In pursuit of a near-death travel experience: The killing fields of Cambodia

Outside the National Museum in Phnom Penh I spot my moto driver, Dararot, in a throng of drivers all vying for my attention. As I beeline for the motorbike, I pass politely by the amputees (victims of landmines left over by the Americans during the Vietnam War) scooting around in dilapidated wheelchairs and hobbling on crutches, begging for money. I’m relieved when they settle for a cigarette each and the horrible irony is not lost on me when I find myself telling my driver I want to go see Choeung Ek (“the killing fields”) and Tuol Sleng (the genocide museum), all in one breath, in one day, like I’m going to Buckingham Palace.

A glimpse of history: Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime

When Pol Pot stormed Phnom Penh in 1975, many city-dwellers fled for their lives to the countryside. Many others who stayed behind were systematically executed, seemingly without cause or reason, but certain individuals were particularly singled out: intellectuals, teachers, speakers of foreign languages, but also peasants, Cabinet members, women, children, and eventually, even members of Pol Pot’s regime. (For a great movie about this, check out The Killing Fields, about a Western journalist trapped in Phnom Penh at a time when people were trying to escape the country.)

High school turned torture chamber

Tuol Svay Prey High School was turned into a prison and renamed Tuol Sleng, with high walls and barbed wire built around it. Here, the classrooms were made into holding cells by building tiny brick cubicles up from the floors. Accused of holding back the “revolution”–much the same as in Red China–the victims were interrogated and tortured, from being dunked into huge vats of water until close to drowning, to having their fingernails ripped out or their heads placed in a vise. A large wooden beam structure looks as if it might have been a swingset for the former school, but instead, the two iron rings protruding down from the beam were used to string bound and gagged captives up by the wrists (which were behind their backs).

The large vessels for holding water for dunking still sit, with accumulated debris in the bottom. Holding cells have dark stains of red and black on the floors, as if the blood had never been cleaned up when Pol Pot’s reign of terror ended. Rusted metal boxes are strewn around the rooms, “toilets” for the inmates, and huge steel bars with ankle rings help formulate a gruesome picture of what it might’ve been like. Victims not in the brick-wall holding cells were laid in beds side-by-side, their ankles locked into the steel rings which were held fast by a heavy metal, horizontal bar, positioned between two bars which came up vertically from the floor. The victims locked in, side-by-side, were forbidden to speak to one another, and the rules of the prison were strictly enforced; those who deviated were flogged with whips or ropes, or tortured unimaginably.

Skulls in a glass case with labels such as “foreign journalist,” “30 year old man,” etc.

History comes home: My moto driver lost his entire family

In conversation Dararot tells me he’s 40 (but looks about 22). He was in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot arrived, and like many others, he fled, not knowing where his mother, father, and sister were. He eventually ended up in Siem Reap and further west, close to the Thai border, where he remained for three years until the Vietnamese invaded and “rescued” Cambodia from Pol Pot.

He found out only later that his parents, sister, and uncle had been killed. He wants to point out the photos of his mother and father to me—amidst hundreds of other photos of men, women, and children who had been tortured and later murdered. At Tuol Sleng, photos of victims, as well as their torture, line the walls; haunting eyes peer out from emaciated bodies. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented their atrocities. Dararot points out the two separate photos of his parents and I nod in solemn respect.

The prison buildings are run down, the paint peeled and chunks blown away by gunfire and grenades. It has a sobering quality: standing there amidst the peace and surrounding beauty, knowing that so much horror had gone on there. The cheerful voices of young guys playing volleyball behind one of the buildings seem incongruous.

After victims were interrogated and tortured at Tuol Sleng, they were taken to Choeung Ek, the killing fields—Cambodia’s Auschwitz—if they survived the torture.

Choeung Ek, Cambodia’s Auschwitz

We bump along a long, dusty road and suddenly the land off to the left starts looking lumpy behind the barbed fences and wooden posts: some 8,900 skulls/remains have been found, but many more remain. I pay $2 at the entrance and find myself greeted by a large Buddhist stupa. Inside, in rectangular glass casing, reaching layer upon layer to the stupa’s ceiling; are human skulls, just sitting there jumbled together like they had never been anything but skulls. The bottom layer in the glass encasing has a few placards: “mature male, 40 years old and up,” “senile female over 60 years old,” “European.”

The sight of it is staggering, the tragedy unfathomable, and I find it hard to take in as though it couldn’t possibly have happened. It’s just too unbelievable. But it’s all real, all here, right here in my face. I mean, my God, what was I doing in 1975? Running around, playing with my friends, going to school and summer camp, fed, clothed, cared for. I’ve seen nothing.

Gruesome, genocidal details (and remnants) for all to see

Dararot tells me his uncle and sister were killed here. He points out a white sign marker of a mass grave that reads “150 women and children.” Another says “100 victims with heads cut off.” Dararot shows me a heavy spine from a thick-trunked sugar palm. The spine branches were used to slit people’s throats. Wooden posts lie around as testimony to the clubbings. Pol Pot wouldn’t allow the use of guns, so every victim was tortured “by hand,” and murdered equally mercilessly. Many of the skulls show large holes and cracks, indicating heavy blows to the head.

As we walk alongside the graves, Dararot stoops down and moves the dirt around with his fingers, producing a human tooth and handing it to me to examine. My stomach turns. We kick up shards of bone as we walk, and sometimes find whole pieces lying on the grass. Yet again there’s that peculiar tranquility, flowers growing in the gravesites and traditional Cambodian music, carried on the wind from a house nearby.

Dararot returned from the mountains after three years, he tells me. His father, a policeman, who spoke French, Japanese, Thai, and English—bad skills and job to have possessed under Pol Pot—has been murdered. His mother, a teacher, is gone as well.

Having doubts (can you really have your own Pol Pot story for every wartorn tourist spot?)

I’ve started not to believe Dararot’s connection to all this tragedy. It’s all too much, the photos in the museum, the familial connections in specific mass graves, and mostly the fact he looks so young. So I’ve decided he’s lying to me, embellishing so I might take some kind of pity and give him more money than the $5 we’ve agreed upon.

But in the next moment I think to myself, the story he’s told me is somebody’s story, somebody’s mother, father, sister, uncle. Maybe it is his, and I’m just in denial. An estimated one to two million people perished in a country of only seven million. It’s likely this genocide has directly touched his family’s life in some way.

​And now it has touched mine.

Have you been to Cambodia and did you visit Tuol Sleng and the killing fields? 

What were your impressions? Share a comment. Would love to hear your thoughts.


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