NOTE: This post is lengthy and will be boring if you prefer my stories about eating bugs. If you’re not interested, skip to the photos. BUT! I will say that the history of Cambodia and some of the things I learned during my first visit to Phnom Penh are so much of the reason that I’ve loved it!
I’m writing this a few weeks after my first trip to Phnom Penh, but if I’d written it while I was there my opinion would probably be different. I didn’t love it the first time I was there. The second time I tried to bypass it completely, but found no better way to connect going to northern Cambodia. By the third connection through Phnom Penh, I wasn’t thrilled that I had to visit again, but was okay with another night there. And now, I’m looking forward to a fourth time through on my way home. Seems that, in Cambodia, all roads lead to Phnom Penh.
It’s sticky in Phnom Penh. It’s sticky and hot and dirty and in the evening you can smell the packaging of processed foods from Korea and Malaysia burning by the side of the street. There are dogs that need grooming, women that need dental work, children that need pants and retired western men who need a lesson in morality.
And I mean that. The more I travel here, the more I realize that I love the extremes. I love the nature, which feels completely untouched in some places, but after a while I miss being shocked. I miss dodging motorbikes and I miss panicking after mistakenly eating the “Phnom Penh Special Soup” because I was too tired to pick anything further down the page. There’s a feeling that people are hiding out in Phnom Penh and that nobody is really looking for them.
I love the history and I’m fascinated by the fact that almost every single local person you lay eyes on probably has a story about their experiences between 1975 and 1979.
During my first visit to Phnom Penh I tried to understand the history of the Khmer Rouge. Two days in Phnom Penh is a great beginning and some people even do it in one day, but I’ve found that the more time I spent in Cambodia the more I’ve been able to think and re-think how it affected the country.
Before I talk about my visit I’ll give you a bit of background on what happened in Cambodia during the period between 1975 and 1979.
The Khmer Rouge Takes Over: Some Background
On April 17th, 1975 tanks rolled into Phnom Penh along with an army of ragtag (NOTE: At first I wrote “ragtime soldiers” and then couldn’t stop imagining a ragtime invasion with a Broadway soundtrack) soldiers dressed in black, wearing kramas and rubber shoes made out of tires. Many of these were child soldiers convinced to join the Khmer Rouge because they believed what they’d been told about the dangers of the US and the Vietnamese. I won’t get into the politics of this, but nearing the end of the Vietnam War the US bombed the Cambodian/Vietnam borders to eradicate any strongholds. Some have credited this effort with driving many rural Cambodians into joining the Khmer Rouge forces. Below I mention “The Killing Fields” movie and one of the first scenes shows the bombing of civilian town, Neak Leung, which is one of the most extreme examples of a mistaken casualty of this bombing campaign.
Photos from April 17th, 1975 show kids jumping and waving at the tanks rolling through the streets. The Khmer Rouge had just defeated the ruling military party at the time (which was backed by the US) and many people thought the entry of the Khmer Rouge would end years of fighting. They thought this was a new beginning.
Under the guise of “freeing” the people from the previous fighting and promising to handle the welfare of the people, the Khmer Rouge forced everyone in the city out into the countryside. Well, almost everyone. They killed those with known ties to the previous government first. The wealthiest of the wealthy may have taken cars for part of the way, but most people wrapped up a few things from their homes and left on foot. They were told that the US was going to bomb the city within the next three days and that everyone had to leave. After three days, they could return. Most people didn’t know where they going and nobody knew what to expect. The US bombing was a lie, but even those who knew it wasn’t true were forced to leave or risk exposing themselves as educated or politically involved to the Khmer Rouge. This type of exposure meant no chance of survival.
The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, was educated (minimally) in France and during that time he took a liking to socialism. He found a few cronies to be on his side and came back to Cambodia with the goal of overcoming Capitalism and bringing the country back to what the Khmer Rouge eventually referred to as “Year Zero.” Essentially, this was the new beginning. There was no past, no history and the future would be completely forged by them. There was to be no religion, no art, no music, no culture. It was as if nothing existed before April 17th, 1975.
