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.
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.
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.
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.