I had just arrived into Cambodia, after a one and a half hour flight from Laos. It was the thirteenth day of my tour, and the penultimate country we would be visiting together.
We flew into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and embarked on a tour of the city. We were met by Pidor, our new local tour guide, who supplied us with an abundance of information on Cambodia’s tragic history whilst we were en route, in order to prepare us for what we were about to see.
Our first stop was to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. This was a very harrowing, but necessary visit as it is the best-known of the sites referred to as the “Killing Fields”. This field, once an orchard is now a mass grave of around ten thousand victims of the Khmer Rouge, who were killed between 1975 and 1979.
After a civil war that continued for nearly five years, the totalitarian government managed to take over the country in 1975. The Cambodian genocide saw nearly two million people being brutally slaughtered under the Khmer Rouge regime. Anybody seen as intellectual was imprisoned and killed so that were was no chance for them to overthrow the reign of communist leader, Pol Pot. The latter was supported by the Communist Party of China and China’s leader sent over one billion US dollars in foreign aid to help the Khmer Rouge achieve their goals.
Pol Pot’s aim was to turn Cambodia, which he renamed as Democratic Kampuchea, into a socialist agrarian republic, with their economy being based on producing and maintaining crops and farmland. In order to do this, the Khmer Rouge sent city dwelling residents into forced labour camps in the countryside, where mass executions, physical abuse, malnutrition and disease were rife.
Essentially, Pol Pot wanted to turn his people into slaves, with no education, or any tolerance for reading, writing or music. Cambodia would become a deaf and mute country of illiterate citizens.
Entering the memorial, we were met with the horrific site of five thousand human skulls. These are intended to be a harsh reminder of the genocide that took place just forty five years ago. Many of the skulls even bear marks of the trauma they suffered prior to their execution.
We walked around the former orchard, feeling extremely emotional and thinking of the number of people who may have begged for their lives in this very place. After witnessing so many human skulls, I didn’t think it could get any sadder, but then we arrived at a tree, tied with colourful ribbons and bracelets. Pidor explained that the bracelets had been put there by tourists as a token of recognition and remembrance to all those who tragically lost their lives here. At this tree, the children of the middle-classes, whose parents had been killed by the regime, were beaten mercilessly against the trunk in order to stop them from seeking revenge for their parents’ deaths in years to come.
We took a moment’s silence.
Leader, Pol Pot had been influenced by hill tribes he had witnessed earlier in his life, who were self-sufficient, lived communally, had no use for money and who were, in his opinion, “untainted” by Buddhism. This may sound utopian in theory, but in practice, it was achieved by the Khmer Rouge regime with violent and evil methods. Pol Pot started the nation at “Year Zero” and abolished money, private property and religion. He saw middle-class and intellectual people as a threat and some were condemned for simply wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language. He also targeted Ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims and hundreds of thousands of educated middle-classes were tortured and executed in special centres. The most notorious of these was the place we visited next.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a former secondary school that was turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the regime. Whilst there were over 150 torture and execution centres throughout Cambodia, the highest number, an estimated 20,000 men, women and children, were imprisoned here.
Crazily, it wasn’t until 2010 that the chief of this prison, a former maths teacher, Kang Kew Iew, was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity.
We were fortunate enough to meet one of the incredibly brave survivors of imprisonment here, and many of us bought his fascinating book on the awful experiences he faced during the regime.
Survivor, Chum Mey, was arrested for no given reason and had no idea why he was chosen to be locked up in the S-21 prison. He spent around two months there before the Vietnamese invaded and put an end to the tyranny.
During his imprisonment, Chum Mey faced awful torture, including the twisting of his toe in order to pull off his nail. It sounded horrific but when he spoke to us, it was evident that he felt very fortunate to be alive. Prison officers discovered that he was skilled at fixing basic machinery, and this probably saved his life. Chum Mey’s book is available here for anybody who wants to find out more about this heartbreaking story of terror and triumph.
After an emotional and educational day in Phnom Penh, paying tribute to Cambodia’s tragic past, we went for dinner at Friends TREE Alliance. This restaurant serves as a social enterprise and trains disadvantaged and former street children in hospitality skills. The local cuisine was delicious and we celebrated our tour friend’s birthday together. We were already a close group, but we had bonded even more, armed with a greater appreciation for the privileges we have in our own lives.
The evening ended with a trip to our hotel’s rooftop pools. There was a hot and a cold pool, which we were switching between to keep the right temperature in the chilly night air. We sipped cocktails and chatted, not wanting our time together to come to an end.
The following morning, we took an hour long flight to Siem Reap, known as a cheerful city and home to the largest religious monument in the world.
Watch this space to find out more about my time in Cambodia! And in the meantime, click here to check out my 360° tour of Angkor Thom, an intriguing ancient city, and the setting of the Tomb Raider films!