The Khmer Rouge
If you’re traveling to Cambodia, it’s all but impossible to avoid learning a little bit about their tragic history during the 1970’s. Even if you’re only going to Siem Reap, the evidence is everywhere given all Cambodians were touched by this part of their history.
|Samantha and I in the capital city of Cambodia.
Most people may have heard about the Cambodian genocide, which I’ll get too, but before that, there was the bombing of Cambodia during the US occupation in the Vietnam war. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of bombs were dropped onto the Cambodian countryside killing and disabling thousands. On top of that, thousands of bombs and land mines have failed to detonate creating problems still to this day. There are organizations that find undetonated bombs to neutralize them but it still may take years to clear Cambodia of this problem. That said, the bombing causalities were not the worst result of the American Occupation, it was the path paved for the Khmer Rouge.
|High school turned prison camp during the Khmer Rouge regime.
After years of build up in the Cambodian jungle, the Khmer Rouge emerged victorious with the support of fellow communist regimes around the world. What followed was one of the worst genocides this planet has ever seen wiping out around 3 million people or 25% of the Cambodian population.
|The Choeng Ek killing fields.
We first heard about the horrors of the the Khmer Rouge from our tour guide in Siem Reap. In his late 40’s, he was deeply effected by the genocide as he was a young boy when it all happened. Following the deaths of many family members, he was left to fend for himself in the jungles of Siem Reap. He showed us pictures of him, along with a number of other kids, living amongst the Angkor Wat ruins. Samantha and I were both extremely appreciative of how much he shared with us given it was a scorched past. That said, he was extremely forthcoming and had a general enthusiasm for life - which one must assume was born out of the horror he had to witness.
|Bracelets representing the victims at the killing fields.
Yet we got an actual glimpse into the genocide of the Khmer Rouge when we traveled to the capital city of Phnom Penh for a day. The first stop was at the Choeng Ek Killing Fields located about 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh. During their reign, the Khmer Rouge would round up their prisoners and bring them to these fields to be executed. Choeng Ek is the most notable where it’s estimated that over 20,000 people were sent to their deaths. The memorial at Choeng Ek is very insightful but also very heavy as you can still see the remains of some of the victims who were sadly taken and executed there.
|Barbed wire at S-21.
Our second stop was in the center of Phnom Penh at the Tuol Sleng Museum which was the S-21 prison camp during the Khmer Rouge regime. What was once a high school, the Khmer Rouge turned it into a place to torture, interrogate and execute their prisoners. Walking through the museum, you can see the brutal dwellings these prisoners had to withstand as well as portraits of thousands of the victims. Of the 30,000 people who passed through S-21’s walls, only seven survived to share their stories.
|The jail cell which was smaller than a NYC closest at S-21.
|Portrait of a young boy who was a victim at S-21.
Outside of Choeng Ek and Tuol Sleng, there is not too much else to see in Phnom Penh. There are a few nicer areas on the river by the Royal Place but I wouldn’t spend too much time here as it’s better spent elsewhere. That said, I would highly recommend at least spending a half day to learn about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge time period. It’s extremely moving, informative and will give you a new found appreciation for the people of Cambodia.
|Samanta on the river in Phnom Penh.
|Wat Phnom, a hillside temple that looks beautiful at night.