Part of this “Year Zero” meant making sure that nobody could overthrow the Khmer Rouge. In addition to targeting educated and politically involved people, doctors, monks and teachers (among others) were killed. People who wore glasses were killed because this signaled either education or wealth.
A common Khmer Rouge phrase was:
“To kill you is no loss, to keep you is no gain.”
The country was forced to work. Pol Pot’s vision was for an entirely agrarian society that could produce three times the amount of rice as what was being produced earlier. They goal was to live off the land. There was no money, there was to be no hierarchy. People existed to produce the means to exist.
In actuality, things were much different. There was a hierarchy and the Khmer Rouge soldiers were at the top. They reaped the benefits of the production, while the Cambodian people were forced to sneak insects and leaves to survive. There are so many incredible survival stories, a few of which can be read in some books I’ll list at the end of this post.
If you were deemed lazy, there was no reason to keep you. People worked as hard as possible without enough food and while sick just to avoid being identified as useless.
“To kill you is no loss, to keep you is no gain.”
Those who were targeted to be killed may have been asked to “help” Khmer Rouge soldiers with a task and were never heard from again.
This went on for almost four years. More than 1,095 days of work with no breaks unless you were sick. But, in many cases being sick meant you would die as 90% of the doctors in Cambodia during this time were killed.
Finally, on January 7th 1979, the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge and many retreated. It’s worth noting that the Khmer Rouge did not disappear. They held strong in some areas into the 1990s. The Khmer Rouge even had a seat at the UN for years after 1979. Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, was involved with the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia is amazing and incredible and beautiful. But in so many ways it was in dire straits. More on that in person if you’re interested in talking about such things when I’m back! Actually, if you’re one of the people I see as soon as I get back you’ll probably have no choice. CONGRATULATIONS, MARY AND DOUG MCGREGOR!
My two-day education of the Khmer Rouge included Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, with a viewing of “The Kiling Fields” thrown into the middle.
Toul Sleng was a high school until April 17th, 1975. After that it became the most infamous Khmer Rouge secret prison, known to them as S-21.
S-21 was used to interrogate and torture those suspected of working against the Khmer Rouge. While this included people involved in the former regime, it also included people that were guilty only of looking at someone the wrong way. Eventually, as the Khmer Rouge became more paranoid, their own people were brought in and accused of working against them. Entire families would be killed to avoid any sort of revenge. A handful of westerners unlucky enough to be in the country during the takeover were brought here as well. Two of the prisoners at S-21 were Australian men on a round the world boat trip who was captured by the military. They were killed.
Many people were brought here under no pretense and, when interrogated, most people had no option but to confess.
Conditions were horrible and the torture was mostly unsurvivable.
To me, S-21 was far scarier than the Killing Fields. Like many museums in Cambodia, everything is completely open to be examined, touched and seen. There is nothing reproduced – everything is as it was.
Much of the first floor was used for interrogations. Prisoners were chained to beds and tortured. These beds are still there. The chains are still attached. To drive it home, there are photos in each room of the way the room was found – mostly with a dead prisoner still attached.
When the country was liberated and S-21 was overtaken, the years of documentation kept by the Khmer Rouge was found. There was evidence of each prisoner being photographed – from the side and the front – including children. They were first asked to confess and these “confessions” were written and kept in files. They are all on display at S-21.
Room after room includes photos of prisoners. Some are absolutely desperate. Some are completely resigned. The one below was the most poignant to me. She looks resigned, but maybe still hopeful? What was going through her head? Were her children at S-21 somewhere? Did she confess to something she hadn’t done? Did she know she would die?
Of an estimated 17,000 prisoners that came through S-21 only seven were alive the day soldier found and liberated the prison. Some of the people who survived were useful to the Khmer Rouge and so they were spared. They were the only people to walk out of their cells and NOT into a truck that would take them to the killing fields. One of these people is Chum Mey, who believes he was spared because he was able to fix machinery for the regime. Here is a short article about his story that focuses on his testimony during the trial of Comrade Duch at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. More on the ECCC below.
I visited near the end of the day, just as the sun was going down. Most people had left and I found myself checking to make sure there was someone else around when I went into each room. I can’t imagine anything scarier than being locked in S-21 overnight. No thanks.
