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Published: October 30th 2011
The Khmer written language does not use the Roman alphabet, Aw Kohn means thank you, but the spelling in the title is only phonetic. It's really amazing how crossing the border into Cambodia has changed our trip. The differences seem subtle yet very apparent all at the same time. I tried to articulate the differences from the cuisine and I couldn't even form the right words, Khmer food is so similar to Vietnamese but the taste is distinctively different. We knew upon arriving that we were entering a country still healing from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the 70's, but meeting the survivors and their children puts a new perspective on it.
Our first full day in Phnom Penh was a busy one. We first visited the Tuol Sleng Prison, a former high school, where thousands of people were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge and many of the photos didn't shy away from showing the brutality that occurred there. They documented the victims thoroughly by taking their height, weight and by numbering and photographing each prisoner. These photos now haunt the walls of the museum so each visitor can witness that moment in time. I found
Tuol Sleng Prison
The faces of the victims now haunt the visitors as they pass through the rooms.
a great plaque at the prison which is now a museum dedicated to remembering those that were killed and educating the public about genocide so that it can never happen again. The following is what is written on the plaque which I hope will give you insight into what was going on for the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days that the Khmer Rouge held an entire country captive:
"On April 17, 1975, Cambodian radicals, also known as the Khmer Rouge, announced over loudspeakers that the US was going to bomb the capital of Phnom Penh. They commanded and inevitably coerced all citizens to leave their homes and go to the countryside, taking with them only as much as the now newly refugees could carry. This near death march would pale in comparison to the daily exhaustion, starvation, and ultimate demise they experienced for the next three years, eight months, and twenty days if by chance they survived the initial journey.
The Khmer Rouge was led by a man named Saloth Sar, who operated under the pseudonym Pol Pot. He and his followers attempted almost over night to replace capitalist, bourgeoisie influences with a communist, classless agrarian
Tuol Sleng Prison
Barbed wire along the building kept the prisoners from committing suicide.
society. The Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodia's towns and cities; abolished money, schools, private property, law courts, and markets; forbade religious practices and familial ties; and sent millions to labor in the fields growing food. Everyone in the new regime now worked under and for "Angkar," a term that literally translates into "the Organization" and an intangible being that had the power to destroy and the capability to instill absolute fear in all who lived under its rule.
Working in newly established labor groups called cooperatives, people toiled and struggled in the rice fields for twelve to fourteen hours a day, silently yet diligently moving earth, digging dikes, plowing land, or farming. Angkar separated mothers from children, husbands from wives, and sisters from brothers in order to achieve goals of collectivization and ensure absolute loyalty to Angkar. Starvation was rampant. Medicine was scarce. Trust was gone.
In addition to running fatal labor camps, the Khmer Rouge singled out and murdered doctors, teachers, government leaders, Buddhist monks, ethnic Chinese, Cham Muslims, the Vietnamese, and anyone involved with Lon Nol's military, as well as their family members, usually sending them to "re-education" centers, or security prisons. Anyone perceived as an "enemy,"
Tuol Sleng Prison
Hallways of the former prison.
whether externally or internally, was beaten and tortured to death, sometimes forced to dig his/her own graves before surrendering to the earth. But not all, and indeed not even the majority of victims were taken to interrogation centers, such as at the Tuol Sleng. Most victims were never formally labeled with numbers, photographed, interrogated, or placed inside tangible boundaries, yet all were prisoners in their own country, paralyzed by the Khmer Rouge cadres and held captive by the Angkar. No official record can authoritatively demonstrate how many hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people died of execution, starvation, and extreme exhaustion.
While Democratic Kampuchea carried out genocidal campaigns inside Cambodia, they were simultaneously involved in a raging war along the borders with Vietnam, which intensified in 1977. The Khmer Rouge captured and arrested male and female Vietnamese citizens and soldiers in Vietnam, along the border, and in Cambodia and sent them to Tuol Sleng to be executed. Finally, in January 1979, an estimated 150,000 Vietnamese troops successfully invaded Cambodia, ousted the Khmer Rouge from power, and occupied the country until 1990.
