Holiday in Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

First Impressions – A History of Violence – S-21 Prison and Torture Center – A Stroll Through “The Killing Fields”Holiday in Cambodia!

I took a bus to Cambodia’s capitol city, Phnom Penh, and wasted no time finding a suitable crash-pad in the cheapest corner of town.  Known as the “Lakeside Area”, Phnom Penh’s backpacker haunt was a seedy strip of wooden guesthouses, bars, and restaurants strung along the shores of a small, murky lake.  Vice was everywhere.  Prostitutes on the corners, junkies in the gutters, stoners in the cafes, the police nowhere in sight and me lost in the midst of the madness.  The rural tranquility of Laos was gone.  Cambodia seemed dangerous; she lost her innocence in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over the country.

The tuk-tuk drivers summed up Phnom Penh well.  Hello, friend, you wan’ tuk tuk?  You wan’ go to S-21 genocide museum?  Killing Fields?  You wan’ shoot machine gun?  Rocket launcher?  Good price for you my friend.  No?  How ‘bout marijuana?  Opium?  Cocaine?  No?  You wan’ girl tonight? 

It seemed I had but few options: visit a genocide museum housed in the Khmer Rouge’s most deadly prison, stroll through the grassy fields where the Khmer Rouge dumped 17,000 Cambodians in 129 mass graves, or go shoot off the Khmer Rouge’s surplus AK-47 rounds.  No wonder the tuk tuk drivers also offered drugs and hookers – anything to numb travelers from the grim realities that lie beyond the safety of their guesthouses.

I read up on the Khmer Rouge before coming to Cambodia so I would know what to expect.  Unlike Vietnam, Cambodia had peacefully secured independence from France and enjoyed an era of peace from in the 50s and 60s under the leadership of former King Sihanouk.  Cambodia became a “non-aligned” nation and tried to avoid becoming entangled in the growing conflict in neighboring Vietnam.  Then in the mid 1960s, Sihanouk rejected US economic assistance, nationalized banks and import-export trade, and severed relations with the USA.  This reduced Cambodia’s national income substantially and caused resentment in the military, the business elite, and the middle class.  Furthermore, Sihanouk allowed communist Vietnamese forces to operate along the border with Vietnam and permitted them to resupply through Cambodian ports.  The combination of these policies were too much for too many people, and in 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup d’état.

The coup polarized Cambodia.  The US backed the new government and the Sihanouk threw in his lot with the communist resistance in the countryside, the same forces that would later become the Khmer Rouge.  The two sides, the US-backed government in Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge forces in the countryside, fought for control from 1970-1975.  The US and South Vietnamese combat troops briefly entered Cambodia in 1970 and US also began secretly bombing the Vietnamese communist bases inside Cambodia from 1969-1973, which increased support for the Khmer Rouge among the many farmers displaced by the destruction.  The country became increasingly unstable and the government in Phnom Penh proved to be incompetent, corrupt, and unable to defend the capitol from the Khmer Rouge.  On April 12th, 1975, the US evacuated their embassy in Phnom Penh and on April 15th the Khmer Rouge rode triumphantly into Phnom Penh on tanks, donning their famous uniform of black pajamas and red and white scarves.

That is when everything changed.  The Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh and all the other cities by force and marched every citizen into the countryside to become farmers under the orders of the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot.  It was “Year Zero” – time to build a new communist Cambodia free from the corrupting influences of the West.  They distrusted city-dwellers, shut down all businesses, abolished money, and killed anyone who resisted.  Everyone with an education, money, language skills, or glasses was regarded with suspicion and many were executed.

Cambodia became a living hell.  For five years, men, women and children slaved away in the fields at the point of a gun.  Fathers were shot, children starved and daughters were raped by the soldiers.  Families were torn apart and many children were turned into child soldiers.  Estimates on the number killed during this period vary from 750,000 to 3,000,000 people, roughly 25% of Cambodia’s population.

I went to see the scars from this period for myself.  The notorious “Killing Fields” are on the outskirts of town, encircled by trees and butterflies and are ironically peaceful given their bloody past.  A large glass tower encloses 9,000 human skulls disinterred from the surrounding mass graves.  Bullet holes pierced many skulls, but most were shattered from the fatal blows of wooden axels – the Khmer Rouge’s method of saving expensive bullets.

Prisoners were transported here in big trucks in groups of 20.  They were blindfolded, marched to the edge of a ditch, executed one at a time, and pushed into the mass graves.  There was one tree where the soldiers beat children to death against its trunk, another where they hung a loudspeaker to mask the screams of their victims.  Soldiers threw children in the air and shot them like clay pigeons.  I shivered at the thought of such barbarity.  Despite the chirps of birds and the laughter of children playing nearby, I could imagine the futile pleas for mercy, the thumps of bludgeons, and the silence that followed.

From the Killing Fields I went to the S-21 prison, once the largest detention and torture center in the country.  Before the genocide prison had been a high school, but today it is a chilling perversion of its innocent origins.  The Khmer Rouge brought 100 people here a day, totaling almost 16,000 people between 1977-79.  Hardly more than a dozen survived; those that did not die from torture were brought to the Killing Fields for execution.

A monster of a man haunted the exit of the prison, begging tourists for their spare change.  His face had been totally destroyed, apparently from torture of the most sadistic kind: he was missing one, eye, both ears, a few fingers and almost all the skin from his face.  Scars masked his age, but he appeared to be in his late thirties.  He must have only been a child when the Khmer Rouge took over.

He was a ghastly representation of his entire generation.  He emerged from hell as a permanent cripple, physically and psychologically damaged and unable to lead a normal life.  Many people this man’s age are dead.  In fact, with over 50% of the population under the age of 21 and only 3.6% over 65, it seems like a nation of adolescents. All the educated middle-class Cambodians were executed long ago and today the streets are packed with children selling books to survive.  It is almost impossible for Cambodia to provide jobs for such a skewed demographic.

I walked back from the S-21 prison as the sun set over Phnom Penh.  Security guards smoked cigarettes in the evening light, guarding the mansions of Cambodia’s elite with AK-47s.  I passed an abandoned house and for a second I imagined I was in 1975, back when the Khmer Rouge emptied the city and began their death march into hell.  A legless landmine victim hobbled up to me and asked for change, snapping me back to reality.

My first day in Cambodia left me shocked and disoriented.  I felt numb as my mind mulled over what I had seen that day: the smashed human skulls, the bullet-riddled walls in the prison, the pictures of the nameless victims being led to their deaths, the guards toting AK-47s and the street kids running wild across Phnom Penh.  And of course, that poor disfigured man begging tourists for change, shocking them into charity with the ugly scars of his brutal past.  His face remained in my mind as I walked home through the streets of Phnom Penh, deep in Cambodia and yet a so far from the glorious temples of Angkor Wat.

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