On our way to the capital of Cambodia Phnom Penh we made some very important stops. Understanding the history of a country such as Cambodia is hugely important, and so visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and S-21 were significant moments of our Stray Asia trip. It’s hard to say how we felt going there, I very much wanted to learn more and fully understand for myself what occurred at these places and why, but to say we were looking forward to this experience is the wrong phrase, however for a long time this destination had been high up my list of important places to visit. To begin the account of our visit, I feel I should introduce what I already knew about the Cambodian Genocide.
The first I heard of the Cambodian genocide and Khmer Rouge regime was when I went to a local theatre production of “S-27” while in my third year of university. The story captured me entirely, not only was the production creative and moving, the core ideas of the characters itself is what really took me in.
The story revolves around a photographer working for the Khmer Rouge at one of the many prisons. This particular photographer had the job of taking the photographic head shots of each prisoner before they were shipped off for torturing, and eventually their deaths. Each prisoner she encounters provides a new and more emotionally and morally straining turmoil than the last, she battles her demons and past until she herself eventually finds herself in the chair, with her photo being taken. The story looks at the morality and kindness of humanity, the unwavering strength of good people, and the blind and banal evil of others. This play was my introduction to a tragedy that I had not heard of before, and I wanted to learn more, so actually going to these places was a key event while travelling Cambodia.
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
As we entered the Killing Fields, we were given individual headsets to listen to the audio guide. I’m not usually a fan of such a medium as I’m much more visual, but in this instance it was both beautifully made and informative, and necessary as there is little left of the buildings and grounds. The added benefit of the audio guide is that I could listen as many times as I wanted, so I didn’t miss a single thing.
The whole walk around the fields from the sites where store rooms housed weapons and supplies, to the actual fields and pits themselves was a deeply moving experience, providing visitors with factual but devastating information. There were a couple of especially memorable moments for me. The first being near the entrance of the guide by a small row of benches surrounded by trees. These trees seemed to be twisted and turned in a look that says nature itself has been tortured here, and I couldn’t help but see this as an analogy to the pain and suffering associated with the very ground they stood on.
Another moment for me was near the middle of the tour, where the visitor is invited to listen to a piece of music called A Memory From Darkness written by Him Sophy in 1990 for violin, piano and cello. Him Sophy lived throughout the rule of the Khmer Rouge and wrote the piece in response to and inspired by the genocide, and has done an amazing job at capturing the intensity and sadness, but also in part the strength and overcoming bravery of the people. Music is deeply personal, and to me is something I care very much about, so this was a unique way to connect to the history of the genocide.
A final significant moment for me on the visit was of the Killing Tree. This tree is adorned with strings and bracelets that visitors leave behind as a silent mark of respect for the lives lost here. This tree is significant as its where possibly the most horrific crimes were committed, and that is the killing of children and infants and their mothers.
Many would ask why on earth this would be something thought necessary by the Khmer Rouge, but the answer is simple. Whole families were slaughtered to prevent any risk of future uprising or revolution from the people. It’s the same reason doctors, teachers, professionals with any education and intelligence were murdered; because they caused a threat to the regime merely by existing. A phrase heard a few times regarding such actions was ‘to dig up the grass one must even remove the roots’.
It’s hard to imagine that this really happened, and of all the mass graves and awful stories we heard from survivors and ex guards on the audio tape, merely seeing the tree itself was enough to give the full impact of the severity and utter brutality of the genocide. It is said that pieces of brain, bone and blood were found on the tree, and it was not realised exactly why until later when they dug up the grave of so many innocent people.
A lasting thought I had on the Killing Fields was the comment made by an ex guard. They were told that as Khmer Rouge soldiers they had to kill, and doing so was so that they could “catch up with the circle of history”. What does this mean? Do they mean their own history? Or the ideal of what history is supposed to be? I was baffled by this, and I couldn’t help but think that this comment reflected the lack of any reason behind the killings. That it was all just because they thought they had to. Sadly for the reluctant guards, they lacked much choice in their actions, but I still remain somewhat confused by it.