After January 1979, hundreds of thousands sought asylum in Thailand, constantly and desperately looking for family
Tuol Sleng Prison
This structure was once a game that the students would play with each other at recess. The Khmer Rouge turned it into a torture device by hanging victims from their feet and holding their heads under filthy water.
members who may still have been alive. Some resettled in the US, Canada, France, and Australia, am ong other countries while others came back to their devastated homelands in Cambodia. All survivors attempted to start their lives anew; yet, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to prevent the psychological trauma, fear, and horror from permeating their daily lives. The trauma of this genocide extends more than thirty years later as the memories of witnessing mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, neighbors, and friends suffer haunt the very core of Khmer Rouge victims as well as children of survivors and even perpetrators of the crime. No one in Cambodia was left untouched by a genocide that killed almost one-fourth of the entire population.
For thirty years, no formal justice system has been established to bring Khmer rouge leaders to trial. Those who were responsible for the genocide of 1.7 million people have lived together with those who survived the regime. After January 1979, the Khmer Rouge retreated to the rural areas of Cambodia and continued to pursue their campaign, fighting with soldiers alongside the borders and in the Cambodian military, breaking into people's homes, and sometimes taking others' lives. Democratic Kampuchea
Tuol Sleng Prison
A room in the prison that was once a classroom for students.
even held a General Assembly seat at the United Nations until 1990 while other high level Khmer Rouge defected to the government.
But there is some hope for change. In February 2006, a mixed international tribunal with the assistance of the United Nations will attempt to bring those leaders who are still alive to justice. If successful, these trials can formally recognize and through that recognition legitimize the psychological trauma and the perpetration of fear that so many Cambodians have had to face without validation from their own country or the world." (Sarah Jones Dickens)
As we left the museum we noticed that a table was set up and covered in books and people were standing in line and taking photos with an elderly man. We soon found out that this was Bou Meng, one of the seven survivors that remained after the Khmer Rouge fell. We bought a copy of his book and shook his hand, we were both in awe to be standing next to someone who survived the atrocities we had just seen where thousands of others had perished. His book goes into detail about the horrors he suffered through but also takes a
A survivor of the Tuol Sleng Prison.
look at why the Khmer Rouge were able to come to power in the first place. In the 1970's Cambodia was at war with itself and dealing with the spill over from the Vietnam War. (Even today children and adults are killed or maimed by land mines set during the Vietnam War). When the Khmer Rouge first rolled into Phnom Penh crowds cheered them on thinking it would be an end to the civil war and hoping these people would bring peace to their lands. Of course that changed soon enough and now Bou Meng and other advocates are hoping to spread the story of the genocide that happened in Cambodia and educating the younger generations so that it can't happen again.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek were no less horrific, maybe even more so. None of the original buildings are still standing, instead wooden plaques describe the structure that once stood there and documented what it was used for. The mass graves that were found are bordered by a wooden fence and bits of cloth and bones are still unearthed to this day, especially after it rains. Although the former orchard turned killing field turned museum has
retained some of the peace of the past. The lake and river that run through the fields are quiet and serene now, almost pleasant. Today a monument has been erected to honor those killed in the fields and the bones of the dead lay inside reminding visitors that although it seems peaceful today it was once a place of human brutality at its worst. We took an audio tour of the area and we were glad we did, the narrator explained where we were standing and told the stories of survivors and even the stories of the young men and women who worked for the Khmer Rouge. It's understandable how a young person who has lived in a war torn country for most of their life would take up with a group of radicals like the Khmer Rouge when they offered a steady job and 3 meals a day. They brainwashed young children and those who thought that what they were doing was wrong did not dare speak out or risk the same punishment they were handing out. Choeung Ek was just one of over 300 killing fields in Cambodia and Tuol Sleng prison one of hundreds just like it.
In Vietnam its cyclos, in Cambodia its the tuk-tuk, very comfortable to ride in.
Everyone in Cambodia today has felt the impact of the Khmer Rouge and we hope this has educated you, because it certainly has educated us.
