Quick warning: this blog post may be disturbing – read at your own discretion.
On our last day in Vietnam, I woke up in our Saigon hotel with a familiar scratchiness in my throat signaling that, within the next few hours I was headed for a sore throat and cold. We arrived in Phnom Penh later that day and checked in to our accommodations, a five-star resort — that’s right a five-star resort! It’s the first time since we’ve been married that we have booked five-star accommodations. We did this partly because we had heard disturbing tales of street crime in Phnom Penh, and partly because the place cost less than most Hampton Inns back in the U.S. — Cambodia is a very affordable place to visit.
By this point, my cold was definitely on its way, so we took advantage of our luxury accommodations and went for a swim in the resort’s beautiful pool, followed by a Prosecco toast at sunset at the rooftop bar, overlooking the Cambodian Royal Palace. Life was good, the oncoming cold notwithstanding.
Do I really have to go?
The next morning John and I were in the hotel lobby, bright and early, awaiting the tour guide for the tour of the S-21 Prison Museum and Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields. It was already hot outside, I wasn’t feeling well, and the beautiful pool at our resort beckoned. I was tempted to ditch the tour and I began to wonder why it is that we go see places that make us sad and disturbed. Just a week before when we were in Hanoi, we met an American couple and we suggested to them that they visit the Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. The woman quickly replied that she did not do prisons. It had, honestly, never occurred to me to skip them, but I couldn’t articulate why.
We got on the bus, went to the museum, and paid for a small-group tour within the museum. S-21 was a high school before it was a prison, in fact, Pol Pot, the cruel dictator responsible for the Killing Fields, had been a math teacher there! The tour guide explained that the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s communist party, came to power after the end of the Cambodian civil war and the same month as the fall of Saigon, April 1975. The Khmer Rouge agenda was to remake Cambodia into a simple, agrarian country. The regime rejected intellectuals and the modern world. The first step in the Khmer Rouge deconstruction of the country was to send everyone in the cities out into the countryside and to break up villages to force people into new collectives. Persuading the people in Phnom Penh to leave was easy: the Khmer Rouge warned that the U.S. was planning to bomb the city. Since there had been bombings by the U.S. in the north previously, people believed this. Within 48 hours, the city was empty.
The Khmer Rouge then set about to eliminate anyone they believed to be an enemy of the new government, which included “intellectuals” and this was anyone who wore glasses, was educated, or had ‘soft hands.’ Thousands were rounded up and sent to S-21 or one of the many other prisons in the country where they were interrogated and brutally tortured and killed. Their ‘crimes’ included such things as having had contact with a foreign source, such as a U.S. missionary, international relief or government agency, or any contact with foreigners. To make matters worse, once an individual was targeted as an enemy, their entire family was targeted as well. Pol Pot had a saying: “it’s impossible to kill the tree without killing the roots” – he was terrified of later revenge from family members so all were eliminated.
The tour itself was difficult, but fascinating. Of all of the people to enter S-21, an estimated 20,000, only twelve survived: seven adults and five children. The adults were spared because they had useful skills, such as being a car mechanic. The children cleverly hid under a pile of clothes and were rescued when Vietnam invaded Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge provoked Vietnam by bombing their country. One of the surviving adults and a surviving child were on hand the day we took our tour. The adult is in his eighties now and the child is a grown man in his fifties. They shared their experiences and heartbreaking stories with our tour group.
The Killing Fields
The actual Killing Fields are a former Buddhist cemetery, about 15 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge used this facility because there was simply not enough room at S-21 and other prisons to dispose of all of the bodies. The regime told those selected for the Killing Fields that the government was giving them a new house and that they were going to get on a truck to be taken to the new house. They were blindfolded for the trip. Once there, they were brutally murdered. The regime did not use bullets to avoid the additional expense. I won’t go into the brutality of the murders themselves, but you can imagine. The killings happened at night and a sound system in the compound played revolutionary songs at a loud volume through the night to cover the sounds of screaming.
Is it important to tour a site like the Killing Fields?
In present and past travels, I’ve visited a concentration camp, a prison in Dublin, Ireland, the Ha Loa prison in Hanoi, and the S-21 and the Killing Fields. In each case, these events have been in the recent past and each one of them has defined the present day reality of its country in important ways. This is especially true for the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge Regime is thought to have killed more than one million in its prisons, with an additional one million dying of starvation during the regime. This number of about 2 million, represents about a quarter of the population of Cambodia at the time. This explains so much about the country. It feels farther behind economically compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors as a result. And, along the way of our travels, we met people who had lost family to the Khmer Rouge – almost everyone in the country has. The people of Cambodia that we met still speak of the four-year Khmer Rouge period in disbelief: “These were Cambodians [committing these acts] against other Cambodians,” they say. In my mind, the best reason for visiting sites of such tragedies are a way of paying respect to those who died and their survivors and deepening our understanding of the country we are touring.
Without a doubt, I was very glad to get back to the pool at our beautiful resort in the afternoon. But ultimately I felt it was valuable to have gained insight into this tragic event in Cambodia.