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Published: March 24th 2008
At certain times in history man and moment have come together to produce a novelty, something which human eyes had never seen before. Some achievements we hope to see again, while some tragedies we hope will always be nothing more than a distant memory.
And so it went for Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, scars of an unbelievable past so shocking, so brutal, so recent. At Tuol Sleng, there are still blood stains in the cells. There are hundreds of portraits of the people who lived a waking nightmare at the hands of their fellow Cambodians. Standing at Tuol Sleng, how can one possibly grasp the magnitude of the things that transpired underneath your feet? I believe in sacred geography, but the cool morning I spent at Tuol Sleng felt nothing short of profane.
It's hard to imagine what the Khmer Rouge were thinking. Their ideals were attractive to many: A utopia of equality, a classless society where the farmer is the lifeblood of the nation. With mostly farmers and no working class, Pol Pot revised Marxist doctrine and saw farmers as the true proletariat of the revolution. Imagine enforcing radical agrarian socialism on a 20th century society- this
is the ideal Pol Pot attempted to create in a very modern Cambodia in 1975. The escalating specifics of this extreme form of socialism shed light on the true costs of its enforcement- Elimination of education. Forbidding people to wear jewelry and extremes of dress. Taking away private transportation and private ownership of land. Abolition of native cultures. Use of torture to intimidate and force people to conform. Mandatory evacuations of people in cities to the countryside. Elimination of money and religion. Separating the people up into groups irrespective of family ties. Selective genocide of Monks, Intellectuals, Politicians, the Handicapped.
18,000 people were tortured and executed at Tuol Sleng
alone, also known as S-21. I suppose the Khmer Rouge used a numbering system to help keep track of all the Secret prisons they had, from S-1 to S-21 and beyond. A 5 minute walk from my sisters house, I had a strange feeling of misunderestimating the situation. The outward appearance of the school was like any other. Yet if I turned the gears of time back in my mind 30 years, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near this place- kind of like when I visited the Anne Frank house
The all so important Naga-at once a serpent, water spirit and protector.
The school didn't seem different from the surroundings...but in reality it was the scene of something infamous, something that strikes shame into the world. Cartoons drawn by survivors of the torture methods
, including water boarding
. A high rail where prisoners were hung by their wrist binds
, ripping their shoulder joints apart while they were dunked in urns of filthy water. Empty rooms only filled with metal beds and shackles - the very same ones used only 30 years ago to hold down prisoners while they were tortured. Photographs hang on the walls showing the dead and bloody victims
on the beds when the Vietnamese took over in 1978 and ended the madness.
wait for riders. Kids sell postcards. Women retrieve fruit from tall trees with 5 meter poles. Some people hate seeing pictures of genocide, or dwelling on what happened. But we must look, listen and learn- so that nothing like this could happen again.
Paying a small fee for a guide is mandatory to understand what happened. Out of respect I didn't take pictures while the guide took me through the complex. Despite signs pointing out the obvious rule of respecting the dead by not laughing and being loud- I saw several tourists doing just
the opposite. Talking loudly in European tongues, their speech punctuated by outbursts of laughter-Its hard to imagine what they are thinking. I doubt the 18,000 people tortured beneath their very feet, the people who's pictures are looking at them in the eye
- I doubt they would appreciate the gaiety, hilarity and happiness these disrespectful tourists bring to Toul Sleng.
Perhaps this disrespect stems from ignorance. A lot of the horrors that transpired during the rule of the Khmer Rouge are still secrets. In years past Cambodia did not teach about Pol Pot in elementary/high schools because people felt that it was best to suppress the emotions surrounding the genocide and move on into the future. However, they found that a whole generation of Cambodians are growing up not believing the genocide happened or understanding the impact on Cambodia and why the country and its people are the way they are today. Enter The Documentation Center of Cambodia-www.dccam.org-
an incredible organization established to preserve the voices of thousands of Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge and find justice in the Khmer Rouge Tribunals.
DC Cam created a textbook for the Ministry of Education where the lessons learned from the Khmer Rouge genocide are now taught in Cambodian schools.
DC Cam has been the primary reason Cambodia & the UN have been able to hold the Khmer Rouge Tribunals. The majority of evidence that will be utilized in the Khmer Rouge Tribunals was collected and preserved by DC Cam.