Towards the end of the tour, the visitor is given Khmer propaganda music to hear, blaring from the “Magic Tree” with speakers in its branches. The revolutionary music playing was intended to give outsiders the impression that there was a meeting being held, but in fact its real purpose was to drown out the screams of terror from the victims inside the extermination camp. So, for those awaiting their fate, this may have been the last sounds they would ever hear.
The end of the tour takes you to the memorial stupa: a terrifyingly stately and tall structure designed to replicate a Buddhist monument usually housing sacred remains or relics. This is fitting for the stupa, as it is home to the remains and bones of around 8,000 victims that were exhumed from the graves. As it is a highly sacred place, visitors should remove their shoes in respect before entering.
Once inside the stupa, the limited movement around the glass casing makes one feel claustrophobic, something I see as having to face reality of what really happened here. The case itself stretches high up above, making it almost impossible to imagine the numbers of people that were brought here to be killed. As you leave the tour, the song Oh Phnom Penh plays on the audio guide, as this was written after the liberation, in relief and as a reminder that Cambodia will recover from their great loss and sadness.
On a reflective bus ride further into the city, we visited another important part of Cambodian history. S-21 is an old school which was reclaimed by the Khmer Rouge and used as a prison during the genocide. The many rooms are jam packed with information, so much that I didn’t have time to read it all.
Informative and moving exhibitions about a range of things related to the era, such as forced marriages, changing religious views, the outcome for the political leaders, and touching stories from some of the very few survivors were spread out over the large complex of buildings.
One part that I found disturbing was the rooms with the photograph head shots of the prisons covering every wall of a whole floor of rooms. I struggled to get their frightened and confused expressions out of my mind as I tried to learn more about the prison, and just kept coming back to what they must have been thinking and feeling.
I was reading so much that I entirely lost track of time, so eventually our bus guide came to find me and he told me a little more about S-21. For example, he told me that the barbed wire surrounding the windows of the higher floors was to stop prisoners from jumping, as many felt that was their best option. An awful truth, that made some twisted sense when you see the tiny prison cells they were housed in without and light, food or sanitation. The rare survivors tell their stories that they were spared for the skills, and you can only wonder how on earth they must have felt to leave so many behind. It’s a strange thing to say I was riveted by S-21, but more than anything I was glad to understand as much as possible about it in person.
It’s safe to say that throughout this sweltering day in the heat, walking the paths that so many others have too I felt so many emotions being there. Grateful and lucky for my own life and experiences, saddened at the thought that somewhere in the world something very similar is probably happening. There’s no easy way to understand the reasons and effects of mass genocide, much less when it seems so utterly pointless.
Having spoken to our guide about the government and culture of Cambodia as we stopped by a remote fishing market village, I had started to realise that the ‘democratic’ side to the government was entirely fictitious. My guide confirmed this later when we discussed the fact that some members of the Khmer Rouge are astoundingly still in power, despite the end to Pol Pot’s reign.
The closest experience to these places I’ve had before is at Auschwitz 3 years ago. Both have similarities and differences in their own way, but most importantly both are necessary to educate people about the events, and remember the atrocities that have occurred in the world. I took few photos in these places in order to experience it for the moment, and also because I believe it to be more respectful to understand it as an internal memory of what happened, and rather than being a tourist I wanted to be a member of our world to do this.
After such an extraordinary day, I wanted to spend a little time writing thoughts on what we had seen. Eventually we came back to our hostel, headed out for dinner then tried to enjoy the rest of the evening playing pool.
Our last day in Cambodia was sightseeing the central market, and wandering the Royal Palace in the afternoon. I could easily have spent longer in Phnom Penh, but as money was beginning to dwindle we had to say goodbye and continue on our journey. I hope that I can one day return to Cambodia, as there are definitely things that I missed out on doing due to limited backpacker finances and time restrictions. So I hope to see you again!
The Royal Palace