So many people talked about what a charming and captivating place Cambodia is, so I was really excited about getting the opportunity to explore this part of South East Asia. As we passed through the border and drove through the countryside, I could certainly see from my bus seat what my friends had all been talking about – lush green landscape and red dirt roads, scattered with a mixture of stilt houses and rustic shops, while locals go about their daily business with the biggest smiles.
However when I finally arrived in Phnom Penh, unfortunately it didn’t give me the best first impression of Cambodia. It was incredibly polluted, loud, dusty, and the traffic seemed even more chaotic then what I’d encountered in some parts of Vietnam.
I didn’t stay long in Phnom Penh, but felt while I was there that it was important to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields. Why did I feel it was important? Because what happened under the rule of Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 had such a devastating impact and shapes much of what you see of Cambodia today.
When the Khmer Rouge came into power, under the leadership of Pol Pot, they attempted an agricultural reform where they evacuated hundreds of thousands of citizens to the countryside to do hours and hours of excruciating work with little or no food. This resulted in over three million deaths, through executions, work exhaustion, illness and starvation. And it didn’t stop there. They carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, they closed schools, hospitals, factories, banks, and outlawed all religions. People who were perceived as intellectuals were killed. And all of this was done in an attempt to turn Cambodia into a classless society.
I went to the Killing Fields with an English girl I’d met the previous day at the hostel. When we first arrived, the area looked like a beautiful, peaceful park and it was difficult to imagine the crimes that had took place here. We were presented with an audio headset that would guide us as we made our way around the site. At first we chatted a bit, but as time went on, we grew more and more silent, each story shocking us more than the last. At least 20,000 Cambodians were executed here, and as you walked around, this horrible fact is made all the more real as you see mass graves, still with bones and clothes rags protruding from the ground.
After the Killing Fields, we went to Tuol Sleng, which was once a high school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This prison was the largest centre of detention and torture in the country, and the majority of the victims buried at the Killing Fields were prisoners here. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, it was made into a genocide museum, and while walking around, it quickly becomes clear that much of it has been left as it was.
The prison cells still had the original beds and chains, and in some rooms blood stains still marked the floors and ceilings. Room after room is lined with photos of victims of all ages, serving as a harrowing reminder of the barbaric crimes that took place. It’s hard to imagine that this all happened in my parents’ lifetime. Any Cambodian I had met over the age of 40 had survived this horror – an incredibly hard fact to swallow. I left that day feeling very sombre and shocked by what I had learnt, but it certainly made me understand more about the crippling impact this regime had on the country.