The Director, Youk Chhang
, was a refugee who resettled in the US, became a lawyer, and has had a lifelong burden to find justice for those who were killed and whose lives were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. This brilliant and inspiring man's mission is also to ensure that the memory of what happened does not fade. Youk Chhang and his staff have tirelessly voyaged across every inch of Cambodia assisting people in recording their memories of the Khmer Rouge, testifying to abuses and murders, and helping them connect with others. DC Cam records people's stories through writing, through video, and through voice recorder.
After my guided tour was complete and I retraced my steps to take pictures, I must have spent too much time. My brother in law met me in a tuk-tuk at the gate when I was leaving, and I thought I was making good time! It was to be a long day, and off we
went to Choeung Ek.
The killing fields of Choeung Ek are where most of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng were murdered. It was hot and dry out there, exacerbating the feeling of disgust at what happened while making me forget my own discomfort from the heat. I saw countless skulls, excavated pits where bodies were buried and trees with signs explaining their significance. "Killing Tree Where Executioners Beat Children."
"Tree used to hang speakers to play music to mask the screams and calm those waiting to be executed." "Pit that contained 150 skeletons, all without heads."
After a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride through brutal dust, smoke and heat we arrived at the next stop on the gringo trail: The National Museum
. It was filled with fantastic artifacts, from the hunters and gathers to the Ancient Khmer villages to the magnificent art of the Angkor Temples. In fact many Angkor artifacts were being boxed up for shipment, and some of the rooms were practically empty. A new museum was built in Siem Reap and recently finished, the fantastic Angkor National Museum
. Many of the Angkor treasures are destined to be on display closer to their former home. A thought crossed my mind, "I wonder if they need help
spirit house, The Royal Palace
A tribute to the the spirits that inhabit special places, a spirit house is given daily offerings for their approval and respect.
redesigning the exhibits after the Angkor artifacts are shipped. No, I'm sure they have people for that..." The reality is that a developing country like Cambodia recovering from the annihilation of culture the Khmer Rouge imposed needs all the help it can get. Who will accept the call to help facilitate development? Those that do are few and far between, but their impact is profound.
It was odd to think of the tens of millions obese Americans
back home, making a difference in nobody's life and self-destructing their own lives as they feast on fast food and are hypnotized by reality TV. There are but a few hundred ex-pat's in Cambodia working for NGO's, starting restaurants to employ locals and share Khmer culinary delights like www.streetfriends.org
, starting a school for street children like the Green Gecko Project
, giving much needed medical care to the provinces far from Phnom Penh, helping children heal
from the trauma of sex trafficking, donating money through Kiva
so enterprising Cambodians can start business' and make a better life for their children. Obviously I didn't accept the call of service to humanity to make a difference, but the experience of meeting locals who make $30 a month really put things
in perspective. I feel like we are taught by many elders growing up that its impossible to "save the world". The reality is if more people decided to save the world, things do change- one life at a time. Even being an obnoxious tourist in Cambodia helps with development, as we spend money at a grass roots level to restaurants, market stalls and tuk-tuk drivers earning a living for their families.
Soon we were off to The Royal Palace which contains the famous Silver Pagoda
and artifacts of Cambodia's Royalty. It was all very impressive, with intricate buildings from a culture much older and different that anything I'd seen. I considered it mystically ancient to visit the 800 year old ruins of the Anasazi at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico- yet here is an exceptional culture older than the Anasazi still alive and well. Hints of Cambodia's past are revealed in the ornate structures and artifacts. Incredible tales of the Ancient Glory of the Temples of Angkor and Modern Royalty's pomp and circumstance.
These Attractions For the Tourist in Phnom Penh reveal multiple and complicated layers of history. The powerful and lasting impact of both the glorious Khmer Empire
I was *really excited to be there!
and the tragic 4 year long Khmer Rouge "experiment" is vivid and right in your face no matter where you travel in Cambodia. The stories are endless - each person you meet in Cambodia has seen and experienced more than most of us could ever imagine. The generous and kind Khmer people offer us a multitude of lessons, wisdom and genuine hearts - if only we take the time to listen, learn and understand.
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