Also know as The Killing Fields, the explanation for Choeung Ek is pretty simple. This is where people came to be killed.
A few times a month, late at night, trucks would pull into S-21. Guards called for specific numbers (based on the cell that prisoners were in) and these people were loaded into the trucks bound for Choeung Ek. Once there, each was cataloged to make sure the right person was being killed. Music blared to drown out the sound of cries.
Prisoners were walked out into fields and hit over the head to smash their skulls. This was done with anything that could get the job done – gun barrels, sickles, rocks. Bullets were expensive and these prisoners weren’t worth that.
“To kill you is no loss, to keep you is no gain.”
Bodies were thrown into mass graves, which were much later found by a farmer. Following the initial discovery, anthropologists, scientists and historians gathered bones and fragments of clothing to get an estimate of the number of people killed here – the estimate is over 1 million people. Huge graves have been unearthed, but the area is still full of bones, teeth and clothing as excavation has not been completed. A large memorial stupa has been erected in the center and many of the skulls found and cataloged have been kept here. Each is organized by the sex and age, many with clear indications of the weapon used to crack their skulls.
The number of people killed here is so huge that it’s impossible to keep up with what is being unearthed by nature each year. During the rainy season, more bones and teeth become visible. When I was there, bits of clothing were already coming up through the ground – the next layer exposed and ready to be removed.
“The Killing Fields:”
I went to Tuol Sleng at the end of Day #1 and then to Choeung Ek the morning of Day #2. Between the two I went to a viewing of “The Killing Fields.” The movie tells the story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian photographer stuck in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge takeover and Sydney Shanberg, his New York Times journalist partner who spent the next four years trying to find him.
This 24-hour period was pretty incredible.
This started in 1975. Not in 1675. This was modern times. By historical standards, it JUST happened. Cambodians killed Cambodians. There are people who are 49 walking on the street who were ten years old when this happened. They worked at a work camp and lost their parents and siblings.
The entire face of Cambodia changed as a result of these years.
- As a result of the Khmer Rouge genocide, the Cambodian population is young – only 3.6% are over the age of 65 (compared with almost 13% in the US) and the median age is about 22.
- When the Khmer Rouge took over there were 943 doctors in the country – roughly 50 of them survived.
- With virtually no psychiatric help, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a huge problem and is being passed down to younger generations who sense the anxiety and anger of their parents.
- Education has suffered. Virtually all teachers in the country in 1975 were killed.
There are some really great books that describe what it was like to live through this period of time. I’ve listed a few of them below, along with some other books and movies that I’ve found interesting.
In the Shadow of the Banyon by Vaddey Ratner is the story of a young girl whose wealthy family was forced into a labor camp.
First they Killed my Father by Loung Ung is the story of a young girl whose middle-class politically involved family was forced out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside.
Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind by Loung Ung is a follow-up to the previous book and talks about the author’s transition as a refugee, while her closest sister remained in Cambodia living a much different life.
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick is a fictionalized account of Arn Chorn Pond’s survival during the Khmer Rouge genocide by volunteering to play music. This is a young adult book, but is great for everyone. I think Mary recommended this one long before I ever realized how interested in Cambodia I would become – thank you!
Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Joel Brinkley is a bit outdated with its 2011 publishing date, but is nonetheless an interesting glimpse into the political situation in Cambodia. Try to ignore his overt pessimism.
“The Killing Fields” is a movie that tells the story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian interpreter and photographer who worked with Sydney Shanberg, a New York Times reporter covering Southeast Asia when the Khmer Rouge took over. Shanberg was able to get Pran’s family out of Cambodia, but he wasn’t able to help him when the American Embassy was evacuated. Dith Pran stayed in Cambodia throughout the Khmer Rouge period. The movie won three Academy Award – Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing and and Best Cinematography. If you’re not in the mood to watch an entire movie about the Khmer Rouge (even if it does include John Malkovich and Sam Waterston) at least watch the clip of Dith Pran speaking.
