Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields (July 1 & 2, 2011)

Shocking doesn’t begin to describe how I felt.  Horror, yes!  A great sadness came over me as I approached the stupa.  Inside the pagoda-like building which rose inside the gate were skills, hundreds of them, their empty eye sockets staring out toward those of us who approached.  Although I knew it was coming, I was still moved to tears.  Signs everywhere instructed us to be quiet and respectful, but they were not needed.  Everyone was affected by the scene.  A young boy, perhaps American or maybe European, broke away from his family and went and sat along, holding his head in his hands and covering his eyes.  Most wiped their eyes and shook their heads.  At the base of the stupa there was a man selling incense and flowers, so that we might honor the dead.  I was outraged when he made the pitch, thinking that no one should profit from such a tragedy.   I knew how Jesus must have felt at the temple when he turned over the tables of the money changers. 

Skulls inside stupa

Years ago, after having seen the movie “The Killing Fields, I’d read Haing Ngor’s  A Cambodian Odyssey.   Ngor, who played the leading role in the movie, had been a physician in Cambodia.  After the fall of Phnon Penh in April 1975, he was able to avoid a certain death by impersonating a peasant.  Like all others in the city, he was sent out into the countryside where lived and worked in camps.  While there he witnessed and experienced firsthand torture and brutality at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  The book tells his story which is, in some ways, even more horrific than the movie.  I found it ironic that the reign of terror in Cambodia began about the time of my last grading period in high school and concluded, with the invasion by Vietnam in January 1979, as I was beginning my final semester as an undergraduate.  The events in the country are tied to an important formative era of my life.  While I was struggling to make my way into adulthood, these people were suffering incredibility. 

Excavation sites

Choeung Ek Genocide Center, the place advertised today as “The Killing Fields,” is but one of the mass grave areas that have been discovered.  The stupa in honor of the dead rises above the ground, which is pot-marked with holes where the excavation of mass graves occurred.  I walk alone in silence, on the high ground between the excavation sites.  Signs point to the place where a makeshift holding cell held prisoners bound and blindfolded, awaiting their execution.  Other signs note where executions took place and where babies were killed.  When a parent was sentenced to death, the whole family would often be killed as Pol Pot and his henchmen (and women) didn’t want to deal with children growing up and extracting revenge for their parent’s death.  At one point, a girl from perhaps Germany, screams and points to a bone fragment sticking up just above the ground.  According to the signs, every rain brings out new fragments which collected displayed in containers around the site.  This site was chosen as a place to execute prisoners from S-21, a prison in a former high school that is now a genocide museum.

Former school and torture center, now a museum

I stayed on the grounds for about an hour and a half.  I’d seen enough.  I found my driver who was waiting outside.  I’d hired him from the hotel for $5, with the agreement that he’d take me to both the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, our next stop.  We drove back into town (the Killing Fields was about 17 km from town) and to the school.  Again, the driver waited as I pay the admission fee and went inside.  The school consisted of numerous three story buildings.  The first was reserved for interrogation and torture.  Victims were forced to confess their crimes against the revolutionary regime, before being executed.  The rules of the facility were posted (in Khmer and English) and in front there were gallows where prisoners were hung and beaten or dunked into tanks of filthy water.  The other classroom buildings were used as cells.  One set of buildings had been cut up into smaller cells, each just long enough for a prisoner to lie down.  On the balconies outside of the cells, barbwire had been strung, reportedly to keep the prisoners from jumping to a suicide death.   Inside each cubical was a pot for water and for one’s waste.  Through much of the building were posted photographs of the condemned, nameless faces with blank stares.  A few of the photographs show terror in the faces and a few others show the victim forcing a small for the camera, but most hold a blank expression of resignation.  Their faces stand in contrast to today, for the Cambodian people seem so friendly and are always smiling. 
Gas station on the way to Phnom Penh
notice street vendor next to station selling liters of petro!

