Our last day of winter vacation was a sobering one. We began our day with a visit to Choeng Ek, the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh. I had some reservations about visiting the Killing Fields. When planning out our visit I learned of some of the controversy surrounding the upkeep of the fields. Apparently the rights to the Killing Fields were sold to a Japanese company. The Cambodian government does not run the Killing Fields tour, instead it is run by the Japanese company. This startled me when I found out about it and after reading about how this has angered many Cambodians, I contemplated not visiting. After doing more research I decided that the Killing Fields were still such an important part of Cambodian history that I would need to experience. Apparently the company that owns the rights to the Killing Fields has a 30 year lease, hopefully after that time it can be returned to the Cambodian people.
When you visit the killing fields you pay $6 which includes entrance and an audio tour. The tour in English is voiced by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and is well done. Any visit to the Killing Fields needs the audio tour, otherwise you have no idea what you are looking at or the depth of the horrors that happened there not that long ago.
After visiting the Killing Fields everyone in our small group was left in a state of shock. It wasn’t that we didn’t know how horrifying it would be to visit a place where so many lives were lost. I think it was a combination of everything we learned…how Pol Pot was never really punished for his part as leader of Khmer Rouge; how many of those higher up in the Khmer Rouge are still not being held responsible for all the deaths under their rule; how the people weren’t killed with bullets, they were killed with whatever was available including gardening tools and metal rods; how the clothing that was found at the killing fields looks like something you would see someone wearing today…there was just so much that was greatly disturbing. I thought visiting this place would make me sad, which it did, but I was surprised at how much it scared me…scared me to think of what people can do to other people.
After the Killing Fields we took a short break before visiting Toul Sleng, the Genocide Museum. This is where the Khmer Rouge would interrogate people before they were executed. Anyone who opposed the regime or were deemed a threat could be taken here to be tortured and interrogated into signing confessions to plotting against the Khmer Rouge. Very few people survived Toul Sleng once they were brought in. For some reason the Khmer Rouge documented all the people who were brought in and left detailed files on how they were treated. It was haunting to see the black and white photos of all the people who were brought into the former school…some of them look confused, some look like they know what their fate will be, some look scared…. And all of them were killed. Just walking around the rooms and hallways of the school you can tell that bad things happened there, if you look at the floors of interrogation rooms there are still blood stains in the tile. There are even floors of individual cells which are basically closets that were thrown up to keep people inside.
My reaction to the Genocide Museum were just hollow, it was really hard for me to comprehend how people could be so horribly mistreated…men, women, children, babies…why? How could those in charge of such institutions hurt so many people? Is any cause worth torturing so many people?
I have to say when planning out our trip to Cambodia I almost wanted to skip Phnom Penh altogether since I knew it would be a difficult experience. But, I am really glad that we went. It taught me so much, not just the history aspect, seeing these places up close really confronted me in a way that I will never forget.