I’ll even link it again for you here: CLICK ME TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALL OF THIS.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is a UN backed tribunal working to bring about justice by finally making some of the highest ranking Khmer Rouge accountable for what they’ve done. Many are either already dead or aging, which has made bringing justice and peace to victims very hard. Pol Pot died in the mountains in 1998 and was never, ever held accountable for anything. Howeve Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Comrade Duch,” was the director of s-21 and was the first to stand trial.
To date, he is the only Khmer Rouge to show any remorse publicly. He claims he was following the orders of those above, resisting would mean his death and that he hated the work he was forced to do.
“For the victims of S21 and their families, I still claim that I am solely and individually liable for the loss of at least 12,380 lives…I still and forever wish to most respectfully and humbly apologize to those dead souls. I have worshiped God to honor the dead.”
Despite asking for leniency as a result of his remorse, Comrade Duch was sentenced to life.
There are now three other senior ranking Khmer Rouge on trial, but with the tribunal set to close in 2015 who knows what will happen. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, (who I won’t get into now) has said he will not allow any additional trials after these three have concluded saying that it threatens to split the country. Oh, Cambodia.
How to See These Things:
I highly recommend my two-day itinerary for doing everything I mentioned here. S-21 is near to the Russian Market so you can head there in the AM, walking around and eating lunch and then make your way on foot to S-21 in the late afternoon.
When I was at S-21 I was able to attach myself to a group that had hired a guide and hear the explanations without having to pay. Cheap? Yes. I prefer to call it resourceful. The only groups that won’t work for this are Chinese (they seem to bring their own guides) or French (French is a common second language spoken in Cambodia and people can typically get guides that speak it.) You won’t be able to ask questions (because you’re a secret!) but it still works.
Seeing S-21 first provides added perspective to the Killing Fields since so many people were brought in directly from there.
Once you’ve finished at the museum, grab a motorbike driver (should cost about $2) to take you to Flicks 2 on Street #136 to catch a screening of “The Killing Fields” movie. Buy your ticket for $3.75 a bit in advance (they sometimes sell out as the “theater” is more of a little room with cushions) and then eat dinner at one of the places in the neighborhood – there are TONS of choices. If it’s raining or you ate bad Lok Lak and don’t want to go anywhere, a $3.75 ticket actually gives you access to the place for the entire day. If watching movies on cushions in Phnom Penh all day is your thing. NOTE: There’s also a Flicks 1 on Street #95 that has yoga.
When I was there the electricity was going in and out, so the start of the movie was delayed in order to allow the movie prior to finish. That might happen. Go with it. You can get an Angkor beer at the rooftop bar of the hostel attached while you wait. In fact, go there beforehand anyway – there’s a nice view of Phnom Penh’s nighttime streets.
Many hostels also host screenings of The Killing Fields, so that’s an option as well.
The next morning, grab yourself a group and head to the actual Killing Fields. Because most people I found were doing everything in one day, I’m not sure what the charge would be for ONLY going to the Killing Fields. I split the whole thing with those two other girls and I paid less since I wasn’t continuing on to S-21 with them. I think I paid $5.
Another way: Once you arrive in Phnom Penh there are no shortage of Tuk Tuk drivers willing to take you to see all the sights. “Lady! You go killing field!” is common to hear and I feel bad for anyone who shows up without realizing that it’s a tourist attraction. Might be a bit off-putting.
The charge to see S-21 and the Killing Fields (which typically also comes with a visit to an artillery range where you can fire an AK47 if you’d like) was $20 in April 2014, negotiable to about $18.
The driver will take you out to the Killing Fields first (I thought about renting a bicycle, but I’m glad I didn’t as it’s not an easy place to find and it’s a fairly long journey on bumpy unpaved roads) and wait for you. Then you can hit the gun range (I skipped that,) and then head into town for S-21. The driver will take you back to where you started at the end.
Once you find a place to stay, you’ll find all this information to be readily available.
Speaking of which, I stayed at Hostel 88 which I pretty much can only recommend if you’re a German guy on a gap year with a love of electronic music. I was there on a Friday night, so everyone was particularly excitable. Things calmed down the rest of the weekend. The place was nice (and had a little pool!) and the staff was super professional. They also had a great book share, which is where I picked up my new favorite book The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.