Phnom Penh: Confronting A Gruesome History

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia was radically different than any city we visited in Vietnam. There are a lot more people with cars, making traffic more chaotic, and actually causing backups, which never happened in moto-crazy Vietnam. There are a lot less people in Phnom Penh, 1.5 million, compared to almost 8 million in Saigon and 6 million in Hanoi. On the surface, this disparity is due to the fact that Cambodia is a lot less populous than it’s neighbor, but digging a little deeper, you discover there’s much more to it than that.

Almost everyone in the world has likely at least heard of the Khmer Rouge, probably the second most famous thing about Cambodia. While their regime lasted less time than a U.S. presidential election, they managed to kill a quarter of the Cambodian population during those years.

During our time in Phnom Penh, we visited both the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, and the Cheong Ek Killing Fields, where we were confronted with the brutal truth about the Khmer Rouge and how the aftermath of their reign still has a great impact on the Cambodian people today.

The Tuol Sleng museum is actually the site of the former prison, which was a high school before the Khmer Rouge disbanded schools, hospitals and places of worship. It was so eerie to walk through the actual rooms where prisoners were tortured and interrogated. We saw hundreds of photos of those that were held there, many of which were women and children. The eeriest was walking through the building of the school that had been used to keep the prisoners, as tiny makeshift cells had been made in the former classrooms out of brick and wood. Although many horrible things were happening here, in the middle of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge had completely evacuated the city, so no one except government officials would have been able to hear the screams of the tortured prisoners. Most people held there were convicted of ‘crimes against the state’, which in many cases meant that had an advanced educational degree, or were falsely accused by a neighbor trying to prove their own loyalty. Of the 20,000 kept in these tiny buildings from 1975-1979, only seven survived.

Cheong Ek, which is also known as the killing fields, is about 13 km outside Phnom Penh. Obviously, we decided to rent a moto to get there. This turned out to be quite the adventure, as the road leading out of the city is not entirely paved, and lots of construction was going on. We were constantly dodging cars, trucks, big work trucks, tuk-tuks, bicyclists and other motos. There didn’t seem to be any flow of traffic, people were pretty much driving any way they wanted in whatever side of the road they wanted. It was crazy!

I had been slightly disappointed by the Tuol Sleng museum, as it was not the most informative or engaging presentation of information. Cheong Ek, however, fulfilled that need. Out in the country surrounded by rice paddies, what was once a place where horrible atrocities were committed is now a kind of memorial to those that died and were buried in mass graves there. You enter, get your own set of headphones, and are able to walk peacefully around the are listening to an audio your narrated by a survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison. At your feet, you can see scraps of cloth that once was clothing of the victims. You pass by large sinks in the ground that were once graves holding hundreds of bodies. Birds chirp, and the place has a very peaceful feeling to it. It is somewhat difficult to imagine what it would have been like under the Khmer Rouge. At the center of the grounds is a large stupa, filled with skulls of bodies that were exhumed from the graves to give them a proper burial. There are signs telling you how people died, but it is not difficult to figure it out on your own. People have placed offerings there, and it is a nice memorial to those who lost their lives here. The most difficult pat of the visit for me was seeing the tree the Khmer Rouge used to kill babies and children, before tossing them into the mass grave next to it.

It is incredibly difficult for me to understand how human beings are able to commit such atrocities against their fellow human beings, and country men. What is even worse to think about is that this genocide was carried out right under the world’s nose, and no one did anything to stop it. Even though the U.S. knew about it, having just gotten out of Vietnam, we didn’t have the resources to stop a version of communism that was actually awful. For me, this notion bears a lot of resemblance to the current situation in the Middle East, where Bashar al-Assad is carrying out an atrocious genocide, and the U.S., caught up in debt from the fruitless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is reluctant to intervene and stop this horrible tragedy.

What I think is the worst about the Khmer Rouge, was that even though their reign lasted only four years, they were still recognized by the U.S. and the U.N. as the official government of Cambodia until 1990, which is in my lifetime. What’s even more absurd is that Pol Pot, the leader and mastermind behind the deranged vision of a communist state, was never tried for committing these crimes and died peacefully in 1998. Since then, former leaders of the regime have been out on trial. While most of the time I think that America is great, and I am proud to be from there, there have been many instances on this trip when I have been ashamed to be an American, as I have come face to face with atrocities committed by my country, or those that happened while we sat idly by.

Anyway, enough with the serious political stuff. We also had a lovely visit to the Royal Palace, which was built by the French in the late 19th century. It is an extraordinary work, a beautiful building that has a great Buddhist influence with a dash of Hindu influence thrown in.

Stay tuned for stories of the famous Angkor Wat, biking until we drop, a dried up lake and a journey into Thailand.

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