Cambodia's Genocidal Past


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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
September 17th 2014
Published: June 11th 2017
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Today was a difficult day, as expected. We had breakfast in the hotel this morning, then met the group at 8 am to head out to the Choeung Ek Memorial at the Killing Fields, about an hours drive from our hotel. There is a memorial here to the estimated 3 million people killed by the Khmer Rouge. The memorial stupa is made up of an estimated 8,000 human skulls and marks the site of the infamous Killing Fields. This wasn't the only location where Khmer Rouge victims were killed in large numbers; such places were located all over Cambodia.

On the drive to the Memorial Sovann told us about the history of the civil wars in Cambodia and the political situation over the years, and how the Khmer Rouge came to power. His mother lost her entire family during the Khmer Rouge reign (which was from April 1975 to January 1979). Both his parents were lucky to survive. They've told him stories about how difficult life was during that time. It's hard to believe that the capital city of Phnom Penh was evacuated of its entire population. The inhabitants were all forced out to the countryside to work in agriculture. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, wanted to transform the country to a strictly agrarian one, with no schools, no medicine, no cities, no teaching and no learning. Cambodia continues to suffer the effects of the regime to the present day.

The temples we have visited all had a nice peaceful feeling, as if they were filled with positive energy. The energy at the Memorial was the opposite. I felt uneasy here. It is a dark place.

I don't want to write much about the Memorial - you'll see from the pictures what it was like. This was where the victims of the Tuol Sleng torture centre were executed, in horrible ways. Men, women, and children (including babies) were all murdered here.

After the Memorial we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a former high school which was a Khmer Rouge prison and torture centre). An estimated 20,000 people were held and tortured here. It is made up of 3 buildings, and you walk through the buildings, see the small cells where prisoners were kept, and see the floors stained with blood that will never come out, and imagine the horrors that happened here. The Khmer Rouge took photos of the people they imprisoned and tortured here (many were young teenagers). The photos are displayed at the Museum and they are absolutely haunting, because of the around 20,000 people kept here, only seven people survived this place. That means all the people in the photos were murdered. Some people look terrified, some pleading, some defiant. After Tuol Sleng was discovered, four small children were found hiding under piles of clothes, the only children to have survived.

Of the seven men who survived Tuol Sleng, two are still alive today. One of these men was at the Museum today. He has a booth where he sells his book, as well as other books by and about the Khmer Rouge victims. The other survivor is a painter, and some of his paintings depicting the torture inflicted on victims are displayed in the Museum.

It was a relief to leave Tuol Sleng and to drive to the riverfront for lunch. We had an excellent lunch at the Khmer Saravan restaurant overlooking the Tonle Sap river. After lunch Susan and some of the group went to the market, and some of the group including me went to the the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace complex was kind of a mini Grand Palace (in Bangkok) but not nearly as impressive. It was very nice through, and the grounds were lovely. It was lightly raining fairly consistently when we were there (it lightly rained on and off most of the afternoon). I'm glad I saw the Royal Palace but just wandering around on our own wasn't as good as having a guide who explains what all the different buildings are and who gives you lots of information.

After the Royal Palace we caught a tuk tuk back to the hotel and had an hour or so before we met the group at 5 pm. I felt very down at this point - the effects of all we had seen at the Genocide Museum and Tuol Sleng.

You can't stay depressed very long in a group though, and we then headed back to the riverfront for a boat cruise on the Tonle Sap river. The beer was $1 and the cocktails were $2! There was music and even dancing and a good time was had by all. The waterfront looked quite lovely at night with all the
Mass GraveMass GraveMass Grave

The colourful ties on the bamboo fence are in remembrance of the victims.
lights.

After the cruise we went to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) for dinner. I had my third Fish Amok and though it was different from the other ones it was very tasty. Susan and I each had a passionfruit mojito, mmmm. The FCC overlooks the Tonle Sap river, and though it is full of Aussie tourists now, it once was a gathering place for journalists covering the war.

We got back to the hotel about 11, picked up our laundry, packed for our departure tomorrow morning, and now I am finishing up the blog. Tomorrow we leave at 7:45. We take a public bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I was a bit wary when I read we were taking a public bus, but these buses are very nice (not like the buses in India Sowann says, no chickens!). There is even a happy loo on the bus. The journey should take 7 hours or so.

So, good-bye to Cambodia. It has been fascinating getting to know you a little bit.


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Cell where prisoners were interrogatedCell where prisoners were interrogated
Cell where prisoners were interrogated

The prisoners were shackled to their iron bed


17th September 2014

I've been really enjoying your blog, Lori. It's hard to view the horror of the killings but I thing it is important to see the memorial and museum . These actions should never be forgotten. Now onto happier times..Dad .
19th September 2014

Some years ago Scott and I saw an exhibit of photos of some of the victims, at the Photography museum in Ottawa. It was unbelievably moving and i've never forgotten it. Even though it is a very sad place imbued with evil, I believe it is
important to bear witness. Thanks for sharing with us.
23rd June 2017

Same same but different...
I just read all your Thailand/Cambodia blogs in one sitting! It made me re-live our 2013 Intrepid Cambodia trip, and even though our trip was different, there are many similarities - we had Mr T as our contact at the Sambor Prei Kuk homestay too (just checked our blog, his real name was Mr Bunteng); and I also had to use the toilet in the night but the house we stayed in didn't have an upstairs toilet, so I had to trudge downstairs in the dark. I laughed at your very accurate description of exiting the mossie net and re-entering it :) We found the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields very difficult too, and I still feel weird when I think about our visit :( I'm fairly sure I've already read your Vietnam blogs, but will look over them soon. :)
23rd June 2017

Same same but different ...
I vividly remember the night at the homestay and my many trips to the squat toilet! Re-reading the blogs really brings back the memories. Sure makes me want to go on another trip ...

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