Each country I have been to thus far has affected me in it’s own unique way. New Zealand fed my hungry appetite for adventure and tramping in the outdoors. China presented me with a colorful history coupled with beautiful chaos. Thailand spoiled me with mouth-watering food and secluded tropical beaches. And, Malaysia showcased her natural beauty: sparkling beaches, fascinating wildlife and a breathtaking underwater world. Cambodia, by contrast, has revealed to me her horrific past and daily struggle to overcome tragedy. Traveling in Cambodia has, thus far, been the most emotional and inspirational country I have visited.
Prior to stepping foot in Cambodia, I read the novel “At First They Killed my Father,” by Loung Ung. This powerful book, told through the voice of a five year old child, takes the reader through the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), a period in which Pol Pot rained terror over Cambodia, killing off 1/5 of the country’s total population through execution, starvation and forced labor. The regime mostly targeted those who had the potential to undermine the New State. They ruthlessly disposed of doctors, lawyers, teachers, former military members and intellectuals because they were seen as a threat–killing not only the individuals but entire families. Even people with glasses or soft hands were quickly disposed of.
Even after reading about Ung’s horrific experience, it still didn’t prepare me for the raw emotions and heartache that surged through every part of my body as I walked through Choeung Ek, also known as The Killing Fields, an area outside of Phnom Penh that was used to execute and bury thousands of innocent victims. Within the first 20 feet of the entrance stood a massive statue with over 8000 skulls lining the inside and a heap of clothes piled at the bottom. My head swirled and my stomach became queasy like i had just gotten off a boat on rough seas.
Our guide had us follow him to additional mass graves, where articles of tattered clothing could be seen poking out under the muddy path. He stooped down and picked up a human tooth that was lying on the ground as he explained the brutal torture methods used by the Khmer Rouge. To save bullets, adults were clubbed in the head with blunt instruments or their throats were sliced with the sharp edges of baby palm leaves. As for the babies, they tossed them into the air spearing them with their bayonet or held them like a baseball bat and hit them across a tree.
Throughout the tuk tuk ride to Tuol Sleng Museum, the former Tuol Svey Prey High School, I choked back tears but as I walked past row after row of the victims’ photos, I silently let them fall. Babies, children, teenagers and adults stared back at me with looks of fear, hatred, confusion and utter hopelessness–it was one of the most heartbreaking afternoons of my life.
Although horrific, going to The Killing Fields and museum helps to explain the current state of Cambodian society. It gave me perspective and understanding of why poverty levels are so high, infrastructure still poor, and education systems lacking. It is a nation rebuilding itself, trying to regain what was so brutally stripped from them only a mere 30 years ago.