May 7, 2013

Cambodia's Killing Fields (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

I mentioned in this post about Siem Reap that I have cared about a family from Cambodia for the past 15 years. I don't know the exact date, but they moved to the United States after the genocide in their country and after suffering monumental loss of lives in their family. I won't tell their story - it's not mine to tell - but I will say that hearing their story when I was 14 changed how I viewed the world. Before then, I didn't know anything about Cambodia's Killing Fields and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army. I didn't know that this brutal regime killed over 2.5 million of their own people through execution, exhaustion, and starvation. I didn't know that such awful things could happen in the same world I lived in. But they shared parts of their story with me, and I learned about this beautiful country and the horrible history they'd survived.
At Choeung Ek Killing Field, people leave bracelets at the mass grave sites in remembrance of the 
Jaw bone that recently came to the
surface at Choeung Ek Killing Field.
The staff there are always finding
bones of those who were executed.
While visiting Siem Reap and Angkor Wat is an uplifting experience, full of marvel and wonder, Phnom Penh is less charming. But it's still a place you must visit if you're in Cambodia. So, we boarded a bus in Siem Reap and made our way there. The biggest attractions in Cambodia's capital city are the museums and remnants of the genocide. And, while these things are extremely difficult to witness and learn about, Tom and I both believe that it's necessary to face the truth about history.

It feels a bit overwhelming to think about trying to explain our experience visiting Choeng Ek Killing Field or the S-21 Tuol Sleng Interrogation and Torture Center (and now, museum). I will tell you that it was awful, that it was heartbreaking, and that it was exhausting. It was the hardest part of our trip so far. I'm sure anyone who's ever been here feels the same way. For me, it felt even more personal because people I love lived through this atrocity and were so personally affected by it. I've read a lot about Cambodia and the Killing Fields over the past 15 years so, if you're interested in learning more, these are the books I can personally recommend Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields - Compiled by Dith Pran, and First They Killed My Father, Lucky Child, and Double Happiness - All by Loung Ung. You can also, of course, watch the excellent film, The Killing Fields. Lastly, I do believe it's important to understand the role the Vietnam War had on Cambodia and The Killing Fields and, as a result, the responsibility the United States has in the situation. I recently read this article which gives a fair description of the way the U.S. bombing of Cambodia paved the way for Pol Pot's regime to gather strength and steam. Certainly the U.S. isn't entirely to blame, but I think it's important to understand the greater implications of the wars we engage in.

At Choeung Ek Killing Field

A survivor of S-21 sells his memoir in the yard of the same place his wife was murdered and he was tortured. We were humbled by his warm smile and the way he talked about forgiving his torturers.

The highlight of our time in Phnom Penh was seeing my friend Billy and his wife, Lena. Billy is one of the kids in the family I know from home and he just happened to be visiting Phnom Penh while we were there. We spent a night with him, his wife, and their friends at an amusement park in Phnom Penh, which was probably the most dangerous thing we've done the entire trip. The only big ride we rode was absolutely TERRIFYING.

Billy, Lena, me, and Tom after riding the world's scariest amusement park ride
Below are a few photos from the sites we visited and our time in Phnom Penh. There aren't many because it sometimes didn't feel appropriate, but you can click here to view all of them.

All at Choeung Ek, Clockwise, from top left: Memorial Bracelets, Memorial Stupa, Sign at mass grave (if you look to the bottom right of the sign, you'll see a human bone that has worked it's way to the surface), Human skulls of some of the hundreds of thousands of victims executed here.

More bracelets at Choeung Ek, A quiet path of remembrance

A few happy times in Phnom Penh - Coca Cola and cotton candy at the amusement park, posing in giant wooden chairs, TWO flat tires during ONE tuk tuk ride, an amusing tshirt on a passerby

Click here to view all of our pics from Phnom Penh.

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