From Ho Chi Minh City we took an 8-hour coach to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I don’t think anything could have prepared us for Cambodia. When we arrived at the coach station the map said we were only about 10 minutes from our hostel, so I wanted to walk instead of taking a tuk tuk. We put our backpacks on and made our way to the exit only to be confronted by hundreds of tuk tuks asking us where we were going. We declined all their offers and made our way to the road, which was nothing more than a bright orange dusty track with no pavement. We soon realised that walking to our hostel would be virtually impossible. We jumped into a tuk tuk and escaped the hawkers hassling you every 10 metres.
The following morning we arranged to have a tuk tuk take us to the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison – Phnom Penh despite being the capital city has no public transport system. The next day we were picked up by our tuk tuk and made the 40-minute journey on bumpy dirt tracks to the Killing Fields.
When we finally arrived at the Killing Fields we were given audio guides and a map to accompany the visit. It was the first time in our South East Asia trip that we were given a running commentary throughout a visit. The audio guide was very interesting and was told by a young man who’d managed to escape the Killing Fields. For those who aren’t familiar with the Killing Fields, they were sites were thousands of Cambodians were killed and buried by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime. Out of a population of 8 million I think about 2.5 million people died in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot is dubbed the ‘Hitler of Cambodia’.
I’m afraid pictures don’t accompany this post because it felt wrong to take pictures of where so many people were tortured and lost their lives. The audio guide explained that the people were being held at the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh and were told that they were going back to their families – they had no idea they were coming to the Killing Fields. There are 20,000 mass graves, and one of the mass graves was by the ‘Killing Tree’. A tree used to beat and smash the heads of young children and babies before throwing them into the mass grave. As ammunition was too expensive for the Khmer Rouge they used agricultural tools to torture and kill the Cambodians that were sent here. The audio guide explained they’d excavated many of the mass graves to ascertain how the majority of people died. The majority of people were killed by a blow to the head from a machete or some other agricultural tool.
It was incredibly sad and I felt so much sorrow for Cambodia. What was particularly harrowing was that you could see bones coming up under your feet as you walked around. The guide explained that whenever it rains remains come to the surface and they have to regularly collect bones, teeth and clothing.
At the end of the visit lies a memorial stupa dedicated to all those who’d lost their lives at one of Cambodia’s 500 killing fields. The memorial stupa was piled high with human skulls, and each skull had a little note on how they had been killed.
After the Killing Fields we went to the Tuol Sleng Museum or the S-21 Prison. Kyle had found the fields quite disturbing and really didn’t want to see what the prison had in store. What was most sad about the prison was that it had previously been a school. Under Khmer Regime all schools, pagodas and places of worship were shut down and turned into prisons.
All of the classrooms had been turned into cells, and many still had their blackboards in them. The windows of the cells on the upper floors were lined with barbed wire to stop prisoners committing suicide. The people that were held here were repeatedly tortured and coerced into giving up other family and friends. They were forced into writing confessions saying they were spies and were working with the CIA or KGB.
After the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison I felt so much sadness for the Cambodian people. You’d think after Nazi Germany and the mass killing of the Jews that it wouldn’t happen anymore. Although visiting these places was difficult, it’s a reminder to all that we cannot let these atrocities happen again. What I can’t get my head around is the fact that Pol Pot never stood trial for genocide; he committed suicide in 1997 before it could happen. Other senior members of the Khmer Regime were only brought to trial in 2007-2009. I don’t understand how they managed to get away with what they did for so long.