We left the sorrows of Phnom Penh by bus and headed to Siem Reap which translated literally means, "Siamese Defeated", after they successful kicked Thailand out of the country and re-gained control over their own lands. Siem Reap is charming and friendly and the temples of Angkor Wat are incredibly stunning. On our first night in Siem Reap we caught a ride in a tuk-tuk with a friendly driver named Walter. He led us to the Siem Reap Temple Villa, a cheap yet beautiful hotel close to the city center. Walter let us know he was available to drive us around Angkor Wat and since we weren't sure what exactly we were in for we agreed that we could use some help on our first day. Walter picked us up right on time and drove us the 7 kilometers to what has to be one of the most majestic and beautiful places on earth. We were so grateful to have Walter drive us around to the different temples, this place is monstrous, over 3
kilometers of structure after structure, each one different and beautiful. The temples were built by different kings of Cambodia who all built temples, either Hindu or Buddhist (or a blend of both) to worship their gods. These structures were built more than a thousand years ago and the creative ambition and sheer amount of time and energy that went into these temples is incredible. Ankor Wat is the most impressive of these temples, it has been kept in good condition and its size is something to be in awe of. We got up at 4:00 on our second day and poor Walter got up even earlier to pick us up at our hotel at 4:30. We got to Angkor Wat just before sunrise and for the next hour watched the sun rise from the most spectacular theater in the world.
Bayon Temple was built by Jayavarman VII and its 54 towers decorated with over 216 enormous smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara (who some say is a striking resemblance to himself) was another incredible sight. It's unbelievable how much work went into each placement of stone and the etchings that are carved into the walls are magical. Almost every surface in
Ta Prohm Temple
Built in 1186 the jungle has made it home.
all the temples are covered in bas-relief, some of it so eroded over time that you can no longer tell exactly what was once there. Even though Angor Wat and Bayon are hard to beat our favorite temple had to be Ta Prohm. The jungle had overtaken this temple and huge trees jutted out of stone surfaces like something in a movie! Well maybe that's why they filmed two movies here! Ok you Tomb Raider fans, I stood in the very spot that Angelina Jolie once stood, I even replicated some of her moves from the film. I'm waiting for a call from an agent with an offer to do the re-make..
We hired Walter for the next 2 days we spent zooming around the temples and we're really glad we did. That makes Angkor Wat the most expensive trip yet! We hired Walter for $15 a day and it cost us $80 for two, three day tickets. Walking around the temples is exhausting in itself so we were happy to relax in the back of a tuk-tuk in between temples. Walter says that its the off-season now so work has been scarce; this sounded unbelievable since the temples
Built by Cambodian King Jayavarman VII. The Bayon is decorated with 1.2 kilometers of bas-reliefs that hold more than 11,000 figures.
around Angkor Wat were brimming with people from all over the world. You wouldn't believe how many people get up at 4:00 in the morning to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat and that means the food stalls set up around the temples are open even earlier with little kids selling coffee and breakfast to the sleepy-eyed visitors. In the three days we spent visiting Angkor Wat we saw at least 15 other temples, some big and some very small, and I certainly can't remember the names of all of them. They kinda blend together after awhile which is why some of our pictures are not labeled with the temple name, this just means we forgot, and we forgot a lot.
We have to politely disagree with the gentleman who told us Cambodians were less aggressive in their selling tactics than the Vietnamese, in fact around Angkor Wat it gets almost unbearable with the tiny children surrounding you and asking you to buy their goods over and over one after the other. On our first day to the temples a man asked us to eat at his food stall, #99. We told him no thank you and when
he asked us maybe later, we said OK. On the next day we went to the temple to watch the sunrise and he was there asking us if we remembered him because he remembered us! He reminded us that we said we would eat in his food stall later and he was eager to serve us breakfast. We politely declined but every time I turned around he was there with a menu, "you want breakfast now?" I am not exaggerating that he stalked us for an hour and finally I had to use my stern voice. Unfortunately for the fellow at food stall #99 we had already been promised a cheap breakfast by Walter. The food and water around Angkor Wat is really overpriced and he knew where the locals went to get cheap grub. Walter didn't let us down, we had a delicious bowl of noodle soup and hot coffee for $1.
Overall we have really enjoyed this country, we hope to come back and would recommend it to anyone thinking about traveling to the area. Cambodian's are very laid-back and friendly, After such short time in Cambodia it's time to set off to Laos. We've booked our
bus trip to Vientiane, the capital and we're set to leave tomorrow morning at 5:00AM. We have a grueling 24 hour ride on the bus, the longest stretch yet. I'll let you know if we arrive with our sanity intact.
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