Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng

We arrived in Phnom Penh and having made a new friend (Sarah from the UK) on the bus, the three of us decided to grab a tuk tuk to a nearby guesthouse. We also realized that we were interested in seeing a lot of the same sites so we arranged to have the same driver come and pick us up the next day and take us to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We stayed at the Okay Guesthouse and it was a nice enough place with friendly staff and a good location (right by the palace and National Museum). The food was also really tasty and they had a clever way of keeping track of what you bought and they let you pay for everything when you leave.

A bit of a warning, this is going to be a depressing/sad entry. Most of the places we went to in Cambodia had to do with the Khmer Rouge genocide. If you haven't seen the movie "The Killing Fields", I recommend it. Very horrible and dark things occured in this country and even though the people are recovering, you can still sense it everywhere you go. At least I could.

I didn't take a lot of pictures at Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) but I have to say, it was an experience to walk through, see the memorial filled with bones and skulls and to occasionally stumble and realize that you tripped over a piece of clothing or a bit of bone poking out of the ground. I was also conflicted by the children and men lingering around the outskirts begging for money. On one hand, they are probably suffering and living in poverty, but on the other it felt like they were just exploiting the pain and tragedy of their country to make an extra dollar. I suppose I would probably be doing the same thing if I were them though... Although I should add that Cambodia chose to privatize this site and basically sold it to a Japanese company in 2005. Anyway, it's a chilling place to visit and a must see if you want to know the real horrors of war and genocide.

Next we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I wasn't familiar with this place before I visited Phnom Penh but I would really recommend visiting it. It also hasn't been privatized. Tuol Sleng used to be a high school but during the Khmer Rouge regime it was transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21). Apparently they show a film at 10 am and 3 pm but we unfortunately weren't able to see it. It was tough walking through and looking at the former classrooms that had been turned into tiny cells and torture chambers. Some rooms were filled with pictures of some of the many victims, while others contained only rusty beds and blood stains on the floor.

I can't even imagine the devastation, fear and loss that has been suffered in this country. It was as if they were blasted back into the Stone Age. During the Khmer Rouge occupation millions of people were murdered (starting with anyone who was educated) and they even did away with currency (they burned all the money) which basically meant that if you wanted to eat you needed to work for them on their rice farms, etc.

One of the most interesting sections in the museum was created by a foreign (I think he was from Sweden?) activist who had belonged to a group sympathizing with the Khmer Rouge during the late 70s. He and some of his colleagues actually entered Cambodia during the peak of the murders and were hosted by the Khmer Rouge. Today the man thoroughly apologizes for supporting the Khmer Rouge and the museum displays his photographs that were taken on that trip with commentary. It's interesting to think that these people were there and they didn't notice anything sinister occurring or if they did they were able to deny it and turn their heads the other way.

Again, I didn't take a lot of pictures but you can find a few more over here.

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