An Emotional Day in Phnom Penh

On our last full day in Cambodia, we decided to take on two of the most important attractions in Phnom Penh – the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. We knew we were in for an emotional day but were unsure of what to expect at either.

After a quick breakfast at our hotel we headed off to the Tuol Sleng Museum. We tried to barter with the Tuk Tuk driver but he wouldn’t budge – a common theme here. We bought our tickets at the entrance and were soon in the midst of Cambodian history.

In a sense, the museum “eases” you into the difficult subject matter that it discusses by showing you the rooms where the “higher-ups” were kept when they were in the prison. The prison is an old high school and each classroom has been retrofitted for one macabre purpose or another.  Each room had the same things  – shackles, a bed and a box for personal effects. Even these were difficult to see as each room had stains on the walls and the floors.

We went up a floor to a few exhibits that had recently been launched. The one that I found the most interesting was about a group of Swedish Khmer Rouge supporters that had visited the Pol Pot regime during it’s heyday. They received a very prescribed tour (similar to the ones in current day North Korea) and reported back to the Western world on the excellent situation in the country (unbeknownst to them was the existence of the prisons and multiple killing fields across the country). As this was one of the only reports coming out of the country it was believed at face value and it seems that it was one of the contributing factors in the massive failure of the international community over the next few years.

After the exhibit we headed to the main part of the museum, the real nitty gritty part as it were. Spanning across multiple rooms on the main floor of one of the buildings were pictures of many of the victims of the S-21 (the former name) Prison. The Khmer Rouge were similar to the Nazis in that they took impeccable records – they photographed and wrote biographies for each person that entered the prison. The pictures were heartbreaking as you could sense the confusion and hopelessness in the facial expressions. Interspersed in the images of the victims (almost all forced to confess to crimes they did not commit) were images of the instruments of torture and how they were used. These only added to the lump in my throat. Reading the victims (11 out of 6000+ survived) testimonies to the horrors of the prison opened the waterworks for me.

Katelyn and I had a really tough time in the last building – containing the cells of the prisoners. The living conditions were horrifying , many cells had no light and very little space. We both entered one to see how much space there was ( I couldn’t lie down) and were both reduced to tears.

After gathering our thoughts we moved through the rest of museum and got our taste of the horrors that were to come at Choeng Ek. Someone had taken a glass case with skulls and laid a map of the movements of people over it.

I’ll break here for a little bit of a history lesson as it is needed to give context. In 1975 Cambodia was in the midst of a civil war and Pol Pot come to prominence as the commander of the rebel Army. On April 17th, 1975 the city of Phnom Penh was captured and Pol Pot was installed as head of government. Within 3 days all forms of money, personal possessions and property had been banned and the cities had been empty. Pol Pot’s mission was to create an egalitarian society based on agriculture and thus forced all citizens to work in the fields. Although he was teacher, he arrested and imprisoned anyone with any form of education, anyone who could speak a foreign language, anyone with glasses and anyone with soft hands. Over the 3 years that the regime was in power over 2 million (out of 8 million) were executed and many more died due to starvation and lack of proper medicine. In 1979 the Vietnamese army moved in and deposed the government. However due to the political climate at the time, many western countries did not believe in the legitimacy of the Vietnamese installed government and treated the Khmer Rouge regime as the government in exile (they were forced to a small area around the Thai Border). Eventually, the political situation returned to normal and the ECCC (a tribunal to investigate the crimes against humanity by the Khmer Rouge) was created. However, by the time it was created Pol Pot and many superior leaders had died. It has still tried a few of the leaders, but to me the sentences for the crimes are nowhere near enough.

After the museum, we met our wonderful friend Sonia for the trip to Choeung Ek. We had met her on the bus and decided it would be a great idea for all of us to go together. We met some spanish girls while we were haggling for a Tuk Tuk and the 5 of us were on our way.

At the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, we were given Audioguides upon our arrival. This is the one time I’ve actually enjoyed having an audioguide as it really helped bring the area to life, as not much remains from the time period (destroyed during the period of Vietnamese rule as people were trying to re-establish normalcy).

I don’t want to delve into the horrors here as I don’t really feel it is the place. I do encourage you to do a little bit of research as it is very important to understand the importance of this place. If you’re interested in learning about the atrocities committed across the country I can recommend 2 books – Cambodge Année Zero by François Ponchaud (in French but I’m assuming an English Translation exists) and First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung.

The most moving part of the Killing Fields to me was the Memorial Stupa which contains the skulls and long bones of many of the victims killed at Choeung Ek.

After a wholly moving experience Katelyn, Sonia and I headed back to the city for lunch. We ate at a place called Happiness Pizza. Which was a wholly misleading name as they completely forgot to cook my lunch. Not so happy when you’re very hungry.

After lunch we headed off for Dairy Queen (Katelyn had a bad craving) and to find a vintage store that I had read about online. I love collecting vintage travel posters and my dad likes old maps, so it was killing 2 birds with one stone.

We made it back to Sisowath Quay and said our goodbyes to the wonderful Sonia. Emotionally and mentally taxed, we went back to the hotel and have rested for a bit and prepared for Vietnam.

The biggest thing I’ve learned today was how strong people can be. Yes, the theme song of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sings about it, but experiencing first hand really drives it home. Most of the people we’ve encountered during our stay in Cambodia have been affected by the horrific Khmer Rouge regime one way or another and the fact that they are as happy and warm as they are is a true testament to their spirit. Many people have lost siblings, parents and even children but the fact that they were able to persevere and to come out the other side stronger than they were is truly inspirational to me.

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