So Cambodia has been ... interesting. My pictures on facebook suffice to tell about the touristy stuff... Angkor Wat.. the floating villages, and around Siem Reap. Words don't really do them justice the way pictures do, so I'll leave that to my albums.
What is worth writing about is what we witnessed once we got to Phnom Penh. Arguably my least favorite destination of those two months, it was a ....city. Nothing more, nothing less. And a third world city at that. Before I say anymore, I've met people who described this as their favorite destination. So if for some reason someone is actually reading this blog, don't go off my opinion alone. I just didn't like it. I am by no means a snob, and I've roughed it as much as the next backpacker and enjoy doing so. But the city as a whole was dirty, and just ...depressing. I didn't feel good being there. I didn't like walking the streets. The complete devastation and poverty was completely overwhelming, and it surprised me that I was so turned off by it all.
Regardless, the reason we came here was not uplifting in the least, so it was almost fitting that the city didn't pretend to be something it wasn't. We came here to see the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng.
If you are an American, and you're not a SE Asia History buff, it's safe to say you're not too informed about what happened in Cambodia 40 years ago. I'm sure there are plenty of people that do know, but until I traveled to Asia, I had never heard about a genocide that rivaled the Holocaust. This was news to many people I told about, many much older than I was.
In a nutshell, Pol Pot, a communist leader in Cambodia, led his regime of the Khmer Rouge to commit atrocities against humanity during the 1970s. His goal was to create a self sufficient agrarian society, based in communism. Anyone suspected of wanting to partake in a capitalist society, (which was basically anyone who had an education, a background or ethnicity in something other than pure Cambodian, anyone who wore glasses, anyone who had any involvement with the government or politics of the former Cambodia, were immediately sentenced to death, or in the very least, torn from their families and anything held dear). Families were rarely kept together. Children were viewed as clean slates, so they had to be separated from the influence of their parents, who were more set in their ways.
All in all, it was unthinkable. Everyone was sentenced to work camps, those who weren't immediately killed, that is. If they weren't killed, many died of starvation, disease, or mistreatment. About a quarter of the population of Cambodia did not survive these few years of Khmer Rouge rule, and to this day, over two thirds of the population is under 30 years old. So many elder people were murdered, that the age gap still exists.
So, the killing fields were where people were brought to be executed. Soldiers would bring people to die after telling family members that they needed their fathers or husbands for "help," etc. It was all lies, all the time.
There were about 20,000 mass graves across Cambodia, which entombed over 1.3 millions souls. The total number of deaths including disease and starvation far surpass 2 million. As aforementioned, this was about a quarter of the Cambodian population. We visited one of these sites outside of Phnom Penh, and listened to an audio tour on cassette tape. We learned that clothing still surfaces from the mud after a heavy rain. There are also bone fragments that surface as well.
We listened to Pol Pot, and some of his statements. Regarding most individuals, his belief was that, "to kill is no loss, to keep is not gain."
He also believed that it was better "to kill an innocent rather than spare an enemy." Regarding children, he believed they were not worthy to be spared either. If the parents posed a problem, he said, "To kill the grass, you must also kill the root."
We continued our depressing day when we visited Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21. This was a high school turned torture chamber in the center of Phnom Penh. There were still playground pieces standing that were used to hang prisoners from using simulated drowning and other forms of torture.
We got here and read about Tuol Sleng, which in Khmer, means "Hill of Poisonous Trees" Upwards of 20,000 people perished here, in this small school. Prisoners were demanded to tell about associates and friends who were against Pol Pot's regime, and the majority of times, were questioned themselves as suspects. I read about one prisoner who just began making up stories about himself and agreeing with accusations to make the torture stopped. He didn't care about the outcome, if only he would stop being tortured, which included everything from simulated drowning, fingernail removal, to medical experiments where organs were removed without anesthetic, to being skinned alive. Death started to look appealing.
Only 7 survived, out of almost 20,000 people. (Though I have heard this number might not be exactly accurate.) One man's story really struck me, whose name was Vann Nath. He was an artist imprisoned in S-21, and suffered there. One day, he was brought in front of Duch, one of the immediate men under Pol Pot. He was requested to draw a portrait of Pol Pot. If he succeeded in pleasing Pol Pot, the results would be good. Two others had tried to paint the portrait before him. They were executed.
He ended up pleasing the guards and Pol Pot, and his life was spared. He was one of those who survived S-21, and wrote the only account of what it was like inside those bars. His story is called A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21 Prison.
That day, we went back, and didn't really do much else the rest of the day. As we walked home, we saw a woman bathing her naked baby in the street by pouring a water bottle over his head and body. It reminds you that it wasn't that long ago that this all happened. There are still people on trial for these atrocities. Pol Pot died only 15 years ago, in his own home with his wife. He was under house arrest, after he killed his lifelong comrade by sentencing him to death, as well as many other members of his family. He died at 82 years old. Many of his victims never made it to a year old.
This day was devastating. It's amazing to me, as someone who travels and tries to stay informed, that almost a quarter of my life has passed me by before I knew all this had happened. Sometimes, America makes me feel like I'm in this bubble. And the things I find when I leave it are... astonishing. I wonder what that means for our country, sometimes. This feeling only continued as I wondered the rest of this region. But I'll get to that later.