Entering Cambodia by bus from Thailand, you will instantly feel the difference between the two countries. The smooth paved tarmac from Bangkok gives way to bumpy dirt roads with giant potholes. You suddenly feel as though you are in the Wild West of South East Asia.
Cambodia's Capital, Phnom Penh
Angkor Wat is definitely the star attraction of the country, but once we had our fill of temples, it was time to head to the country's capitol Phnom Penh. Being let off at a bus station just out of town, was a little overwhelming with the amount of touts vying for our business. We finally settled on one to take us to Narin Guesthouse which ended up being OK, if a little bit out of the way.
After hanging out along the waterfront of the Mekong River and checking out the Royal Palace for a couple of days, it was time to hire a guide to take us to Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields; the most compelling and profoundly moving sight in Phnom Penh.
Not for the faint of heart, Tuol Sleng is a former school building and a reminder of just how cruel the human race can be. It was here that The Khmer Rouge Regime, held prisoners and tortured them until they gave names of family and friends who in turn were arrested.
People were detained for ridiculous reasons such as being a scholar, a teacher, a student or for simply wearing glasses. Anyone who posed a threat to the Khmer Rouge was rounded up and killed. 2 Million people were murdered during Pol Pot's reign and the Tuol Sleng museum documents this crime in great detail.
It is hard not to become emotional here as you look at the rows of mug shots. Prisoners had their pictures taken before being executed and terror and sorrow clearly shows on everyone’s face.
Paintings depict in great detail the types of torture that people went through and walking in the wing of the building that houses rows of tiny cells made out of brick is disturbing. I cannot imagine being held by chains in a room no bigger that a closet. They weren’t allowed to move or complain. It was absolutely brutal times.
The Killing Fields
Many people were taken from Tuol Sleng to the Killing Fields, 15 km outside of Phnom Penh. It was here that the worst atrocities of the time occurred. Men, women and children were lined up and murdered here by the thousands. They were clubbed over the head to save bullets, babies were smashed against trees and they were tossed into mass graves.
A large monument stands in the centre of it all, honoring the people who gave their life.
It contains thousands of skulls of victims arranged by age, sex and nationality. We couldn’t bring ourselves to take a picture of this, it was overwhelmingly sad.
The Killing Fields are situated on a beautiful sight. Farmland and forests surround the property and it is a gentle reminder when you hear children playing nearby, that life does go on.
On our way back to town I ask my guide if it bothers him to have tourists come to see places like Toul Slang and the Killing Fields and if he feels that it is disrespectful to look at such things. He tells me that he wants this story to be told so that it will never happen again.
It is a devastating place to visit, but as with everything in life, without the knowledge of history, we cannot learn from our past. As difficult as it is to see, it does an honor to the people to have their memory preserved and have their stories told. What is sad to me is that events like this go on even today. What causes people to hate so deeply and what can we do to stop this vicious circle of death and destruction?