quicker: the People. Stereotyping people across the board is so 1900s, but it has to be said that Cambodia hosts one of the friendliest and most genuine societies in the world.
Not one but two tuk tuk drivers proudly showed me their village, the inside of their home, and introduced me to their family.
One morning, I dumped everything out of my suitcase in a panic because I couldn’t find my bus ticket to the next town. The receptionist told me, “Don’t worry, we will always help you. You are not alone…” before calling and arranging a way for me to travel without a pass. This receptionist worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week to pay for his room in the hotel. When I told him he deserved a day off, he told me “Why? I am happy that I can sleep in such a beautiful place.”
One afternoon, the woman doing my laundry made a mistake and forgot to give a piece of clothing back to me. When I went back to her house, she sat me on a stool and called her husband over to keep me company. After giving me advice on where to go next he told me, “I hope you tell your friends that you love Cambodia, and that you will come back someday.”
I heard these words again and again throughout my trip.
“I hope that you love Cambodia.”
“I hope that you will come back.”
“I hope you’ll bring friends to Cambodia.”
The word hope lies at the crux of every sentence, and to understand the power of the sentiment it is essential to talk briefly about Cambodian history.
Table of Contents
Background on the Khmer Rouge
In 1975, Cambodia was ruled by a Communist regime called the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) with Pol Pot as the country’s leader. Prior to his leadership, Cambodia had a royal monarchy. Pol Pot lived in the jungle of Cambodia and assembled a small guerrilla army of young — usually stray– men into what was made up of the Khmer Rouge.
During the years leading up to the Khmer Rouge regime, America had been bombing Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia, oftentimes killing Cambodian peasants. As a result, many Cambodians fled into cities like Phnom Penh where they thought they’d be free from the Vietnam-American conflict. Meanwhile, Vietnamese escapees joined the Khmer Rouge as allies.
Turmoil within the country combined with no clear guidance led to Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party obtaining power. He overthrew the monarchy and on April 17, 1975, he officially held control over Cambodia.
Pol Pot, heavily influenced by the Communist teachings of Mao Zedong, immediately set to creating an agrarian society – easily understood as “peasant Communism.” To do this, he had to extinguish any educated or cultural influence. Pol Pot destroyed records of Cambodian history, art, recent inventions, and set the country to Year Zero. He banned all forms of media and cut off all forms of communication, like telephone use and the mail system. The use of money was officially banned, with notes and coins destroyed.
And he didn’t stop there. Every other form of personal freedom was also abolished to ensure that every semblance of individual identity vanished. Parents no longer had the right to have authority of their children. Education, business, religion, and healthcare was also prohibited.
The genocide of Cambodia’s culture was widespread and unrelenting. To create the ideal peasant class, he murdered anyone with an education, religious leadership position, foreign language skill, or successful business to ensure that these ideas wouldn’t corrupt his Utopian society in the future. To prevent family members seeking revenge someday, the Khmer Rouge also killed entire families of those who didn’t meet his criteria. Pol Pot was absolutely unrelenting.
Cambodians were falsely told that the U.S. was about to bomb Phnom Penh in order to convince them to evacuate the city and go to the countryside without resistance. Tens of thousands Khmers died while migrating from the city to countryside, usually of exhaustion or starvation. With guns pointed to their backs, Cambodian families walked to the jungle where they’d be put into slave labor camps where they would likely die. The labor camps forced those with no farming experience to work over twelve hours per day to harvest as much food as possible. The food produced by these camps was not used to feed the people but instead was sold to Vietnam, earning the Khmer Rouge more money to fund their militant government.
Meanwhile, Cambodians starved.
Those who didn’t fit Pol Pot’s criteria for surviving (or who were deemed untrustworthy or useless in the labor camps) were placed into pits and killed. These pits are now the Killing Fields of Cambodia. To murder his own people, Pol Pot commanded Khmer Rouge leaders to use blunt trauma, machetes, palm leaves, starvation, and acid as a method to extinguish the victims. To kill infants, the Khmer Rouge simply slammed them against a tree.
“No bullets wasted,” the he insisted.
I knew that I had to visit the Cambodian Killing Fields of Phnom Penh to truly understand the history of the country.
I invited a friend from the hostel to see the Killing Fields with me. As much as I disliked the thought of making small talk in a place where no amount of upbeat conversation could ever mask the horror of what happened there, I couldn’t stand the thought of being completely alone – left with my own thoughts without the crutch of another person to know what I’m experiencing. I wanted someone to confirm that everything I’d see was true, and that it all really happened.
Visiting the Cambodian Killing Fields
Outside of the gates of Phnom Penh’s main Killing Field (there hundreds in Cambodia), life continues as usual. Tuk tuk drivers nap while awaiting their passengers to come out of the Killing Fields, and child beggars walk around repeating, “One dollar – Just one dollar” with their hands outstretched. A smell that I couldn’t put my finger on hangs in the air. I hope that there was a garbage facility nearby or something else that would explain the smell, but my imagination leads me to more gruesome thoughts.
Either way, the air stinks of rot.
My friend and I each put on a pair of headsets, separating from the start and taking the tour at our own pace. I clutch a journal and pen in hand, constantly scribbling down thoughts as I walk around the property.
On a fence encasing one of the killing fields, people placed colorful bracelets to commemorate those who died.
Cambodians coming into this killing field usually arrived at night, and were told that they’d be living in a new home.
However, they were usually killed the same night, with loud patriotic music blasting from the speakers to cover the screams of others dying before them. A large generator also blared in the background, adding to the noise. Innocent Khmer people were cut with palm leaves and pushed into pits, DDT thrown onto them to ensure their death and to cover the smell.
