After what turned out to be one of the most incredible places I have been to, Siem Reap came to a close and we headed to Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields and S-21, the prison where so many were captured and held before being taken to their final resting place of the Killing Fields which so many were killed with no reason but fear, paranoia, and ignorance–the fuel of war and crime.
We started our day by going by Tuk Tuk to the Killing Fields to learn about the crimes that went on during 1975-1979 when the Khmer Rouge came into power after a 17 century monarchy rule. This new regime promised to stop the corruption that had been going on in the government, so at the beginning, the people were happy. But that quickly came to a close when the regime tried to cleanse their society of culture, currency, and family to instill a strict communist regime. What that required is far from imaginable, especially in being so close in history to my birth.
After quite a ride in the tuk tuk with dust so bad our driver stopped to get us masks, we arrived at the memorial of the Killing fields that was a tower commemorating the 10th anniversary of the liberation. The memorial is enshrined in glass, which encases skulls, bones, and remains of the ones who were killed unjustly in this barbaric place.
We were provided audio guides which were so informative, and truly laid out the sequence of events of what happened here, and while it’s not a joyous memory, it was one of the most fascinating history lessons I’ve had in a long while. One of the many reasons my love of travel is the fact of being able to learn things in true perspective, locality, and in reality that etches the events moreso than reading in a history book, or sitting in a lecture ever did.
We continued around the marked path seeing the ditches that still remain, along with bones that still arise during heavy rains. A movie told us more about the events, and provided even more information to understand the horror of what 40% of the population of Cambodia at that time were facing. Over 3 million were killed in this tirade of power which was quickly overthrown, but the devastation of the population can still be felt behind their amazing openness and kindness to even foreigners in their country.
We then headed towards the city again by our driver, and stopped by the Russian Markets, a huge marketplace selling everything. While the markets tend to sell the same thing over and over, it is fun to see what they have, and sometimes you do find unique items that require a bargaining to win.
We then had lunch and continued shopping around before we were brought to the S-21 Prison camps where we met our tour guide for another emotional journey back in time to the actual torture rooms that people were held in. Her information was so real, so raw, and so moving, especially when it got personal for her to tell how her mom miraculously survived the imprisonment, working in the fields nonstop with only 2 meals a day, with literally only the clothes on her back. Half way through the tour, she kept mentioning the 4 survivors who were still alive from the torture, and that one was on site selling his book because he is getting old and he wants his story to be told.
We walked over to his little stand in the middle of the yards where just 35 years prior, was the scene of his barbaric torture, a nightmare that I cannot imagine how he could ever forgive, survive, much less return to. After meeting, we were able to take a picture with him, and you could feel his kindness, and it broke my heart to know someone had endured such a tragedy, and was still alive to talk about it. While people at war have horrible stories of seeing death and killing, this man saw a holocaust that one never even hears about, yet it was nearly half the people that were killed in the Jewish Holocaust, all fueled by the same ignorance.
After this museum, we headed back to clean up and go out for dinner and walk the Mekong River that winds through the downtown riverfront. It was a beautiful day, educational, and timely in encouraging a reflection upon what’s truly important in life, how nondiscriminatory our birthright is, and how lucky I feel to have been born on free soil.