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Phnom Penh Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields – Cambodia

To say that this was a depressing day would be too mild.  I set out, not looking forward to visiting the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields but also not anticipating how upsetting the experience would be.  You don’t know until you know.


Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  After one woman prisoner committed suicide to escape the torture by jumping from the balcony, the whole front of the building was covered in barbed wire.  No escape.


If you don’t know much about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and what happened in Cambodia from 1975-1979, it’s no surprise.  Shamefully, despite these atrocities happening in my lifetime, I knew very little.


I do remember one San Francisco day in 1979 when a new boy sat down next to me in school.  He was from Cambodia and always seemed sad.  At some point during the year, he told me his parents were dead.  Now I understand what I did not understand then.


Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh


A tuk-tuk ride took me to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  It is housed in a former high school which was turned into a top-secret prison camp (“S-21”) for the Cambodian people believed to be enemies of the Khmer Rouge.


The museum cost $2 US to enter.  Tour guides are available or you can walk around yourself, which is what I did.


The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s leadership, wanted to destroy modernity, city people, and anyone who had an education.  Odd, given that Pol Pot himself was educated in Europe, but it’s impossible to understand the logic of psychopathic dictators.  In any case, he wanted an uneducated agrarian Communist society and wanted to wipe out anything that did not fit this fanatical vision.


At this top-secret prison, people deemed to be enemies of the Khmer Rouge were held and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.  At least 17,000 people went through this prison (and this was just one of many prisons).


Here they were systematically tortured, worked, and starved.  There was no way out.  A confession meant death and no confession meant death.  From here, after months of torture, the people would be told they were going to work in a new village and instead would be loaded onto ox carts during the night and brought to the countryside (the Killing Fields) where they would be killed with pick axes to the head (to save the cost bullets).  Babies and small children were killed by bashing their heads against a tree.


I felt sick to my stomach most of the day reading descriptions of the evil inflicted on these people and being in the rooms where thousands were tortured.  At least two million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge from 1976-1979.  Some say three million.


It’s easy to feel hatred for the torturers and to wonder how people could become so non-human as to inflict this pain on others.  But realizing that soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were largely uneducated, desperately poor, and traumatized themselves by years of civil war and bombing (by the United States and related to the Vietnam War), and young, they too were victims.  They too would be killed if they did not obey orders strictly and produce confessions from the prisoners.


The whole story is just intensely sad and sobering.  So evil and so senseless.


The Killing Fields


After the Genocide Museum, I was back in the tuk-tuk taking a long ride to the Killing Fields which is located in the village of Choeyng Ek.  This was the craziest ride I’ve ever taken.  More traffic.  More insanity.  Tiny children crossing the street with trucks and motorbikes whizzing by in all directions.  Dust and the repulsive smell of a polluted river.  Miles and miles of storefronts.  Masses of people trying to eke out some existence and make a buck.  Literally a buck.


They killed babies by smashing against this tree.

The Khmer Rouge soldiers killed babies by smashing them against this tree.


The Killing Fields Museum (Choeunk EK Genocidal Center) cost $6 US for foreigners.  This includes an audio guide which I found very good and informative. 


Thousands were brought here in secret to be killed.  Walking around, you can see the clothing and blindfolds of the murdered still buried in the dirt.  The clothes were not some tattered artifacts but intact clothing in vivid color.  This happened not so long ago.


At the end of the tour, I removed my shoes and entered the temple which houses thousands of skulls and bones found in this one killing field.  I understand that there are some 20,000 mass graves throughout Cambodia and some have not yet been found.


Victims skulls in the temple at the Killing Fields


My Feelings about Phnom Penh


Returning to the city, we got stopped in traffic and the driver took an alternate route.  Driving down dusty, rutted roads, crowded with traffic, we passed garment factories that were gated like prisons and surrounded by garbage and stench.  Just this year, Cambodia raised the minimum wage for the garment workers to $80 US/month.  My heart grew heavier.


I grant you that this was overall a depressing day and in no way can I claim to know this city after six days here.  But…


I read other travel blogs and I’m perplexed that many other bloggers LOVE Phnom Penh.  Many tout the cheap booze (which I’m not drinking because I am alone for now), the cheap food (yes), and the laid-back lifestyle.  But I am not seeing that.


On the positive side, I see a city that is resilient.  The Cambodian people are survivors not only of a tumultuous history but on a day-to-day basis.  I see intense poverty but also progress.  According to statistics, the economic situation is better now than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago.


When the educated people of a country are systematically exterminated; one-quarter of the entire population, how many generations will it take to recover?


The Cambodian people I have met have been very nice and quick to smile.  That seems to me to be a triumph.


On the negative side, I see garbage, pollution, struggle, traffic, overcrowding, young women pandering to old white men, naked children, child beggars, beggars with missing limbs, emaciated stray animals, poverty in all its forms, and I wonder “What am I missing here that other travelers find so great?”


I’m making an effort to be open-minded and see the positive.  I’m being honest in telling you that for now I find that hard to do here.  It’s a challenging place.


I’m looking forward to moving on and seeing other areas of the country.


If you don’t know anything about Pol Pot or what happened here, this video gives you the story in less than 30 minutes.  Photos of the Day are below.



Photos of the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields:

One Comment

  1. So tragic.

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