Continuing the effort to get the sad posts over with, here is what I documented from the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Much like the previous post about the S21 prison in Phnom Penh, I must preface this by saying that some of the pictures and explanation below are graphic and tragic, so don’t feel pressured to continue looking. The quick version is that the Khmer Rouge used this place to exterminate about 17,000 people who first went through S-21 (Tuol Sleng prison) between 1975 and 1978.
The extermination camp of Choeung Ek is located about 15 km from central Phnom Penh. It used to be a Chinese graveyard before the Khmer Rouge took over that area to dispose of people who didn’t fit into their plan for Cambodia. Remains of thousands of people have been found in mass graves in this area. In 1988, the Memorial Stupa was built with more than 8,000 skulls as a memorial to the victims. I’ll allow the pictures to speak mostly for themselves. Click here for Wikipedia’s information about the killing fields. There was also a well-known movie called The Killing Fields made about the Khmer Rouge. Thanks for bearing with me with these tough posts. There are many hopeful projects and beautiful things about Cambodia to still share!
Click here to see a video of his admittance of guilt in what happened at the prison.
Below are descriptions of sites on the land.
Stay tuned for more information about the many ways the Khmer people are moving on from this horrible time
and all the great things that are happening now in Cambodia.
Like ripping off a band-aid quickly, I’ve decided to post all of the sad stuff I saw in Cambodia in a row to get it out of the way. As I continue to share Cambodia through my lens (click here to see previous posts), I do think it’s important to learn from history and not just brush over atrocities such as this. I wanted to get a full look at what makes Cambodia the place it is and this is part of it. Just a couple more posts of the bad and then I’ll post all the great, hopeful, beautiful things I saw. So please stay-tuned! The best is yet to come. 🙂
When I arrived in Cambodia, I was expecting it to be pretty similar to Thailand (where I spent the summer of 2003). I was surprised to find that Cambodia seemed less developed than Thailand overall. After learning more about the effect of the Khmer Rouge’s rule in the 70’s, it made a lot more sense. When almost a quarter of a country’s population gets wiped out in four year period, it’s no wonder that it’s taking a while to get back on their feet.
When in Phnom Penh, my friends were gracious enough to accompany me on a very tough day visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields outside the city. This post documents what I saw at the S-21 Prison, now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Please know that some of the descriptions and photos below could be considered graphic and are very sad.
I am no expert on the Khmer Rouge and I realize that I cannot explain everything about it in this little blog post, so please feel free to do some research on your own if you’d like more information. I read the book First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung and was given a heart-wrenching look into one girl’s experience living through the Khmer Rouge rule from 1975-1979. Netflix also has a documentary on this specific prison. Click here for Wikipedia’s information about the Khmer Rouge. Basically, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia to restructure it into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. They had to get rid of much of the population to accomplish this goal. Much of my information about this comes from what I learned from the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook, by the way.
Tuol Sleng was Tuol Svay Prey High School until the Khmer Rouge took it over and turned it into a prison in 1975. From then until 1978, over 17,000 prisoners were taken through the school’s corridors before being taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek (which I will post about soon) where the majority of those prisoners were killed. Much like the Nazis, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge kept very detailed records of each prisoner who went through S21. The museum was full or photos of men, women, and children who were brought there. Virtually all of them were killed soon after.
I found Tuol Sleng to be a very disturbing and sad experience. It quickly brought to mind other stories of genocide that have occurred across the world and throughout history. The evil human beings are capable is almost inconceivable, yet there are evidences of it everywhere. It’s hard for me to know what more to say about that except that seeing things like this reminds me once again how much we need God and how thankful I am for His work in the world through Christ. As I said before, the positive stories are coming soon, so please stick around!
Until then, I’ll let these photos speak for themselves.
By far, the most heart-wrenching part of this visit was seeing all the photos of prisoners, men, women, children, and babies who came through those gates. Seeing the look in their eyes as they anticipated what to come led me to tears. I can’t imagine the horror they went through.
Sorry, it’s been a while since I’ve posted about the trip… I continue to struggle with figuring out how to balance teaching full-time, editing photos, sleeping, sharing about my experience in Cambodia, etc. I might figure this out sometime in the near future. 🙂
As you can imagine, sharing about a culture and travel experience through photos is a challenge. It’s difficult to present a cohesive narrative, so I appreciate your willingness to follow along with the randomness of some of my posts. Click here to see previous posts from my trip.
When I was given the opportunity to go to Cambodia, I told my friends who live there that I wanted to experience as much as I could of life there: including the good, the bad, and the ugly (knowing that all countries and cultures have good and bad to discover). The day I’m presenting to you on this post included all of those things. While in Battambang, I was given the opportunity to visit the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. A lovely Khmer woman from CGI came with me in the TukTuk and helped me find my way there. I experienced a lot of the good of Khmer culture and country and some of the bad and ugly too… a typical Camobian pop bottle gas station, a moto ride, nice and helpful people, seeing beautiful artistry and a beautiful view of the countryside, and a very sad visit to a cave where thousands of killings took place in the 70’s.
Once arriving at the bottom of the mountain (or some may call it a really big hill… it’s about 12 km from Battambang), the next leg of the journey involved riding a moto up to the temple (with apologies to my father who is not a fan of such unsafe transportation!). We had to stop for gas from the roadside “gas station” (aka old pop bottles filled with gasoline of varying types for easy moto fill-up).
Once there, I was able to see a freshly painted Buddhist temple still under construction.
Then my guide led me to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. This is a cavern area where the Khmer Rouge performed about 10,000 killings of Khmer people by throwing them off a ledge and into the cave below (please be aware that some of the photos below are very sad and disturbing). The cave is now the home of a reclining Buddha and a memorial to the people killed there in the late 70’s.
It was tough to process all of my thoughts and emotions as I left such a solemn place where such horrific things happened and then go up to the summit of the hill and see this beautiful view:
I’m not really sure how to close this post. There really are no words to describe the sadness of seeing an example of what’s left behind from man’s inhumanity to man (something found throughout the world, not just in Cambodia). Knowing there will be more posts about the bad and ugly that I saw in Cambodia, I can share that, overall, I experienced such good in Cambodia that I left feeling hopeful. Stay tuned for the hopeful and thanks for bearing with me through the bad and the ugly.