Travel is supposed to be an experience to be enjoyed: leaving our day-to-day behind, seeing new places, trying new foods, exploring, relaxing, etc. However, travel sometimes is an opportunity that we get to understand other places, other peoples, and perhaps the past. There are places like Auschwitz that one can visit to gain some of this understanding but it does come with a price: what one sees defies comprehension when one is confronted with the places where brutality happened.
When Cambodia made it into the itinerary for my trip to Southeast Asia last fall, I realized one of the things to learn more about was the terrible regime of Pol Pot, a brutal Communist dictator who ruled the country for a few years in the 1970s. I knew just a little of the history and I knew there was a movie from 1980s about it (The Killing Fields; I had no seen it). Visiting Cambodia was of interest mainly because of Angkor Wat but when we realized we had a day to spare, we added Phnom Penh. This stop would provide the opportunity to learn about Pol Pot’s crimes by visiting a couple of key places: the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (one of the hundreds of killing fields around the country) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a former prison and torture center). (It is no fun to write a post like this but it is important to share what I saw and learned for those who may not get to see these places in person…)
The trip up to that point had been rest and relaxation coupled with exploring amazing sites (like all the temple complexes in Siem Reap). We planned our visit to these terrible sites for the afternoon of our arrival in Phnom Penh. Those visits would affect the tone of our trip but it was important to us to see these places firsthand.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
Our first visit was to the Genocidal Center which served as one of the many killing fields spread throughout the country. The story of Pol Pot and the madness that ensued after he took power is best and more fully told in other sites or books; I will not even attempt to explain it here. People were trucked into places like this to be exterminated either because they were supporters of the prior regime, because they were educated (vs. peasants), or because the regime and its minions just felt like eliminating them.
The center has done a good job of signage explaining the different aspects of how the center was run. The center also has audioguides available for those who do not have a guide to take them around. I recommend one or the other to properly grasp the place (we used the audioguides which allowed for self-pacing).
It is a difficult place to be at. There are reminders everywhere what happened there especially signs that warn of the bones and pieces of clothes that can still surface, especially after it rains… The signs provide a stark reminder of what happened there.
Bones retrieved from mass graves or that surface are placed in a tower built for the purpose of providing the remains of the many victims a respectful place to reside for decades to come – a poignant and very visible reminder of the many lives cut short by a madman and his zealots…
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
After visiting Choeung Ek, we headed to the Genocide Museum, the former prison used to torture those persecuted by Pol Pot’s regime. It had been a school in former days and it got converted into hell-on-earth for those unfortunate souls who were taken there…
Prisoners were tortured in former classrooms and any opening to the outside from those rooms was covered to keep the noise in the room and not heard outside since the former school was in the middle of an urban area. The museum displays the many devices used to torture the victims.
Photos of many victims are displayed. It was painful to look at them but I made myself scan the boards full of the photos – it was the least I could do to honor the victims who suffered so greatly there. The approach of the dictatorship was to execute entire families to avoid any “roots” of those families being left behind. So, there were pictures of children among all the adult pictures…
The site is somber, as can be imagined and the grey skies that day added to that feeling.
May the souls of the victims of this brutal Communist dictatorship (aren’t they all brutal?…) rest in peace.