I got to experience some of the joy of the Cambodian people first hand on the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh the day before.  I got stuck in the back of the bus, next to a high school student who spoke perfect English.  In the seat ahead sat his mother and his four year old sister.  Of course, his sister spent much of the trip with us, playing and laughing.  At four, she spoke some English and was attending a Montessori Kindergarten in Phnom Penh.   Occasionally, her mother would send back a packet of class material for her daughter to review.  By Cambodian standards, this family was rich!  The student beside had also attended an English speaking kindergarten ran by Christians, even though he and his family were Buddhist. 
The road from Siem Reap started out nice, but after Kempong Thom the quality of the road surface deteriorated (it was being rebuilt) and the bus bumped and swayed over stretches of dirt roads.   We passed farms and some forest.  Entering Phnom Penh, I was surprised to see two mosque from the bus.  Cambodia does have a Muslim minority (a group singled-out by the Khmer Rouge for extermination—as they did with other groups that were seen as non-Khmer: Christians, Vietnamese and Chinese). 
Buddhist monks outside of Phnom Penh
Street Scene in Phnom Penh

Front of King Guesthouse
At the bus station in Phnom Penh, by the Mekong River, I meet a driver from the King Guesthouse.  I jumped into the “chariot” and off we went.  It was only two blocks from the riverfront.  In its day, The King Guesthouse and Spa (it’s full name, but I am unsure where they get the idea of spa from) was quite the establishment.  The stairs were beautifully done with terrazzo steps and rails and a well in the interior of the building drew in air from the rooms and created a pleasant breeze.  However, most of the  rooms were converted to air conditioning (although I didn’t exactly have to worry about the AC in my room requiring me to ask for a blanket as the AC only put out a small stream of cool air).  The hotel showed it age and wasn’t the cleanest place I’d stayed so far.  Furthermore, one of the workers couldn’t seem to keep his hands off the guest (this was a complaint made by several of the guest.  The first time of two we talked, he’d touch my arm as he spoke.  When he came and sat by me at a table to talk and put his hand on my leg, I slapped it off in a way that indicated it wasn’t welcome and game him a stern look.  Afterwards, he steered clear of me.
The afternoon, after visiting the Killing Fields and Genocide museum, I walked around the city, visiting the post office, the local market and a local Buddhist temple as well as walking along the river.  That night, I made reservations for Saigon and talked to Jerry, the owner, who gave me an older copy of the Rough Guide to Vietnam (he had a stack of them left behind by backpackers).  The next morning, after breakfast, I was heading down the Mekong, into Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. 


  1. Man, just reading about it is enough to punch me in the face. the inhumanity of man.

  2. We have always had these thugs running amok among us. Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, all the war lords of the Sudan and so many more to whom another human's life that has no profit or inspires their paranoid fear has no value.

    You describe well Jeff, the horror of those years in Cambodia. I remember when the Vietnamese went in and sent Pol Pot to the hills. My respect for a former enemy increased a hundred fold.

  3. Moving post. I suspect what you experienced is similar to that one goes through visiting an SS Death Camp. Words hardly do it justice, because we cannot imagine the horror ourselves, much less find the words to convey the feeling.

  4. I can't even imagine what that was like - seeing all those skulls and imagining the horror of living through a time like that.

    And the man who was so hands on - I wonder about that. I used to work with a man who was originally from that country and he was always sort of inappropriately touching the other guys. They had to talk to him about that. I wonder if that is something they just do there.

  5. Thanks again. Great post and pics. We do not really comprehend the horrors humans are capable of. The killing fields of the earth go back beyond history...I've been given to understand that personal space and touching are interpreted a lot differently among Cambodians. You probably did the right thing but maybe shouldn't feel too offended.

  6. I bet the vibes of sorrow still floating in Cambodian skies. The unimaginable torture and execution rendered a deep blow to humankind. May all the victims find a peaceful resting place. God bless.

    Asato Ma Sad Gamaya
    Tamasoma jyotir gamaya
    Mrityor ma amritam gamaya
    Om shanti shanti shanti

    Lead me from the unreal to the real
    Lead from the darkness to the light
    Lead me from death to immortality
    Let there be peace peace and peacefulness

  7. At Cambodian funeral ceremonies the monks and mourners pray for the spirit to be released and freed. I take comfort in knowing that every time another person goes to these torture and death centers from that regime, another spirit is freed simply by the awe that overcomes them from seeing, learning, understanding.
    Keep going.

  8. I read the book a long time ago and to this day, I think it's the saddest thing I've ever read. The movie was good also, but as you said, the book was a VERY emotional thing. Great post!