My audio set plays an example of how the night sounded into my ears, flooding my body with adrenaline. The hair on my arm raises.
I walk around the field. The body pits are now large, shallow depressions in the earth with fresh grass growing on top of the soil. I notice signs that say, “Please don’t pick up or step bone fragments.” It rained the day before, so a few bleached bones protrude on the dirt footpaths. I make excuses for the bones, telling myself that they were white branches or rocks – until one surfaces completely and forces me to acknowledge what was truly buried underneath my feet.
A few Khmer visitors move bones that were fully emerged to the side of the path so that they won’t be stepped on.
“Better to kill an innocent than to spare an enemy,” Pol Pot often rationalized. He was paranoid of any form of uprising, which is how he excused the genocide.
When I walk around the other side of the field, child beggars shake the chain-link fence and asked for money. Two brothers, they laugh and shove one another until one falls over. With everyone else around utterly silent, their voices are shouts straight into my ears. I am firmly against giving child beggars money, but my ethics don’t appease the guilt I feel as they follow me along the fence while I ignore them.
Stories of survivors play into my headset. Stories of anger, rape, tragedy, guilt, and sadness mixed with stories of hope and love.
Pieces of muddy clothes stick up from the dirt.
“You work for food. Selfishness and anger emerges – this makes you hate your own people,” one survivor says.
“People can die of loneliness, this is why hope was the only thing that kept me alive,” says another. “I am now shattered glass. It is only me who can find the pieces.”
I wonder whether people are naturally good, or evil. I have an urge to go back to Western Australia, where I have the ability to be so isolated from the rest of the world that it often feels like I live on a different planet. As I carry on, I near the end of the tour and encounter piles of bones. Many of the bones are encased in glass, placed inside the case when the memorial was founded. However, many bones lean on the outside of the glass case, obviously found afterwards much like the ones I walked around.
Finally, I am led to the main building that has an enclosure of hundreds of skulls in a glass stupa. I walk to the back of the building and hide my face behind my journal while I look at the bones, embarrassed to cry in front of strangers. I wonder why I’m short of breath, sipping air as if I’m afraid to inhale the death that surrounds me. When a stranger walks near me, I feign calmness and scribble in my journal as a distraction – though I’m sure everyone else here feels the same as I do.
I look at the skulls and imagine them as people. People who once cried, smiled, made mistakes. They knew the feeling of accomplishment, grief, jealousy, and had dreams. They had families, favorite foods, hated chores, and guilty pleasures. They experienced the range of emotions and experiences that I have.
20,000 people were killed at this site alone.
I don’t want these thoughts to crack me open. I push them aside and focus on my surroundings. The trees, the grass, the stupa, the silence.
My sadness compounds inside of the memorial’s museum, where I match photographs of victims to the skulls sitting just a few hundred feet away.
It is so silent. I dread going to the S-21 Prison, where even more tragedy took place, but I have a duty to educate myself. I’d much rather skim over the genocidal history that blemished the country and go back to the city, where good food, massages, and small talk awaits me.
Visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields exhausted me mentally, so by the time we arrived at the prison, I had to constantly muster the energy to absorb more information.
Many Khmers were killed inside of the S-21 prison (now called the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide), that was only discovered by two Vietnamese journalists in 1979. The journalists documented bodies being tortured – decomposing shackled to iron beds with blood pooling underneath. Much like the labor camps, Cambodians were starved and tortured in an effort to release information of traitors. This concept of traitors was driven by Pol Pot’s paranoia, and not by fact. The museum now hosts thousands of portraits of victims, deceased or tortured within the prison’s barb wired walls.
One artist’s life was spared because he could paint portraits of the Khmer Rouge leaders – leading to his survival. This artist argues that every young person should, “learn a skill – you never know when it could save your life.”
Don’t learn a skill because it might fulfill you, earn you money, or make you accomplished. Perfect a skill so that it can save your life. These words would only ever be uttered by someone coming from a culture with a backstory of genocide.
Out of the 14,000 prisoners hosted in the S-21 Prison, it is thought that only 12 people survived to see the outside world again.
Cambodia has still not recovered from the 3 years 8 months and 8 days led by the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranks #154 in corruption, and is one of the largest offenders for child sex-trafficking. Many Khmers of today do not believe that the genocide has taken place, and live in denial that it happened. The Cambodian genocide is not officially taught in the classroom, and even if it was, many children do not attend school.
Almost every single older Cambodian – who lived during the Pol Pot regime (30% of the population) – is currently suffering from untreated psychological trauma as a result. Your drivers, restaurant owners, tour guides, and masseuses all have been in some way effected by the genocide. It was that recent.
There are ghosts everywhere. Hundreds of other killing fields, unattended struts with skulls inside, and endless stories told from wise souls who start sentences with, “I survived Khmer Rouge…”
My tuk tuk driver turned friend told me, “My mother’s family was killed by Khmer Rouge… I am too scared to ask her about them. I don’t want to make her sad.”
Out of all of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, only five top politicians have been pegged for the blame. Out of these five people, only one has admitted guilt and has been convicted of these crimes against humanity. Many of the Khmer Rouge leaders are still in power today.
Cambodians have not received justice for what has been done to them – and without justice, there is no peace.
Cambodians still have a spark in their eyes that should have been dimmed when Pol Pot took power. The struggle to push forward should have ended when one out of every four Cambodians were murdered senselessly. They should have given up long ago, when reality showed them that the world was a terrible place.
But Cambodians have hope – for freedom, for justice, for peace, for prosperity, for rebirth.