two sides of cambodia

The 'Truck Stop' - the sign says it all.

The ‘Truck Stop’ – the sign says it all.

I was fortunate enough during my short time in Cambodia to have a chance to visit a few of the museums, temples and memorials that do a great job of driving home what an unbelievably dark and turbulent (yet fascinating) history this small country in Southeast Asia has.

One of my first outings was a trip out to Choeung Ek – better known as ‘The Killing Fields’ – which, as the name suggests, is as intense and challenging as it comes. I had next to no real knowledge of the Khmer Rouge regimen before this visit – and to be honest it still isn’t something that I can really wrap my head around. For those who don’t know so much about this dark section of Cambodia’s history, the Khmer Rouge was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia – and it was the ruling party in Cambodia in the mid-late 70s. Led by Pol Pot, they swept to power in 1975, and immediately put in place severe social measures – attempting to create a form of agrarian socialism based on extreme Communist ideals. This consisted of forced relocation of the population out of the urban centres (there are videos of Phnom Penh, once a bustling city, completely deserted) into forced labour farming set ups – where malnutrition and disease were rampant. It also involved mass execution],s of anyone with education (for example, if you spoke a foreign language, wore glasses or worked in any form of skilled occupation).

These measures, over a period of approximately three years, resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 1.5 – 3 million people – the worst genocide since World War II. The really scary thing is that mass graves are scattered throughout the country – Choeung Ek is just one of the more well known.

The Buddhist memorial stupa at Choueng Ek - filled with skulls of the victims.

The Buddhist memorial stupa at Choeung Ek – filled with skulls of the victims.

Bracelets surrounding one of the shrines at Choueng Ek

Bracelets surrounding one of the shrines at Choeung Ek

The Killing Tree

The Killing Tree

After heavy rains at Choueng Ek, it's common for scraps of fabric, bones and other remains to surface in the area.

After heavy rains at Choeung Ek, it’s common for scraps of fabric, bones and other remains to surface in the area.

Skulls within the memorial stupa at Choueng Ek

Skulls within the memorial stupa at Choeung Ek

S-21 (Security Prison 21) was a former high school that was used by the Khmer Rouge during its years in power, and has now been transformed into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s one of the heaviest places I’ve ever been – the tiny, cramped cells, the razor wire still lining the perimeter, the instruments of torture throughout the buildings – it’s a monument to the sickening depths that humans can go. To give some idea of the extent of the suffering, an estimated 17,000 prisoners were admitted to S-21 – and there are only 12 known survivors.

Visiting these two places isn’t an easy thing to do by any means – and I seriously doubt that I will ever get my head around the question of “why?” – but possibly more importantly, “how?” this could happen just a short forty years ago.

That leads to one of the most remarkable aspects of Cambodia to me: any Cambodian who is over 40 lived through this horrific period in some way – whether they were a part of the Khmer Rouge in some capacity, or they suffered at the hands of people who were once neighbours, friends or colleagues. I found that incredible – and it can’t help but give you hope when you see what an amazingly welcoming and friendly people they are – who at least on some level, have learnt how to forgive, to heal, and to move on.

The Rules of S21

The Rules of S21

A cell in S21

A cell in S21

The gallows

The gallows

Within the cells at S21

Within the cells at S21

The key rack for the prison cells in one of the S21 blocks

The key rack for the prison cells in one of the S21 blocks

Writing on the wall in S21. It reads "I come to visit here the first time in my life. I'm a child in Cambodia I love my country so much. God please bless my country and all people in Cambodia. God bless all of you."

Writing on the wall in S21. It reads “I come to visit here the first time in my life. I’m a child in Cambodia I love my country so much. God please bless my country and all people in Cambodia. God bless all of you.”

"Why?"

“Why?”

On the other side of the coin, just two weeks ago I got the chance to visit Angkor Wat – just outside of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia, which was an altogether different experience. For several centuries, from the 9th to 14th century, Angkor was the centre of the Khmer kingdom – with an estimated 750,000 inhabitants at its peak.

We spent an interesting day at the main temple complex – up at 4.30AM to get picked up by the tuk-tuk at 5, then watching a beautiful sunrise over Angkor Wat before wandering around the rest of the temples through the day. It’s an unbelievably big site – and without one of the friendly tuktuk drivers taking you around for the day you’d have no chance of visiting even half of it.

The images of Angkor are probably familiar to many of you – but it truly is an incredibly beautiful site – with the three dominant temples in the complex – Angkor Wat, Prasat Bayon and Ta Prohm all completely different in their own ways.

Sunrise over Angkor

Sunrise over Angkor

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

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Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

What caused the decline of the city is pretty fascinating as well – I’ve been reading an interesting book recently called ‘Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ by Jared Diamond – and he speaks at length about Angkor and how the Khmer Empire went from such a dominant force in Southeast Asia to a relatively minor one after 1400.

 

His framework for analysing societies as far reaching as the Easter Islanders, the Mayan, the Anasazi, the Norse and the Khmer is extremely interesting, and although I’m only halfway through so far, I’d like to come back to it at a later date and share some of his insights both on Angkor and a range of other ancient civilisations – I certainly think it’s pretty relevant to us all.

Anywho – enjoy the photos – although they probably don’t do any of the sites justice! I’ll write another update soon – I may well be nearing the end of my travels for the foreseeable future (a few decisions to make over the next few weeks) so I have a bunch of loose ends and stray thoughts I’d like to share with you all.

Cheers,

nyce