The following day the 4 of us packed into a tuk-tuk and braced ourselves for a difficult day ahead, visiting both the Killing Fields and the S21 prison. Oddly enough our tuk-tuk driver started the day off by bringing us to a shooting range where myself and Diana shot 20 rounds each through an AK 47. It was a good 'tick the box' experience but in hindsight really not the most appropriate day for this kind of activity!
The Killing Fields:
Just over 30 years ago, during a four year period (1975-1979) the Communist Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot carried out one of the worst genocides in modern history. It is estimated that over 30% of the then population (about 2-3 million of the estimated 7 million population) was killed.
I had remembered a colleague in my Masters gave a great presentation about Cambodia and her experience at the Killing Fields. I remember being so shocked and horrified when she told us what happened but nothing could have prepared me for the sadness you feel when you're physically there.
When you walk through the gates you're given an audio guide and headphones so you can walk around by yourself. Straight ahead you can see a large memorial building filled with skulls. As it was such a short time ago that these atrocities occurred the site has been very well preserved. To this day pieces of bone and teeth can be found scattered around the dirt. You're standing right beside sunken mass graves where thousands of tortured bodies of men, women and children were thrown in like waste. You see the 'killing tree' which was used to smash the heads of young children and babies whose parents were accused of crimes against the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's disturbing philosophy was to 'get them at the grassroots' so that these children "wouldn't grow up and take revenge for their parents' deaths".
Another fact that I found so horrifying was that bullets were deemed to have been too expensive to use so instead the Khmer Rouge used an array of different tools to murder these innocent people. (I couldn't even bring myself to take photos of them.) To think that these people weren't even granted a quick death was just so inhumane. In some cases where people didn't die from the blows to the head they were simply buried alive.
It was one of the most saddest and soul destroying things I've experienced. The most chilling moment of the day (for me) was at the very end. Music comes on your headphones that was actually played those 30 years ago to drown out people"s last harrowing screams. You sit there staring at the sunken ditches attempting to envision these peoples last living moments and it's heartbreaking.
We left the Killing Fields quite disheartened with life and to make it worse headed off to the S21 prison. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge converted a then high school and turned it into one of their torture, interrogation and execution centres. It is thought that approximately 20,000 people entered this prison, with only seven surviving. Our tour guide described to us how herself and her mum managed to escape Pol Pot's regime and flee to Vietnam but unfortunately her father, brother and sister were all brought to this prison and subsequently killed. Sadly as it was only 30 years ago many Cambodians today are still directly affected.
She took us around the prison detailing the different torture mechanisms used and showing us graphic photos. Some of the torture and interrogation techniques used were unthinkable.
I met some travellers along the way that chose not to visit the Killing Fields or the S21 prison as it might be too upsetting. I wondered were these the kind of people who go through life choosing to ignore it's harsh realities?! I just couldn't fathom how you could you visit Cambodia and not learn about and visit places that had such a huge impact on the country!!?!
....(Sorry rant over!) My point is, as sad as it was, I really would recommend visiting both places. (But definitely remember to bring some tissues!)
Five days was quite a short time to have in Cambodia so I would definitely like to go back sometime and explore further. I have to say I thought the Cambodian people were some of the friendliest people I've ever met! I also found their ability to forgive and move on from the past to be very inspiring.
Banner at the Killing Fields, Phnom Penh Cambodia