This is an emotionally heavy post. You have been warned.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, until a few weeks ago, I knew almost nothing about the history of Southeast Asia. I couldn’t tell you which European country colonized who, what happened during the Vietnam War and when, or what kind of government each country maintains today. In fact, the only thing I knew about Cambodia was that the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the genocide of a lot of people at some point in recent decades.
Basically, Asia was just a blip in my sophomore AP World History class. I’ve come a long way since January 1.
I learned a thing or two about the country’s early history at Angkor, though I didn’t realize is that those temples would come back into play centuries later. It wasn’t until Battambang that I started to grasp the complexities of what the Khmer people have faced in recent years.
On my first full day in the city, I hired a tuk tuk to visit the sights outside of the town center. My wonderful driver Sokha was a walking encyclopedia of Cambodian history and could answer any question I threw at him. Our first stop was Wat Somrong Knong, a temple just a few kilometers north that was used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and torture center. But let’s back up.
Cambodia was a French colony that gained independence in 1953 and became a self-ruling monarchy. In 1970, a military coup overthrew the king, and the resulting government, led by the former prime minister Lon Nol, received support from the United States. At the same time, the U.S. continued to bomb the shit out of Cambodia in an effort to get at the communist Viet Cong in Vietnam — as well as the Khmer Rouge, a bunch of communist guerillas living in the Cambodian forest.
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched out of the woods and took over Phnom Penh. They shut down hospitals and schools and temples and social services and marched everyone from the cities to rural areas into forced manual and agricultural labor. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, claimed that he wanted to return Cambodia (“Democratic Kampuchea”) to the age of Angkor, the 11th century. They also rounded up anyone who presented a perceived threat to their rule — intellectuals, professionals, minorities, their own soldiers and party members, people of all ages — and threw them in prison, where they were tortured, forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, and eventually killed. Around 2 million people died from execution or starvation — nearly one quarter of the population.
So, I learned all of that within five minutes of arriving at Wat Somrong Knong. The old temple that was converted to a prison is now used only on special occasions, and a new temple is still under construction. But the horrible things that happened there have not gone unrecognized.
In one corner of the courtyard is what is known as the Well of Shadows — a stupa, or Buddhist structure that contains relics. In this case, you’ll find skulls and bones from Khmer Rouge victims. On the concrete base are reliefs depicting, in great detail, some of the crimes the regime committed.
Sokha told us (I had two other travelers riding along) that he remembers being forced to work in the fields because working meant that you got more food. He was five.
After a stop at Wat Banan, a sort of mini Angkor Wat (built around the same time) set up high on a hill south of Battambang, we made our way to Phnom Sampeau — the killing caves — one of the many execution sites spread around Cambodia. We walked a good long way up a winding road and found a functioning Buddhist temple at the top. A bit further on is a path down into one of the caves. There were separate caves for men, women, and children. The Khmer Rouge didn’t often use guns for mass executions because bullets were expensive, so instead they employed methods like beating and near-decapitation and tossed the bodies over the edges of the caves or mass graves.
Knowing this, being in a place where such things occurred, left me both overwhelmed by emotion and yet totally empty. There’s just no other way to describe it, and all I could do was sit in silence.
Perhaps the most notorious sites from the Khmer Rouge regime are located in and around Phnom Penh, and I spent a day visiting these as well.
Our first stop was the killing fields at Choeung Ek. The Cambodian government has done an incredible job preserving the area and putting together an informative audio tour. Because there are no (or very few) guides and all visitors are listening to headphones, the whole experience is very quiet and reverent. In fact, it’s so peaceful and beautiful there that it’s hard to imagine it as a place of death.
Choeung Ek was a Chinese cemetery before it was commandeered by the Khmer Rouge for executions. Since the KR was driven out by the Vietnamese on January 7, 1979, many, but not all, of the mass graves have been excavated and the nearly 9,000 remains catalogued and preserved. But bones still surface in the rainy season and can be seen peeking out of the dirt. There are several graves that have been marked as holding women and children or KR soldiers whose heads had been cut off. The largest held more than 400 bodies.
There’s a path around the lake, which gives visitors a chance to walk around, stop and reflect, and listen to the stories of survivors.
The last stop on the tour is the memorial stupa, which has 13 levels (I think?) of bones recovered from the grounds.
Similar to the caves in Battambang, I left Cheoung Ek overwhelmed. Our next stop was Tuol Sleng, or S-21, a former school that was converted into a prison that processed as many as 20,000 prisoners. Only seven survived. I couldn’t bring myself to pull out my camera here (or through most of the Cheoung Ek), but it’s an incredibly moving experience to walk through the cells and see the torture chambers, which still hold beds and shackles. S-21 kept really detailed records of everyone who passed through, so the headshots and confessions of many of the prisoners are on display.
I’ve never visited a Nazi concentration camp or the Soviet gulag, nor have I been in a place where the visible scars of genocide still exist. But I imagine my reaction — anyone’s reaction — there would be similar. It’s one thing to read about this history (or for some, the present) or to learn it in school, but it’s another entirely to stand right where it took place. If given that opportunity, take it.
Today, the royal family has returned to Cambodia, but the country under the Cambodian People’s Party is still led by a former Khmer Rouge general who defected and was installed by Vietnam after they drove the KR out in 1979. Only one of the major players in the genocide has been tried and convicted, and many others defected and were accepted into the new government. Pol Pot died in the late 1990s near the Thai border without ever facing punishment for his crimes. It’s still an incredibly raw part of Cambodia’s past, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Khmer family or individual whose life hasn’t been touched in one way or another by these events. After all, it was just a few decades ago. Cambodia has been fucked so royally for so long by everyone around them — their land to the south is still within Vietnam’s borders, and landmines and other UXO can be found all over as remnants of the U.S. bombing campaign. Yet the people here are some of the kindest I’ve ever encountered, and that’s what is so humbling and what has made Cambodia my favorite stop so far.
I talked to Sokha about what life in Cambodia is like today, how the government works now, and where the country is headed. There’s an election this summer, and though it’s generally accepted that the government is wildly corrupt, I’ve gotten the sense that people are interested in change, and now that I know at least the slightest bit about it, I’m excited to follow what happens.