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Pondering Phnom Penh

Emer: This was perhaps the toughest destination we went to. Khmer Rouge was something I knew very little about prior to Phnom Penh. I had heard about the Killing Fields, but didn’t know details. But very well presented details were given when we visited. Instead of physical tour guides, everyone is given a headset and make their own way around at their own time. The silence, though adding an element of eeriness, made it all the more powerful and respectful. There were a number of testimonies one could listen to while walking along a green path, or take a seat on one of the benches to mediate on new knowledge of what happened then right where you are now. The calculated, ruthless genocide and the cruel and gruesome way victims were treated churned my stomach. It was very hard to hear, but it felt important. I’m glad I am now aware and know more about this atrocity that took place so recently.

killing fields cambodia skulls


It was with heavy hearts we made our way to the Genocide Museum. A former school was converted to a prison that saw hundreds of arrested individuals enter, and only seven survived when the regime was stopped. Walking through and seeing the small cots and chains and rooms was emotional. So were all the photos, and there were many as the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their record keeping. What was perhaps most moving was reading the stories of those few survivors and thoughts from former guards and officers. On our way out one of the survivors was there . How hard must it be to return to a place that was so brutal to you, I thought. Incredibly he was all smiles. Pat picked up his book, one I hope to read once he’s done – no rush Pat ūüėČ

In between the two spots we stopped off at the Russian Market to grab a bite. We walked around seeing what other people were eating and when we spotted a very yummy looking bowl of vermicelli, we sat down and pointed. Luckily, it tasted as good as it looked.

vermicelli cambodian food

Matt: While one of the most well known tourist attractions in Cambodia is “the Killing Fields,” it is certainly not a site that will leave you feeling happy and full of excitement. ¬†I will admit that I knew nothing about what happened in Cambodia in the late 1970’s other than it somehow stemmed from the aftermath of the Vietnam war. ¬†As we set out for what we knew was going to be a very tough day, I learned more than I really wanted about the lengths of human cruelty.

Pol Pot rose to power in the mid ’70s through force with a dream of turning Cambodia into a fully realized communist utopia. ¬†He wanted to create a completely self-reliant society without classes or social inequality. ¬†Unfortunately, the steps he took from there lead to perhaps some of the most heinous acts of the last 100 years. ¬†To start with, everyone was moved out of cities into the farming lands to increase food production and cut ties with foreign dependencies on production. ¬†There were mass imprisonments of educated individuals, religious individuals, or anyone seen as a potential threat to the new regime. ¬†As it became apparent that mass prisons were adding a strain to an already constrained food source, the answer that appeared was murder.

killing fields phnom penh cambodia

When talking about genocide, there is no better or worse, it is all atrocious.  That being said, unlike the holocaust, this was not carried out through technological means.  There were no gas chambers, no firing squads, there were hand tools. It is estimated that just over 2 million of the then population of 8 million Cambodians were killed with hoes, hatchets, machetes, or anything that would do the trick quietly and inexpensively. The most heart and stomach wrenching was the method for disposing of infants. It was deemed most efficient to grab the child by the legs and swing them head first into a tree, before tossing the corpse in a pit.

killing fields phnom penh cambodia

To walk around the site, just one of many such sites across the country, was as chilling an event as one could envision.  It was the type of day where I would jump at a chance to be part of any other species on the planet, one that has not done to its own, what most would never conceive of doing to another. The worst part about all is that this is not an isolated incident of human cruelty.  We are too often lead through fear and lies to believe in causes, or at the very least comply with them, to preserve what is believed to be in our own best interest. One of the final statements made on the audio tour is that through awareness, we can prevent something like this from happening again. The sad fact is that things like this are still happening as you read this in different areas of the world.   The one thing that this atrocious event has done is shown unparalleled acts of human compassion and forgiveness. The people of this country seem like some of the happiest I have come across in my travels.  This is not a distant memory for them, this did not happen 70+ years ago.  This happened 35-40 years ago. There is likely not an individual in the whole country who was not touched by it in one way or another.  In many cases, you now have people living in the same communities as those who were on opposite sides of the conflict.  It is often known that your neighbour helped kill, helped perpetuate, and bought into the brutality of it all.  Yet somehow they can move past it and go on living today in peace and harmony.

survivor genocide museum phnom penh cambodia

We did have the honour of meeting one survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison camp, and in his own words he has forgiven those who acted against him. ¬†Chum Mey understands that most had one choice in front of them: kill or be killed. ¬†He looks back and wonders if he would have had the strength and courage to give up his own life instead of taking the lives of so many others. ¬†It’s a question we all can wonder to ourselves, what would I be prepared to do to stay alive? ¬†And if in giving in to such pressures that would have you murder your own friends and family, what part of you really still remains? It is easy enough to think now that I would make the right choice, but I write that sitting in the safety of England at 34 years old with a keyboard in hand, not there at 20 with a machete in hand.


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